Options and Opportunities program could be answer for rural Nova Scotia

Lawrence Powell
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They’ve developed a catering business that provides food and hospitality services to local community groups. They’ve created a DJ company that provides musical entertainment to local schools. They set up a print shop that customizes apparel and accessories for individuals and groups.

And they’re still in high school.

The Options and Opportunities students at Bridgetown Regional High School are a class act in more than one sense of the word, and when Education Minister Karen Casey was invited to their year-end gala recently, she had no problem driving for three hours to make it in time for roast pork, roasted potatoes, vegetables and a blueberry cheesecake-type dessert that had everyone wondering about the recipe.

Of course the students cooked the meal themselves, with help from teacher and Service Learning mentor Jonny Marshall; provided the music; manned the bar where they mixed mocktails; served the meal; and later handed out certificates to community members and groups who have supported the program. They called that last part “Thanking a Community.” And, finally, who do you think cleared the tables and washed the dishes?

 

Service Learning

BRHS principal Meredith Burton explained service learning like this: “It is active participation in thoughtfully organized service that is conducted in and meets the needs of the local community,” she said. “The key word here is local. Student service learning combines classroom instruction with hands-on service to address community needs.”

The objective is to develop employability skills in students so they will be prepared for employment during and after school.

Burton said the popular phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ comes to mind.

“In rural communities like ours, and similar ones all across our province, there are many unmet needs for a variety of reasons, including economics, geography and simple demographics,” she said. “In the local economy, discovering a niche market is essential for success and finding that local niche is what O2 is all about.”

 

NS Struggling

Burton said Nova Scotia is struggling with how to remain fiscally responsible and still provide enough employment opportunities for young people to keep them here instead of moving away.

“We face increasingly amalgamated and centralized services and the standardization that comes with this,” she said. “I believe that service learning programs can be the salvation of small rural communities like ours because there is no end to the possibilities for uniquely local projects.”

But, she cautioned, this type of program is not for the complacent. It takes passion, creativity and hard work.

Casey was a head table guest and was minister back in 2006 when the O2 program started in 27 schools. She said it is now in 58 schools with 2,300 students enrolled. She said her objective is to give every student, in every school, the opportunity to experience service learning.

Annapolis Valley Regional School board chair Lavinia Parrish-Zwicker said the vision for the board is ‘working together for students’ and the O2 program exemplifies that. She said that as these students go forward, they will look back fondly at what transpired during their time in O2.

She described O2 as an opportunity for them to be able to look at life from a different perspective, not just academics.

O2 is a program that offers the type of student engagement and meaningful learning experiences that are good for all students, said superintendent Margo Tait. She would like to see the program exemplified.

“It’s really a way that students can become engaged in their learning,” she said.

 

Focus On Learning

“In my opinion, the O2 program’s service learning model is the ideal for a 21st century education, one in which we should focus more on learning and less on schooling,” said Burton. She said research shows that service learning has positive effects on students’ academic performance and school engagement. To be fully intellectually engaged, students need tasks that are relevant, interesting and challenging, she added.

“Community service enhances a limited academic curriculum, adding much-needed relevance, interest, and challenge to the existing high school credit requirements,” the principal said.

But she sees the impact of O2 as being far more lasting than just the time students and teachers spend in the classroom.

“The hope is that we are creating the next generation of dedicated volunteers, community leaders and service group members who keep our communities alive and well,” she said.

She said as the adult stewards of education, it is the community’s responsibility to actively support O2 programs, projects and innovations.

“It is up to us to find more and new ways to help students build their skills, demonstrate their talents, and become involved in our community,” said Burton. “Nova Scotia’s future depends on our students’ present.”

 

Fact Box:

Students can benefit from the program by:

-- Gaining hands-on experience.

-- Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, essential employability and life skills.

-- Building positive and strong relationships with teachers and other helping adults.

-- Developing or enhancing employability skills, especially in areas of communication, collaboration, and leadership.

-- Testing out skills, interests and values in a potential career path, or learn more about a field of interest by participating in NSCC programming.

-- Gaining certification in food handling, first aid, WHMIS and other important programs for the workplace.

-- Connecting with and learning from professionals and community members.

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