Kanata warehouse home acts as experimental 'school of tomorrow'

Two Ottawa public school teachers have designed and developed what they call an "experimental prototype school of tomorrow" tucked away at the back of a warehouse. The school's founders plan to focus on practical, hands-on and creative learning, with help from mentors.

2 Ottawa public school teachers open an 'experimental prototype school of tomorrow'

Sebastien O'Connor sits in the unique 'classroom' at the Blue Sky School in Kanata where he's set to begin classes on September 5. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

When grade eight student Sebastien O'Connor steps into school on Tuesday, he won't be sitting at a desk or in a classroom and he won't be staring at a blackboard.

In fact, there are no classrooms at the brand new Blue Sky School in a Kanata industrial park where Sebastien and ten other kids begin studies this week.

Instead there is a big open space to collaborate, a kitchen, exercise room, reading room, a 3D printer maker-space, even a tent if he wants some quiet alone time.

"I've been to multiple schools, I find school hard for me," said O'Connor. "It's just the system hasn't been working for me."

O'Connor and his family hope this not-for-profit, independent, "outside the box" type school will be better a fit.

It's been designed and developed by two former Ottawa public school teachers who describe it as the "experimental prototype school of tomorrow."

Tucked away at the back of a big warehouse owned by a construction and mechanical contracting company, the school will focus on practical, hands-on and creative learning, with help from mentors, including those who work for their landlord and partner, Modern Niagara.

Shauna Pollock is the co-founder and teacher at Blue Sky School in Kanata. (CBC)
"We've deliberately designed a space where all ages of learners and all types of learners can explore, learn, iterate and prototype," said co-founder and director of learning design, Shauna Pollock.

A 2013 recipient of the Prime Minister's teaching award and a public school teacher for the past 12 years, Pollock said the concept of this new school is her life's dream.

Her teaching partner and co-founder Karen Hill takes a special interest in children's mental health and wellness.

"I've always recognized that there's a need to experiment. There are kids [who] are not being served in all of our systems, not just education, and we just need to experiment," said Hill, whose young daughter will be one of Blue Sky's first students.

The school plans to start off with 11 kids from grade six to 11. The education program will be personalized for each individual and his or her goals.

The tuition fees are $15,000 a year, but money was raised to offer a few students full scholarships.

"Because we're doing something new, it represents some risk and we wanted to make sure families are interested in the experiment and wanting to build this along with us. There's been a huge amount of community building within our 11 families as well," said Pollock.

But leaving secure, public school jobs and starting a tuition-driven, education enterprise was a big leap for this pair.

Karen Hill is a teacher and co-founder of Blue Sky School in Kanata. (CBC)
"We're not business people, we're not looking to make money," said Hill, who would really like to see this prototype school eventually adopted by the public education system. "I'm hoping we can partner with public education and change the face of education everywhere."

Charles Pascal, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario and currently a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education said there needs to be more experimentation within the public education system.

Pascal said he'll be watching the development of this new facility with some interest.

"They aspire to do some things that actually should be a part of public education in Ontario more generally. I like a lot of the elements," said Pascal.

At a preliminary tour at the school, student Sebastien O'Connor said so far he likes what he sees and he's especially looking forward to creating with the 3D printer and interacting with the other ten kids.

"I'm going to be really happy to learn with them this year," said O'Connor.

Kids try out the equipment in the Blue Sky School exercise room. (Julie Ireton, CBC)