Capping off its first full year of operation, Rocky View Schools’ (RVS) new online learning high school is preparing to celebrate the achievements of its graduating class this week, during an inaugural convocation ceremony.
While the approximately 200 RVS students at Summit Trails Online High School have been learning virtually this year, principal Dave Smith ensures the school’s first graduation ceremony will be held in person. The celebration of the school’s 65 senior students will be at Genesis Place Recreation Centre in Airdrie on May 25 at 6:30 p.m.
“When Grade 12s were signing up for this this year, I received a lot of questions, both from students and parents,” Smith said. “The number-one question was, ‘Are we going to have a graduation if I come to your school?’ Absolutely. We definitely want to have a traditional graduation, and by traditional, I mean in person, and to make it a big deal.”
According to RVS, the ceremony will include live music from Bella Vita Strings and remarks from valedictorian Heather Beckett.
Summit Trails – which received its official name in April, following a vote by the RVS Board of Trustees – was set up for RVS students who chose to learn in an online setting, rather than a traditional brick-and-mortar school.
According to Smith, most parents decided to enrol their kids in the online high school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he added COVID was not the only reason families opted to take their kids' learning online this school year, and that many students have come to prefer the less traditional approach to their high-school education.
“Some students came because they suffer from anxiety disorders,” he said. “We have students who are athletes who need high flexibility in their programming. We have some older Grade 12 students who are balancing a lot in their lives – they’re balancing jobs, and some are even supporting their families. They’re looking for ways to have flexibility in school while still doing what they need to do.
“And then we have students who are sort of introverts, and they’re like, ‘This is my jam.’”
Regardless of why a student chose to learn through Summit Trails this year, Smith said the online high school has a wide demographic of students from across RVS’ boundary, including Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere, and the surrounding rural communities.
According to Smith, the online school didn’t see a high exodus of students in the second semester, even after the relaxing and lifting of COVID health protocols.
“We survey our students quite a bit, as well as parents,” he said. “We’re constantly surveying them because we’re building the culture as we go and want them to be a part of it. It’s been really encouraging for them to say, especially after semester one, they now understand what this is all about, and it’s amazing.
“It’s not COVID learning, it’s not interrupted learning – it’s actual virtual education, and it’s the real deal.”
Even though Summit Trails students mostly learned on their own at home, Smith said the school’s leadership students worked hard to cultivate a culture of student connection throughout the school year. Some of the virtual events the team organized included a Terry Fox Run in September, a pumpkin carving competition and Halloween costume contest in October, a Remembrance Day ceremony in November, and Valentine’s Day and Pink Shirt Day events in February.
Considering traditional online learning tends to be more isolated than in-person schooling, Smith said it was important for the Summit Trails leadership students to help create a sense of community and identity among the student body.
“Classic online…tends to be students taking their education, completing it, and not actually getting involved in the institution offering the education,” he said. “We were trying to break that mould, but we didn’t know if the students wanted to come with us.
“We recognize for a lot of our students, some of them are in difficult situations, so they’re looking for that connection and encouragement.”
With graduation and the end of the school year just around the corner, Smith said the Summit Trails team is hoping to expand the program province-wide next year, to ensure students who are even outside of RVS’ catchment zone can access quality online learning.
“We’re hoping to take this something special we’re doing in Rocky View and pull people in from Red Deer, Edmonton – wherever – into this experience as well,” he said.