In the mid-northwestern reaches of Manitoba, a senior secondary school that once faced a bleak future has achieved what many other Canadian schools are struggling to do.
Swan Valley Regional Secondary School (SVRSS) has created a blueprint for putting students, both graduates and seniors, into skilled trades such as carpentry, heavy duty mechanics technician, electrical, plumbing and welding with great success.
That success can be attributed to one simple step: a departure from single-use of high school sites as SVRSS has moved a cluster of secondary and trade facilities around it creating a mini-campus for the high school’s Grade 9 to 12 population.
Three educational facilities are opening new doors, with a planned fourth, allowing both seniors at the high school, graduate, and continuing education adults from the community to increase their trade skills.
“I think we are unique,” said school principal Jacquie Mydynski-Arp, whose school is located in the town of Swan River, a Swan Valley hub surrounded by communities such as Minitonas, Benito, Bowsman, Birch River and others.
It became a case of reinventing the role of education in a northern area that had a large draw. Swan River was, as Mydynski-Arp said, “no man’s land.”Mydynski-Arp said the high school’s numbers declined as area populations declined in the region and First Nations bands, a large part of the area’s population, began building their own high schools so students would not have to travel long distances or billet in the community.
The town is located near the Saskatchewan border five hours by vehicle north of Winnipeg, four hours from Brandon and four hours from Regina.
SVRSS graduating students, said Mydynski-Arp, were reluctant to leave the area for further skills training. She said the area was, according to the postal code, classified as a modest income area, and going to a larger city for education was costly, or students just didn’t want to leave home. Only an estimated 25 per cent of students would venture outside the region for education.
Mydynski-Arp said in the 1970s, schools looked at dividing students into academic or vocations streams, offering some fundamental trade courses such as woodworking. The demand for skills training was out there beyond simple courses. The high school began capitalizing on the need for more trades training.
The University College of the North (UCN) was located in La Pas, 200 kilometres north and part of the high school’s Phoenix process was inviting UCN into Swan River in 2011. UCN brought academic, business and trades.
A structure with three classrooms and offices were built onsite. A second building, run by UCN, offered heavy duty mechanical trades with a trade shop dealing with the equipment found in construction, agriculture and transportation.
In 2018, the SVRSS opened its own carpentry building, an 8,400-square foot facility that supports training in carpentry, general construction skills training, electrical construction and a plumbing trade program.
The construction program is an approved dual-credit program and a Level One pre-employment program through UCN. The Manitoba government invested more than $140,000 for new equipment.
The carpentry facility has been a success, Mydynski-Arp said, in many ways. First, it created an opportunity for students at the high school to explore carpentry trades, either as elective courses to improve life skills, as a path to apprenticeship or into university programs such as engineering or architecture.
Secondly, it brought many of the First Nations students who had left the secondary school system back to the campus – a 90 minute drive each way.