uLead Podcast

This episode brings you a breakout session from the CAP-uLead conference in 2022 with Kevin Van Lagen.
In 2014, enrollment in Altario School was at an all-time low. The future of both the school and community was in question. Today, Altario School is vibrant hub of rural education. By Reimagining rural education, this community school has created a student led farm that not only teaches all things agriculture, it also has increased enrollment in the school, has grown the community and inspired other rural schools to embrace their rural identity.
You can find out more about Kevin's work by following him on Twitter and on Facebook.
For more information on the Council for School Leadership, please visit our Website.

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Kevin Van Lagen - Revive a School, Save a Community

[00:00:00] Kevin Van Lagen: Welcome to the You Lead podcast, brought to you by the Council for School Leadership of the Alberta Teachers Association. In this episode, we bring you a breakout session from uLead 2022 with Kevin Van Lagan. The title of this session is Revive A School Save a community. In 2014, enrollment in Altario school was at an all-time low.

The future of both the school and community was in question. Today, Ontario School is a vibrant hub of rural education by re-imagining rural education. This community school has created a student-led farm that not only teaches all things agriculture, it also has increased enrollment in the school, has grown the community, and inspired other rural schools to embrace their rural identity.

You can listen to other sessions from you lead by subscribing to our podcast or joining us at uLead 2023.

Anyways, thank you all for coming on on Tuesday afternoon at two 30. Um, my name's, uh, Kevin VanLein, and I hope to share over the next half an hour or so, maybe a bit more, a little bit of the journey of, of one of my schools. Um, I'm a principal of two schools in the Prairieland School division, uh, arterio School, which is about 10 kilometers from, or 10 minutes from Saskatchewan.

On Highway 12, and then I'm 50 kilometers down the road to the west of that. I'm principal in concert school as well. Uh, and yes, I go to both schools each day. It's, it gets great because I go over lunch, so I could eat lunch every single day, uninterrupted as I drive. There's, there's something there. Um, so the story today though is, is, is about, uh, Ontario School, uh, of which I've been principal now for eight years.

Um, Sometimes I'm known as prairie Principal on social media. Uh, so you may have heard of me. That's my family. Um, I have five sons, uh, the oldest being 18 and the youngest being nine. It's a busy household and we actually have two billet boys that live with us too, as, uh, now my poor wife, uh, she's just a saint.

Uh, and, and of course the girls seem to start coming around eventually when you have five boys as well. Um, so that, that's our family Last summer actually, we. In my school and concert, we started a baseball academy. Uh, the Neutral Hills Wranglers, they're called and out of there, we put in a AAA team for the first time, uh, in our history last year.

We started it last year in Covid of all things. Um, and we actually won tier two provincials, so that was pretty exciting. And two of my sons were on the team, so that, that was, that was pretty neat. Um, so it's just a proud moment. Anyways about, uh, Ontario school. So in 2014, I, I went, I moved to Ontario. Uh, my professor at the University of Lethbridge that summer resume my masters.

And the professor was a superintendent of Prairieland and he said, I have a job for you. And I said, okay. And, uh, that was on Monday morning. And by Friday afternoon we had agreed to move to a place we had never heard of in our life. And we said, ah, let's, let's try this. My, my wife is a great sense of adventure.

Um, and, and, and we did that. We moved there and we didn't know the history. We didn't know anything about, we just knew this was a small K to 12 school and we had to look it up and Google where it was. Um, turns out once I got there, I found out I was principal number six and six years. Um, so I've now lasted all the ones before me having in, in year eight and, And the school was, was in, in a bad situation.

Um, we were down to our, uh, 49 students, k to 12. Um, just a turnover actually, that year. All the staff had left, all the teaching staff had left, but one, um, either fired or just said, we're outta here. And, and the one I kept was in her 30 something year, and she's phenomenal. Um, so, and she still works for me and I'm very grateful for her.

