By Sue Tiffin
During this past school year, Declan Brown looked forward to Thursday every week.
It’s the day of the week that he – a Grade 1 student – went to forest school.
“Being outside helped him tremendously,” said his mom, Amey Taylor. “Declan was excited to tell all his family members and friends about the new experiences he learned every week.”
Declan is looking forward to attending public school and the outdoor education program – At Last Forest School – this upcoming year, too, though his parents – Taylor and Darrin Brown – wish the school board would support the choice they think is best for their son.
Parents in Haliburton County wanting their kids enrolled in public school as well as the local forest school program are involved in a letter writing campaign to the school board and school trustee Gary Brohman after the school board said they will not endorse a program that impedes regular student attendance at school.
“TLDSB firmly believes that students need to be in attendance at school five days/week to receive the same curriculum access and assessment opportunities as their peers and classmates,” wrote Jen Andreasen, executive assistant to TLDSB director Wes Hahn, to Debbie Val, co-owner of At Last Forest Schools. “One absence per week is the equivalent of a student being absent for 20 per cent of their school year; recurring absences of that frequency result in the student missing foundational lessons and core programming. We encourage full-time attendance for all students across the board, and under the Education Act, are obligated to follow up with any student who is persistently absent in any given school year.”
Val has encouraged letters and testimonials from parents, posting that while she can appreciate TLDSB’s concern with a child missing instruction, “The forest school environment not only builds a child’s confidence in their ability to learn but also consolidates their knowledge. Students organically fill in any gaps in their understanding by asking questions and engaging in hands-on and experiential education. Upon return to the classroom feeling relaxed, confident and ready to take in more information.”
At Last Forest Schools began operation in Owen Sound in 2016, and similar programs are also established in Goderich, Kemble Farms, Kincardine, Limehouse, Orangeville, Saugeen Shores, Saugeen Valley and Wiarton.
Last year when the forest school concept – which has been around since the 1950s – was introduced in Haliburton County by At Last Forest Schools as well as Camp Wanakita, it was so popular that within 48 hours of the online announcement of the At Last school opening, 150 interested people had joined a Facebook group looking for more information, including some parents who had been driving round-trip to Gravenhurst twice a day so their kids could attend an outdoor education program there.
Last September, when students returned to class at public school during the pandemic, however, there was messaging from the school board, said Val, that students could not attend both public school and the outdoor education program as some parents had planned.
“It was suggested that due to the pandemic the school board would not allow children to attend two separate schools,” said Val, who co-owns At Last Forest Schools with her husband, Carlin. “We supported and respected that decision. We also felt it was not the year to cause any further stress. It was however a challenge for us and families who recognized what an important resource forest school could have been for their child this year.”
Taylor and other parents were told last year by school administration, they said, that they would be reported to the local health unit if they tried to attend more than one school at a time.
“It was a very difficult situation for me to go against the wishes of the school board,” said Taylor. “Without them providing knowledge as to why forest school was deemed not to ‘provide foundational lessons and core programming,’ I couldn’t try to understand their views or agree with the decision that was made with the lack of knowledge towards forest school.”
Taylor said she was worried, and so advised the public school Declan also attends that he would be attending forest school each Thursday. She said they repeatedly advised her they would report her and her son to the local health unit. The health unit, however, advised Taylor and Brown that they had no concerns as long as they were following COVID-19 health protocols, according to Taylor.
“It’s upsetting, and I feel [the school board has] not done the research required to make this decision,” said Taylor. “When they are confronted with questions they fail to respond. As parents we do know what is best for our children, and many children have succeeded further because of [forest school], including Declan.”
Other parents also enrolled their students in both public school and forest school anyway.
“During the pandemic the student learning could take place almost as it normally would,” said Val of operating forest school during the COVID-19 health crisis. “We are already small ratios (one teacher : six students) and doing the majority of our learning outdoors. We have COVID-19 policies and procedures in place in accordance with the Ministry of Education and the local Ministry of Health. Thankfully, due to the nature of our activities and our outdoor environment we were able to provide the children with some normalcy and a space that nurtured their physical health as well as supported their mental, emotional and social health.”
In a letter parent Trish Sweeting-Hogg wrote to the school board regarding TLDSB students attending forest school simultaneously, she said her son, also a Grade 1 student, attended both forest school and regular classes for the past year and thrived as a result.
“His performance at school has not suffered at all with a one day a week absence,” she wrote. “If anything it has strengthened his in-class learning. Forest school has helped his mental health, especially during all the chaos that has been in-class learning and bouncing back and forth to online. He has had less outbursts of frustration in-class and at home while attending forest school. With the shutdown of schools these outbursts have returned both online learning and at home.”
She plans to enroll him in both schools again.
“The experiences and mental health benefits he gains from attending [forest school] only strengthen his abilities in class and give him even more to contribute to his classroom and peers,” said Sweeting-Hogg. “This forest school program has been a godsend to my son and many many others.”
Val said she and her husband approached TLDSB in March this year to reintroduce themselves and their school, which takes place at Abbey Gardens and Medeba in West Guilford.
