Parents 'shocked' by forest school closure 3 weeks before fall term
Founder says Canada–New Brunswick education agreement played role in decision
Three weeks before classes were set to resume in September, Tír na nÓg Forest School in Saint John has announced it will discontinue its preschool, elementary, and middle school programs.
In a letter to parents this week, founder Tim Jones stated the decision was made "with heavy hearts," and all deposits would be refunded in full.
The K-8 school in Rockwood Park had between 50 and 70 students.
Founded in 2012, the school presented traditional subjects like math, literacy, science, social studies, art, and music in a predominantly outdoor setting. The name, Tír na nÓg, refers to a mystical land in Gaelic mythology.
'Unique' programming threatened
The letter Jones wrote to parents said it was "not feasible" for the school to move forward under the early learning and child care agreement the province signed with the federal government, which aims to make child care more affordable for New Brunswickers.
Tír na nÓg called the deal a "positive step," but said the school's structure and "one-of-a-kind programming" don't fit the terms of the agreement, which would include capping fees.
A designation under the agreement would require an increase in the teacher-student ratio that would "jeopardize the very foundation we built our school upon," the letter said.
Jones declined to speak with CBC, stating in an email "our focus will remain on promoting and lobbying outdoor education for everyone and the benefits to our children."
Tuition at Tír na nÓg ranged between $895 and $1,295 per month, according to parents.
In a statement, the Department of Education said centres that don't want to participate in the designation program can "set their own parent fees to meet their business needs."
Non-designated learning centres have also been provided additional funding to support the recruitment and retention of teachers through increased wage-tops, the department said.
Children, parents shocked
Vaughn MacVicar, 11, started at Tír na nÓg Forest School in Grade 3, and was set to start Grade 7 in September.
"It was the best," he said. "It truly brought out the best in me."
MacVicar, who lost his father in 2016, has ADHD which "made learning in a public school system that much more challenging," said his stepfather, Jason Steeves.
"He fell behind his peers somewhat. When he finished Grade 2, he couldn't even write a full sentence."
By Christmastime in his first year at Tír na nÓg, "he was not only writing sentences, he was completing cartoon sketches and had really thrived in an environment that was a little bit less structured," Steeves said.
Jenn Cyr, whose daughter and son just finished Grade 5 and Grade 2 and whose daughter has Type 1 diabetes, said the school went above and beyond to accommodate their children's medical needs.
"It's easier to reach out to the school and educators," she said. "The feedback is instantaneous, You don't have to set up a meeting. They're really available. There were opportunities to explore and see the projects they've been working on."
"We were shocked, completely floored," said Dan Dutton, whose son Jacob, 7, was set to start Grade 1 in September. "I truly don't know what we're going to do."
Jacob, who has ADHD and autism "really flourished" in the forest school environment after struggling in public school.
"I don't know anything about homeschooling or the homeschooling curriculum, and I don't have the expertise to vet homeschooling teachers," Dutton said. "So it's a bit of a bit of a huge challenge falling in your lap three weeks before school starts."
Scrambling for options
Erin Schryer, president and CEO of Origins Natural Learning Childcare and the Woods Early Education Corp. in Quispamsis, said about a dozen families have contacted her about placements at her learning centres after Tír na nÓg's closure was announced to parents on Sunday.
"Child care certainly is in short supply and so I understand the stress that that puts on families unexpectedly," she said.
Schryer agreed the Canada-New Brunswick agreement is "changing the landscape of early learning and child care in New Brunswick."
When fees are capped, operators lose the "ability to make revenue to afford the things that we think are important for our centres. It really comes down, like many things do, to money," she said.
"We have expressed that we're concerned with the pace with which things are happening, that we're concerned that there's been little to no consultation with operators," she said.
The closure, she said, is an unintended, but real consequence of "trying to impose a system without consultation, without flexibility."
Dutton echoed that the public school system needs to accommodate different types of learning. That there are enough struggling kids to populate an entire alternative school, is "indicative of a need going unmet."
It's flexibility that kids like Vaughn MacVicar will miss with the loss of the forest school. He has a message for the teachers and kids he met at Tír na nÓg.
"Thank you," he said. "It's been a good run.
"I'm not the type of person who would necessarily cry or like, [be] sombre because of it. But it is very hard to know that I won't be able to go there again."