Uh, she kept me sane in the first year. But historically, Ontario School did have a history of, of academics and high achievement and, and community involvement. And it, it just, you know, as small rural schools, it's difficult sometimes to find leadership. It's difficult to find staffing and, and things just had kind of spiraled and you know how that goes.

Right? Um, as. As you, uh, lose students, you lose staff, and as you lose staff, you lose programs. And, and there's a sense of defeat and defeatism in the, in the community. Um, and the community actually had come together and said, we have to do something. So they, they actually bought us a house. Um, so give the community credit they bought us to, to get us there.

So when the, when the, when the superintendent said to me on Monday morning, um, I got a job for you and they're gonna buy you a house and, and what kind of house do you want? How many bedrooms do you want? And he's on the phone talking to the community, um, to get us. And, and they, they did bring us in a, a home.

It was a. It was a mobile home, but it was beautiful. And we did live there for a couple years until our boys started to get bigger and, and we needed more room. Um, so the community was ready for change, which is a great place to be. As a new principal, you, you have an opportunity, um, to do something special.

In, uh, a as we started to, to be there and, and started to do school well. Um, and the community started to buy in a little bit to what we were doing in the, in the building. We were, you know, doing the field trips, the good teaching, the good learning, the, the relationships, uh, just the stuff that we all do, uh, as educators about, uh, in our third year in 2017 at a parent council meeting, actually, Uh, a parent brought up said, you know, we're really excited about what you're doing with the school.

Can we have a conversation, a bigger conversation about what it means for our community? And can we start looking at our community as well? Um, so we brought in, uh, this graphic recorder and we had a conversation first with our, our students in the afternoon. We said, what would you want to know about Ontario?

We hear about Ontario in the news, uh, 10 years. And, uh, kids are great. They dream big, and I, I think there's a Costco on there and like some crazy ideas. But, um, they also had some good ideas. And it was good because at night when the community came together, they saw what the kids had dreamed of and it, it actually set them on a very positive pathway as well.

Now, one of the recurring themes in, in this graphic organizer was agriculture, agriculture, agriculture. So we decided to try to go. And make agriculture happen. So this is, uh, was a skating rink. It had been abandoned for about 20 to 30 years just because there was no one to take care of it, outdoor rink.

And, uh, we decided to put it, change it into a, a community garden. That was our first step. Uh, we, that's an Audrey Heparin quote there. To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. We said, okay, we're gonna try to turn this around. That skating rink was just a symbol of what kind of had happened in the school.

Right. And I'm sorry it's a bad picture, but it's only one I have. And all we did with it at that point was it was our must point for fire alarms go to the rink. So, So we, we changed it. Um, actually it's five years ago today. Uh, I got it on my, my, my secretary. Actually, it came up on our memories that we installed a water line so we could water this garden.

So, so this is what's, everything that's happened since then is, is five years from there. Um, so we changed that into a community garden. And then in the, in the fall of, of 2018, or no, actually, I'm sorry. In, in, in May of 2018, we were having a conversation with the staff about what else could we do with this agriculture theme.

We had students that wanted to get into agriculture. Um, all of them were going to olds for egg management, great program, but they had no idea why, just besides, I wanna. Right. That, that was their reason. And I'd say, well, why egg management? I don't know. My dad took it, my brother took it, whoever took it. Um, so we were like, okay, let's try to expand and, and, and teach them more about agriculture.

So we planned four theme days for the 20 18, 20 19 year around agriculture, like harvesting, and we're gonna bring in speakers. And, and we did, we had a, like a guy came in with his sheep dogs and brought some sheep and he heard 'em through goalposts and, and you know, just that kind of stuff. Did some roping and, but then I had this idea that maybe we should get a school.

Uh, and I live fairly close to the school on an acreage at this point. Um, by the way, I was gonna stay in Ontario for three years. It's eight years, don't do three year plans. Um, and now I own an acreage for some odd reason. And, and my kids have lots of animals that they make money off and dad pays the bills.