“We included information on how forest schools have been endorsed by school boards across Ontario, that students typically attend one day/week as complementary to public school. We gave examples of how forest school is used as a resource and listed all the ways that children benefit from outdoor learning and smaller group sizes. We offered testimonials and letters from parents, teachers and principals who shared their experience and student success stories. We followed up our letter with a phone call and were eager to answer any questions and/or provide any further information. Unfortunately we were briefly told that the school board would not allow it.”
Val said the experience has been different with four other school boards that exist in the same area as other At Last Forest Schools in Ontario, noting they work more in partnership with her schools.
“It is wonderful,” she said. “We feel like a team of professionals with the child’s best interest as our joint focus. We work within our unique strengths to provide the best educational week for the student.”
Val said numerous families in the community want their child to access forest school one day a week, while attending public school the other days of the week and through social media has asked families to write letters of support for the school.
“I think if TLDSB was made aware of community concerns it could make a big difference,” she said. “I know there are many parents in other districts who couldn’t imagine not having the combination of forest school and public school. They have shown their support through written letters, they stand with us in advocating for the children in TLDSB. It is a beautiful way that the forest school community has come together to support their ‘extended family’.”
Catherine Shedden, district manager of corporate communications, said it “is an unusual request for our students to participate in a privately-run school/program during the school day.”
“Forest School is not promoted or sanctioned by TLDSB to take place during the school day,” said Shedden. “As we have already stated, TLDSB students need to be in school five days a week to provide them with optimal learning opportunities and support. This is particularly important this coming school year due to the unusual and challenging school year we have just experienced. We do have ways to help share information with parents about learning opportunities available in the community after school hours or on PA days if the opportunity is a not-for-profit organization. Parents do take their children out of school for short periods of time for a number of reasons such as doctor appointments, etc. and it is their right to do so. However, every time a child misses time in class there is potential learning loss.”
Shedden said if a child is not in school they are marked absent.
“The consequence for being out of class, as stated … is potential learning loss for the child,” she said.
While Shedden said she couldn’t speak to comments about public health involvement, “[O]ver the last school year our school communities worked hard to keep students in cohorts to avoid the unnecessary risks related to the pandemic. Permitting some students to leave the classroom cohort to join another cohort in a program such as forest school, would be putting all students at higher risk. We believe that the upcoming school year will also have some form of cohorting as part of the back to school plan.”
Val said there are other instances in which kids might attend partial public school – noting students who miss classroom instruction regularly for music programs, hockey programs or a specialist high-skills major. In other school boards she has worked with, she said students aren’t necessarily marked absent but rather are marked as attending another educational program.
“The Ministry of Education policies and guidelines do allow for individuals to attend a public school on a part-time basis in the elementary and secondary grades,” she said. “Such part-time students are defined in government documents as ‘pupils who are registered for classroom instruction for an average of less than 210 minutes per school day.’”
Additionally, she said, the Ministry of Education provides funding to boards for students who attend school on a part-time basis, the per-pupil grants being prorated according to the amount of time the student is in attendance at the school.
“I feel hopeful that TLDSB will come to see that we share the same goals for student success and that forest school is simply another resource,” said Val. “Many of our students (in other districts) are recommended by teachers, a large number of our participants are the children of public school teachers and principals. I believe educators recognize how outdoor, play-based, child-led, and experiential education can bring learning to life. When this is combined with a passionate teacher in a small group ratio it becomes an opportunity for students to thrive. I feel empowered by local parents who value the opportunity for their child(ren) to access forest school and are advocating on their child’s behalf. I feel humbled by the testimonials and letters that are being sent to support the Haliburton Forest School community from parents and teachers from other districts.”
Brown wrote a letter to the school board on behalf of his son and Taylor. He acknowledged that 20 per cent of missed time in the classroom is significant, but said, “it needs to be considered that this absenteeism is not the result of parental laziness or just a simple lack of understanding or disregard for the importance of school and academics.”
While Brown said his son struggles in some areas at school, including the ‘constant routine and regiment,’ forest school outdoors has provided an opportunity for learning and instruction in a way that works for him.
“There are so many lessons to be learned and life skills that cannot be found or taught in your conventional classrooms,” wrote Brown. “In this age of technology where everyone is attached to some device, this program allows youngsters to learn, enjoy and appreciate nature the way our generation did. Some of the activities that my son was a part of was picking mushrooms and certain herbs and then using them in a recipe, they learn about hibernation and habitat and learn how to identify certain animal tracks. They also teach students how to use flint for fires and create shelters, which [are] valuable life skills for anyone, and especially an avid outdoorsman which I foresee my son developing into and becoming. Are these not important qualities that children should develop? By being opposed to this form of learning, I think it really portrays a lack of understanding to what ‘education’ is and should mean for the students of this country.”
“We want the school board to conduct research related to forest school and truly see what these children are learning and how it’s helping so many,” said Taylor. “Other boards have partnered with forest schools for many reasons and TLDSB can’t provide any legitimate answers to our questions as to why not?”
Taylor said she wants an agreement to be made.
“Parents who want their children in forest school should be open to working with their children on material they may have missed in [public school] class,” she said. “If the decision was based truly on the children missing fundamental information then there are ways we can overcome that.”
For more information about At Last Forest Schools, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.atlastforestschools.com. For more information about Trillium Lakelands District School Board, visit www.tldsb.ca.