Soulanges Elementary: Good Things in Small Packages

by Dan Mullins

The Soulanges Elementary schoolhouse, over a century old, is nestled amongst the cedars near a charming old willow about 3 kilometers from the Ontario Border in St. Télesphore, Quebec. It is the western-most school in the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and the last functioning schoolhouse of its type in Quebec, in which students of different grade levels learn together in its two rooms.

The school adheres to the same curriculum and maintains the same high standards required in the LBPSB network but goes about doing so in very different ways. The two classroom teachers, Marie-Hélène Townshend (French) and Kate Clare (English and Math) make it quite evident that the adaptations required when working from a two-room schoolhouse have become a valued way of life.

“We’re masters of differentiated education,” says Ms. Townshend cheerfully, “we have to be!”

Most of the time, the school’s 25 students are taught by cycle, with kindergarten through grade 2 in one room, while grade 3 to 6 study in another. Ms. Townshend explains that “while the kindergarteners are writing the alphabet, grade 1 students will be writing words, and the grade 2’s will be writing small sentences, for example.” Ms. Clare expands on the thought, saying “We don’t need to slow down to accommodate anyone since they group by ability, and we have more advanced and less advanced materials right there on-hand.” Once a particular theme has been used, or story has been read, however, it will be several years before all the students have not “heard that one before,” so there is a premium on fresh ideas.

There are other substantive differences that will be easily appreciable to most people, such as the absence of a gym. Ms. Townsend also mentions shoveling and “the time I had to bring a hair dryer to school to unfreeze the pipes.” Educators, especially, may understand the significance of having no secretary, staff room, or principal in the building.

The pair of classroom teachers clearly love where they work. Ms. Townshend has been working at the school for seventeen years, while Ms. Clare said she would try it for a year. That was seven years ago. “Interpersonal gelling is very important,” she says with a smile. The two are joined by Sarah Bood, the school’s energetic resource teacher, and Sylvie Ouimet, who does triple-duty as student supervisor, lunch monitor, and caretaker. Marie-Josée Paquette, based out of Forest Hill Junior Campus, took over as principal partway through the school year this year.

The enthusiasm and loyalty of the school’s community is a testament to their success as a local institution. When Ms. Townshend first arrived and decided the students would perform a play for the students’ families around the holidays, the community got involved and turned it into a not-to-be-missed spaghetti dinner that in following years became a tradition and the school’s main fundraiser. To truly understand the continuity of this school’s community, consider that there are currently students attending Soulanges who are the fifth generation of their family to do so.

It is abundantly clear that there are huge advantages to teaching and learning in this small jewel of a schoolhouse, despite certain additional challenges. To put it another way, as Ms. Clare did, “If I could go back and send my own kids here, I would!”

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