Principal's award a team effort

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Alison Hancox, left, looks over scholarship information on the Palliser Beyond Borders website with student Johanna Dane.

When Principal Alison Hancox heads to Toronto for a five-day, executive leadership conference later this week, she’ll definitely have that nagging feeling that she’s left something at home.

While it’s common for travellers to second-guess their packing, in this case what’s missing are the 15 teachers and four support staff who’ve contributed to the growth and success of Palliser Beyond Borders.

The Palliser online and outreach program was created in 2013-2014 and served 27 students that year. In 2015-2016, that had grown to 671 students taking courses online or at one of four outreach campuses in Coaldale, Picture Butte, Vulcan and Calgary. The courses are also available to students outside Palliser.

Hancox was recently named one of Canada’s 40 Outstanding Principals, in recognition of innovation, leadership and ability to find creative solutions and opportunities in their schools.

The award recipients will participate in a leadership program at the prestigious University of Toronto Rotman School of Management Feb. 26-March 2, and be celebrated at a gala dinner Feb. 28.

“I was awestruck,” Hancox says of the award. “I’m honoured to share this award with the Palliser Beyond Borders team.”

She says the school’s four-year teaching and learning journey is the result of a shared vision for a school that offers high school students the flexibility to learn how and when it best suits them, wherever they choose to live and study.

Some of Palliser Beyond Borders’ students are enrolled at a Palliser high school, and are taking additional classes online to free up time in their schedules. Others are studying solely with Palliser Beyond Borders, either online or with regular visits to an outreach campus, because they have other responsibilities such as work, or want something other than a traditional high school experience. The program has also had international students take courses online, before or after attending a Palliser high school in person.

Flexibility is an important part of Hancox and the team’s vision of the school. It still builds success through the relationship of a teacher to a student, however, forging that partnership in person or online.

The school has broadened the idea of what a classroom looks like, and when it should be in session. At Coaldale, for example, the school is open one evening a week.

“We are a teaching and learning community,” she says. “What I’m most proud of is we are a school that reflects a new learning landscape.

"We ultimately are expected in our world to be effective online users.”

At Palliser, for example, occupational health and safety courses are done online, at a time and pace of the employee’s choosing. Research by EduConsillium in 2015, found 93 per cent of Canadian universities offer some online or distance courses, and 29 per cent of Canadian university students registered for at least one online course.

The flexibility offered gives students the power to learn when they choose. For some, that freedom is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate self-motivation and discipline. Hancox says the staff have created a process of intervention for students who sign up for a course and are at risk of not completing it.

The result of that individual attention is that Palliser Beyond Borders had a completion rate of 97 per cent last summer, high for online courses.

Students have a variety of reasons for enrolling. On this particular morning at Palliser Beyond Borders at Coaldale (formerly known as the PASS+ Outreach School), one student is a regular attendee who will complete her diploma entirely through outreach and online. Another does part of his coursework at Kate Andrews High School. After being injured in an accident, he fell behind at school, and Beyond Borders helped him catch up.

Both students were on computers at the outreach campus working independently, with teacher Bruno Castelli readily available to guide the learning. Elsewhere, an elite athlete has enrolled because he can fit studying around a demanding training schedule.

For some students, online learning is highly engaging. Adding to that engagement factor, Palliser Beyond Borders’ teachers recently created a course on sports analytics it’s now piloting in Coaldale. The course has appeal to both sports and math fans. The team hopes to make the course available to other schools across Alberta.

Castelli, who has been part of the Palliser Beyond Borders team almost since the beginning, recalls joining colleagues at a conference on blended learning environments early in the school’s evolution. At the end of the first day of sessions, the team held a debriefing and soon realized they had already addressed some of the challenges being discussed in the sessions.

The very next year, the Palliser teachers were leading sessions and sharing their experiences at the conference.

It’s that ahead-of-the-curve thinking Hancox has demonstrated that is reflected in her award, Castelli says.

For Hancox, the award, like the school’s journey, reflects the work of a passionate, collaborative team. The energy is as boundless as the classroom’s virtual walls.

“My office is my computer, my cell phone and my vehicle,” says Hancox. “I love my work and I’m passionate about it. We live, learn and work beyond our borders.”