But, um, So I, I said, let's, let's have this steer. And I, and I actually brought it to parent council and I said, I'm thinking of having this steer at my, at my house along with my kids, four H skiers steers, and we're called it the school Steer. And I'll, I'll, I'll have the kids out a couple, you know, every two weeks and we'll go through it and I'll teach 'em about it.

And parent council said, well, why don't you just put it in the community garden? Here at school. I said, okay, okay. Oh yeah, sure. Uh, and the Ag Society said, we'll give you the money. So they gave us $3,000 and we put that shelter in and, and local farmer put in the post and we put our fence in and our trustee actually donated a steer.

And, and we were off in, in, in August of, of 2018, we're gonna raise steers. And, and it was kind of this full confession here. I didn't really think too hard. This, and that's probably why I did it. Um, so in August we're sitting at the principal meeting and we're talking about what we're gonna do this year.

And I was the last one to go. And I'm sitting beside the superintendent and I said, um, yeah, I'm gonna raise a couple steers in the school playground.

And, and it was funny, half the room was like, Oh, what about safety and insurance? And, and, and then, you know, and who's gonna take care of em on the weekends? What? And the other half was like, cool. And I went, uhoh and I looked at the superintendent and, and our superintendent's a great guy. And, and he's, he's kind of calm.

And he sat there and he says, you know, man, can you imagine going to school? And doing chores and taking care of animals. Talk about learning. You'll figure out those other details. Would you? But great job. I'm like, oh, phew. So we raised the steer and, and instantly we got, uh, resistance number one. Resistor was the janitor, right?

This manure on the floor in the school and the janitor as a small towns is related to everybody. So I, the older generation, We're up. Why are we having steers at school? There's no need for this. And, but then the kids fell in love with the steers, and then those were their grandkids, right? So they started to come on site.

So that that first year we, we did this and it was going well. And in February of 2019, I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw ads for barns that they, they come in two pieces and they plop 'em down. So I said, oh, maybe we should get a barn. Um, so I, I texted a few. Parents, I said, you think we should get a barn?

They're like, yeah, let's get a barn. I said, okay, well let's go to the board and ask if we can have a barn. Um, so we went to the board and, uh, in March made a presentation about what we wanted to do with agriculture and, and our board. Five hours later, the superintendent texted me, he says, go ahead and buy your barn.

Uh, so the board gave us $38,000 to, to purchase this barn, which we did. We had it there in May, and then I realized I needed a permit. I got the permit. Um, So we had an open house. Uh, and it was, it was, it was great. We actually, we did an open house and we had a barn dance cuz there's no animals in the barn yet.

That was a lot of fun. And we had food and we did, the kids showed off some of the work they done in agriculture and then we ended with an auction. You may recognize, uh, May not. This fellow right here, he's our mla, he's also now the agriculture minister. So that was a good connection. Um, he's actually been extremely supportive of us and, and personally is donated to our, to our program.

But, so we have this auction that, and I'm nervous about this auction. Cause I'm thinking, I don't know exactly where the community's at, on, on how excited they are about this whole program. And, and we're gonna really see, so I'm, I'm kind of hoping for like a four H type sale where, you know, maybe we can get about five, $7,000 for this, for this year.

Anyways, we, we sold it for $39,585. Yeah. And it was just, it was so cool. They, they, they kept on buying it and they'd donate it back and they'd buy it and they'd donate it back. And funny, our, our superintendent is not an agriculture person at all. And he didn't realize that steers were sold by the pound.

So when he heard 5 85, he thought it was being sold for $585. And he's like, I, oh, we got a bid on this. This is not enough. And people were like, no, hold your arms down me. It was 5 85 times 13 50, 1350 pounds. And um, so it was, it was a lot of fun that night. Actually, more people donated as well that night.

