How this rural school came back from the brink of closure

Horse Hill School was close to being shuttered in 2008, but a new program is helping bring in new students.

Edmonton elementary is drawing in students with an academic focus

Horse Hill School is a rural school in northeast Edmonton, near Meridian Street and 195th Ave. (David Bajer/CBC)

CBC's Kory Siegers is spending time digging into stories just like this one that explore issues affecting neighbourhoods around the Anthony Henday ring road. We'd always love to hear your ideas. You can email us at edmontonam@cbc.ca or kory.siegers@cbc.ca

If you ask Cale Grover what he likes about his school, he's quick to answer.

"It's not too big, it's not too small, it's like a perfect size. It always feels like home."

Cale is a Grade 4 student at Horse Hill School, tucked in the city's northeast corner about five minutes off the Henday.

His family lives on an acreage a few minutes away. His mom grew up there and attended Horse Hill when she was young.

Built in 1953, the school served surrounding acreages and farms and the nearby Evergreen Mobile Home Park.

By 2008 it was on the brink of closure, but the Edmonton Public School Board allowed it to stay open, and the school stayed afloat for the next decade. 

The kindergarten-to-Grade 6 school has capacity for 350 students. From 2011 to 2016 attendance hovered between 93 and 117.

Then in 2018 it began to grow, and saw 139 students enrolled.

That was the same year Horse Hill introduced the Cogito program. With an emphasis on structure and order, Cogito is for students who are focused on academic excellence.

"It's for a type of student that likes rigour, for a type of student that likes to enrich their learning, go deeper," said principal Nouha El-Ali. "It has a deep element of inquiry. It has deep elements of numeracy. It has deep elements of literacy.

"It definitely fits the mould for students who are eager, who are inquisitive, who are creative and really want to delve deeper in their learning."

Principal Nouha El-Ali knew there was a demand for the Cogito program, and that demand helped fill a need at her rural school. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

El-Ali has been principal since last year. Much of the work to introduce Cogito came before her arrival, but she noticed an opportunity.

The program was planned to have a gradual rollout, starting in kindergarten and adding one grade each year.

This year the school offered the program from kindergarten to Grade 3, but El-Ali kept getting phone calls from parents wanting to enrol their younger and older children.

She started calling around to other schools, asking how many students were being turned away because they were already at capacity.

"I put some of the numbers together based on the phone calls we were getting here. I was like, 'I think we could fill a classroom here and meet the needs of our community.'"

She went to the school board, which came up with a plan to offer the program for all grades. 

The school's open house was on March 3. Registration for the upcoming year has already more than doubled.

While there's no question that Cogito has played a role, El-Ali said Horse Hill's parent advisory association has also played a huge part in the school's recent success. 

Alyssa McDonald and her mom, Taryn, walk with Principal Nouha El-Ali outside Horse Hill School. (David Bajer/CBC)

Taryn McDonald has been involved with the association for five years. She lives in north Edmonton and decided to do whatever she could to get her two children into Horse Hill.

"I remember calling Horse Hill for the first time and the principal at the time said, 'Yeah, come on and see us. You know, we're out in the country and we're this little diamond in the rough, but we're going to shine,'" McDonald said.

She went to the open house and decided that was where she wanted her kids to go. 

"Just the look of the school, the feel of the school, it felt like something from when I was a kid. And I thought this is a thousand per cent where we need to be."

But it wasn't as easy as enrolling. The school wasn't in their zone and there was no busing to get her daughter Alyssa to and from Horse Hill.

"So I kind of changed my work schedule around, so that I could pick up and drop off my kids every day," said McDonald. 

Then she joined the parent advisory association.

"It's kind of a group of kindergarten parents at the time who said, 'OK, let's let's make this school what we want it to be.'

"I said to the principal, 'I'm here for the long haul. I've got about nine years for sure before my kids are gone.'"

When the Cogito program came up, the group agreed they should give it a try. 

"I never thought my kids would go into Cogito. It wasn't something that I was sure fit with us," McDonald said. "But watching the program grow, and now that it will be available for Alyssa to go next year, we're definitely going to give it a try."

Alyssa said she hopes the program will make it easier for her to concentrate.

Taryn McDonald and her daughter, Alyssa, walk with Nouha El-Ali though a field that will soon become an orchard. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

A focus on the land

There's a lot happening outside the school walls as well.

El-Ali has begun working with community partners, tapping into the rich agricultural market around the school.

This spring, students will begin planting an orchard next to the school in a city-owned field in partnership with the Horse Hill community league.

The school is also in the early planning stages for an outdoor classroom. They plan to consult with the First Nation, Métis, and Inuit education unit within the EPSB as part of the process.

In the three years since Cogito was introduced, the small school has boosted enrolment to 229 students. 

"If you ask me about the potential and future of this place, I think it's looking very healthy and very strong." El-Ali said.