Named after the patron saint of the Internet, St. Isidore Catholic Learning Centre in Sherwood Park is far from a traditional school setting.
But former homeschool student Sarah Milne, 13, whose venture into public school was derailed by bullying, would have it no other way.
“I like the experience of being able to actually interact with people,” said Sarah. “I was under a lot of stress not being able to fit in in public school but here, you fit in no matter who you are, so you can just focus on school work.”
Sarah was among a half dozen St. Isidore students, ranging from Grade 8 to 11, sitting around a table chatting and doing school work during the official opening of the Elk Island Catholic Schools Central Learning Services building on Jan. 23.
St. Isidore is one of eight services brought together in the school division’s new building, located at 310 Broadview Road.
Sarah takes a five-minute bus ride to St. Isidore’s outreach centre almost every day through its homeschool partnership program. She is one of more than 1,200 online students from across Alberta enrolled in the school from Grade 1 to 12, including adult students who are upgrading to enter post-secondary or to earn their high school diploma.
Sarah, who once struggled academically, now boasts top marks. She loves the small class sizes, which have ranged from just two to 17 on any given day. Students have the option to work at the school’s computer stations, at home, or anywhere they want.
“Home education students from Grade 7 to 12 were looking for a more flexible way to learn, not necessarily at home all the time,” said Principal Tracy Melnyk. “They come in because they want that face-to-face connection with their teacher.”
In addition to the principal, the centre has four part-time teachers, including a chaplain and religious consultant, and math, science and social studies specialists.
“We are a small but very mighty staff of dedicated educators who want to see our students succeed,” said Melnyk.
More students are seeking out innovative learning services like St. Isidore’s Genesis online program, said Melnyk, who calls alternative education models the “new normal.”
“This centre is filling a void by providing a much-desired way of learning for so, so many,” she said.
“I think we should’ve done this years ago. There are so many of those students who are on the periphery who just need someone to collect them, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Registration has been climbing since St. Isidore started last September in the old Central Learning Services building on Festival Way. The school division had outgrown the 1970s-era facility before deciding to buy the land behind the Sherwood Park Costco.
The new building also provides meeting spaces and brings together the division’s transportation, maintenance, information technology (IT) and student support services such as therapists and consultants. About 100 employees work there, including 40 division staff members, 50 bus drivers and 10 maintenance workers.
The building serves the entire Elk Island Catholic School Division, which has over 7,300 students in the communities of Camrose, Fort Saskatchewan, Sherwood Park, Strathcona County and Vegreville.
“We are all under the same roof as a school division – which results in better use of resources and provides seamless service to our staff and educational community,” said Superintendent Shawn Haggarty.
The $15-million centre was funded by a $9.8-million loan from Alberta Capital Finance, the $1.4- million sale of the division’s transportation yard, and $3.2-million sale of the old building.
The contemporary, two-storey minimalist building features glass walls that flood the interior with natural light.
“We’re beside ourselves,” said a beaming Board Chair Ted Paszek.
“It’s beautiful, bright and gorgeous,” said Melnyk.
“The new building is beautiful, dynamic, and full of life and energy,” said Annie McKittrick, who represents Sherwood Park in the legislature and serves as parliamentary secretary to the minister of education. “A place where learners are encouraged to reach the best of their abilities.”
St. Isidore of Seville was a renowned author, teacher, bishop and leader in seventh-century Spain, known for his passion for education. About 16 years after his death in 639, he was designated a Doctor of the Church, a title given to certain saints indicating that their writings and preachings remain useful to Christians in any age.
Dean Sarnecki, executive director of the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees Association (ACSTA), said the saint considered education and faith “so intricately bonded they can’t be separated.”
“And that’s what differentiates Catholic schools from public schools.”