And so we collected over $50,000, uh, to really get our, our program off and running. Um, so. What I'd like to take you to now is, is today, uh, about. There'll be three years later. And where we at, so, so we now have a, a student-led farm. Um, so each, uh, September we post positions their leadership positions on the farm and students have to submit resumes and go through an interview process.

And, and then we hire them into different positions and, and, They all get hired into something and if there's not enough positions, we make positions to make sure they're on there. Okay. Um, but it, it's really good. And then every, they're responsible for that part of their farm. So we have a, we have a general manager, we have an assistant general manager, and then we have managers of different parts of the farm.

Um, it's, it's set up like a how to rate colony honestly, is really what we've done. But, uh, they're, they're very passionate about it. And this is for grades seven through 12 that can apply. Um, those students as leaders are responsible. So let's say for our. The chief manager a week at a time finds students in grades one through six to help her do the chores.

So they do it a week at a time. So when, when our students come to school in the morning, they gather at the back of the school and they go and do chores. Takes about 15 minutes to do all the chores, and then we actually eat breakfast as a school. And then we start our day. So it's a great way to start, to start the day.

Um, and these students, uh, every two weeks they have board meetings and they make motions and they, they handle the finances, they handle the decisions. Um, sometimes I have to veto them. This year they kind of got on a. On a bandwagon of we can't spend any money because we don't have a ton of money in the bank.

And I'd be like, well, you don't know farming, farming only makes money a little bit in a year, so you gotta spend some money. Right? So, so every now and then I do have to step in and help them, but overall, they, they do a, a phenomenal job actually. Um, so you can see some of the things we have are actually our own brand, Ontario agriculture education.

We have sheep, we have turkeys, which is an issue right now because of the avian flu. They're all supposed to go to the butcher this week and we can't send 'em to the butcher. So now we're having a butchering party at school on Thursday. We don't know what else to do. People are just like, take our turkeys.

Um, we have cow calves. We, we still have the steers and we actually added a, I don't have a picture of it. We added a second steer pen for students that live in town. Um, so they can do four H uh, otherwise they wouldn't be able to. So that works out really nicely. Um, we do a residency program with our students where we take 'em out into the hills and we live in the hills for like three days and it's what's on your plate.

And we go tour crops and feed lots and, and they make all their own food. Um, we added pigs so that, here's an example. Uh, we got bottle lambs from Lakeland College a couple years ago, and we raised them up and we had, we bought a few other sheep and we had about 10 sheep, and the students were concerned we had too many sheep.

So I was gone one day and I came back the next day and they. Hey, guess what? Mr. V, Mr. Viel, we traded four sheep for six pigs. I said, so now we're in the pig business. Are we? Yes, we are. I'm like, okay, I better build you a pen. Um, so we got pigs. Now we got them butchered. We have quail. We, we, we sell quail legs.

It's, it's kind of fun. Um, and then we have laying hands and newest thing we have in the center, there is, it's a gro, uh, it's called grosser. It's a food modular. You can see it in the middle. Um, Yes, we actually are planting our very first crop today. It, it's happening. Uh, It's hydroponics that C can, for lack of a better term, can grow fresh, fresh produce year round for 150 families.

So it's pretty sweet. We got a grant because our closest grocery store is 50 kilometers away and uh, and they saw our agriculture program and they said, this is, this is great. So we'll be able to grow fresh produce. So for students who are not interested, Animals. We have the horticulture side, uh, we have bees 4, 5, 6 s love the bees.

So we get honey, that kind of thing. Um, out of them, they're some of our product that we, we get butchered. Of course, we have to get it all inspected, except for the turkeys this week you're allowed to sell them live. So we're selling them live. And then we said, and then we'll butcher them and give 'em to you.

Um, so we just, we have to get rid of. Uh, so this all led to, we kind of, we kind of started running into an issue of we we're, we're producing this, how are we going to sell it? So we, we made a little store in the school that the students run. Um, so again, different students who are not interested in the farm but are in interested in, in, in sales and whatnot.

And, and in that store we sell the school product. We sell product that our kids, uh, have from their own little entrepreneurial endeavors. And we allow local micro-businesses to sell in there as well. Um, we have a growing Ukrainian population, um, which is awesome. We've often had temporary foreign workers in the community, and I spoke with them and a few other farmers and I said, instead of bringing single guys in, could you, would you mind.

Bringing in some families. Um, and they actually did. And what happened is they, they're very happy cuz the 35 year old family people coming in are much better with employees than 20 year olds that are coming for an experience. Right? And, and so these Ukrainians that are coming and, and we've really tried to include them in the school and quite honestly, the, the kids love the school.

Um, and the dads have great jobs. And the moms are happy cuz dads and kids are happy. So we really worked with them on, on creating these micro businesses and giving them space in the school so they have their own sense of purpose and, and, you know, outside of just their family. Um, so on the very right there, that's, that's Ukrainian baking, um, that, that they bring in and, and it's great.

Uh, they, they make some really amazing food. Um, so we created this store, call it the Hi. Um, and we do some really crazy things like in the top left, that's castration of, of a, a bull calf on the right. That's, that's actually one of my sons Pag checking the cow. Um, and she's pregnant. She's supposed to have a baby here in about two weeks.

So, so that's exciting. And, and these kids love it. They're, they're so excited, right? Like, I gotta protect the cow. I could feel the baby. It was so cool. Um, so they, they, uh, they do those. This past, uh, I think it was last week, week ago, yesterday, we added an open house, um, to tour our new grocer because it's a biologically controlled, right?

So once it's, once we're growing in there, you can't have all kinds of people in there. And, uh, so we said we're gonna, we're gonna, you know, tour the, uh, people through, And, uh, we're gonna, like, we're gonna celebrate, we're gonna do some, some pretty special things here. So over 300 people came and, and some people from in this room even came to and from quite a distance and, and to look.

So our students led everyone that came through, they were waiting at the doors and they, uh, they're there touring the agriculture minister through. Um, they let all the students through, or all the guests through on tours, adults did know touring. Um, and we did that on purpose because we wanted to. That our, our students are into this.

And without, I, I'd never heard a complaint. All I heard is, wow, your students are so proud of this program. Your students are so proud of their school. They know their stuff, they're like passionate and they're engaged, and, and it's true. Um, I, I actually, I don't do discipline in the school at all. I don't, I don't do an hour of discipline a year.

Uh, all of our doors are unlocked. All of our doors are open. It's the school, it's the kid's school. Um, this barn is never locked. And, and I'll, I'll walk by at eight o'clock at night and there'll be kids there hanging out and doing stuff with animals. And, um, they just love the building. They love the place and, and it's become their school.

So we did that and then we, I, I felt personally that we hadn't gone back far enough. So we, we were trying. Embrace agriculture and we're trying to embrace our heritage. And I thought, you know what, I'm, we're not teaching about the first Nations that were here before us. So we really did that on our open house.

Uh, we had a tepee raising ceremony the day before for just from some local people, and we had elders that came. Um, we had traditional dance. Uh, it was amazing. Uh, and, and so exciting. Um, and then we actually got a, a Cree. From Elder Russell Joseph, so, uh, mule Deer Haven Hills.

I think every time I call him and say, am I doing it right, yet I'm close. Um, but what an honor and, and so special right? To be able to do that. So, so that was very, um, meaningful. The students and the community and, and let's be honest, uh, I, I live in the middle of rural conservative Alberta and the community embraced it and they were so excited and it really became evident at the end of the night.

Uh, let's have a round dance. And it was so special to have First Nations children and elders, uh, Ukrainians, new immigrants. We also have some from South Africa, and then gener, multi-generational Canadian farm, farm ranchers, 70, 75 years old, all joined hands and, and had this round dance. Um, one of the most, uh, profound moments in my leadership career, I'll be honest with you, uh, that we came together that way.

The title of my topic is, is Really Revive A School and, and Save a Community. Um, now we met again last year and we did this again because we've accomplished most of the first one. Um, and, and so we have some big, big plans and some of them have happened, you know, at a greenhouse while we added. The C can.

Um, we added a store. We, we've done a few of those things since then. Uh, but we're at a point in the community now where we, we really believe some pretty cool things can happen. So numbers, um, 20 14, 49 students lowest ever. And we're actually, I did the projections that first year as principal, and within five years we're supposed to be down to 33 and go lower.

And for the rural principles in the building, we know 35 is that magic number. Uh, right. So, uh, concerning it wasn't at that point, but it is now. Anyways, we're at 67 students this year. Um, ev at least once a month I get a phone call from families saying, Hey, can you have anything for sale in that area or rent that we can move?

And we don't. We're out of housing. Like, it's, it's a weird phenomenon. Uh, so now we are looking at creating lots and, um, you know, hopefully we can have some new builds in the community. Uh, in 2014, the little hamlet of Ontario, that where the school was situated, had about, I think it was 17 or 18 people, and I say less than 20 cause I don't remember exactly, but I know we had one student in town.

The rest were all bused in. Um, and today we're up over 40 stu, uh, citizens and, and we have 14 children living in town. Lot of it's from the Ukrainians. Um, not all, but uh, the town itself. Like when, when you used to go through town in the evenings, it was just dead. Like there was nothing. You, you didn't hear a word.

And, uh, now my wife, she goes for a run. It's about a three kilometer run back and forth, and it takes her, you know, between a half an hour and two hours. Because it depends how many people are on the streets, right? Like, and how many kids stop her and talk to her. And after two hours I go looking, but it's kinda like, oh, I see in a bit.

I don't have no idea what I'm gonna see it. Um, and, and the, the town itself, we've uh, so we had a new duplex that's been built. Uh, we had a new home built. We had a couple duplex or duplex in two homes renovated. And you have to remember, there were no new buildings in that town for over 40. So, so that's significant, right?

I mean, some towns it's like, woohoo, you built a house. Yeah. No, no, no. We hadn't built a house in 40 years, so you, this is a big deal. Um, and then we have these new businesses. Soma Snow is a Ukrainian, they, they, uh, make like frozen Pearl, GE, and cabbage rolls and so good, uh, tasty treats a little bakery. We have a a, a private daycare.

That's been started. Um, so, so that works out really, really well. We, before that, again, it was 50 kilometers to the local, the closest daycare, um, and then the hive being the, the school store. So, so the, the community itself has, has revived. It's, it's exciting place to be. Um, and, and it really, it's started from the school outwards.

Um, and it started, really took off when, when we embraced agriculture, um, and did this farm program. Each part of our, of our farm has a mentor, a local mentor. So the steers are mentored by Craig. Um, the turkeys are mentored by Darren, and, and I've set that up on purpose. So when I leave, It continues. Um, and, but it keeps the community involved, right?

And the community's very, very invested, uh, in, in their school. And, and, you know, we see adults again, thankfully now we're kind of getting past covid. But, um, but they're, they're in, they're involved, they're in the building. And our, our sheet manager, her name's Wendy, um, and she was so excited. She called me on a Sunday night.

She goes, the best thing just happened to me. A student called. And his sheep was lambing and he had questions and he wanted to know what to do, and she was just ex ecstatic about that, that the 17 year old boy had called her and said, Hey, how do I, how do I take care of this third lamb that just got born?

Um, so, uh, yeah, we've, we've built a relationship back with the community, with the school, with the students, and, uh, done something I think pretty special. There. I told you I'd do it in about a half an hour. Did it in 25 minutes. Um, but, uh, that's the quick overview o of what we've done, uh, in Ontario School and, and, uh, what we've done for both school and community.

That's it for this edition of the You Lead podcast. For more information known the Council for School Leadership, please visit our website@atacsl.ca.