Welcome to the new kind of classroom
Photo credit and copyrights to Shane Collins & Gonzo Okanagan
I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Varabioff. He loved to lecture and assign us work and then, when we were to open our books, bow our heads and focus, he would surreptitiously pace the classroom with a meter stick in his hand. If he saw someone dozing or staring aimlessly out the window, he would bring the stick down hard with a deafening, ‘thwack!’ onto the students desk. I was one of his favorite pupils to demonstrate his authority. “Damn it, Shane, why can’t you just focus? See me for detention after school.” This kind of thing would happen throughout my academic life within the confines of classrooms.
These days, school is a lot different. Many things have changed. New technology allows for tools that go beyond the textbook. Understanding the potential that exists beyond the patterns of behavior, however, that is still a challenge.
Meet Ashley Sali, Executive Director of Vista Academy – a new learning center designed to facilitate the wide spectrum of educational needs for kids of all ages right here in Kelowna.
I met up with her as she prepared for her open house. She had some friends and their kids along with them and when I arrived, so did the pizza.
I was handed a slice and as I tore into the pizza, I ignored all my manners and, with a face full of food, I asked, “so… how long have you been getting this off the ground?”
Ashley politely swallowed her bite of pizza and said, “we’re coming into our third year. There’s been lots of renovations and we’ve installed new areas for kids to get the wiggles out.” She walks me over to a room full of cool stuff like a rock climbing wall, hammocks, monkey bars, and a slew of toys and games.
“This is rad. How hard has it been getting this all together?”
She scoffed and laughed to herself. “It’s kind of like building an airplane while you’re trying to fly it.” Ashley looks over the room. “With my team and our board of directors, we did the framing, the drywall, flooring, the paint and came up with the design and concept.” I can see the pride in her smile. “Plumbing and electrical excluded, we built this from the ground up.”
Ashley walked me around the place. There’s a classroom with desks and books that line shelves along a far wall. There’s another room with art supplies and a chalkboard. Another room has a big TV and couches. Out in the hallway, there are two, closet sized rooms with pillows on the floor and lights that dangle down from its ceiling like the tentacles of jellyfish.
“These are rooms for sensory therapy using light and audio. The lights are synched to the music.” Two kids are hanging out in the little room. They give us a smile and a wave as Ashley pulls the curtain to the side. She points to the headphones. “Kids need their brains stimulated in all sorts of ways. We try to design the schooling around those needs and provide learning environments that cater to a wide range of children who will gain from that stimulated environment. We try to create a learning experience, custom to the individual needs of the kids who come through here.”
We walk into the biggest room within the space. “This is where everyone can play.” She jumps in with some kids who are climbing along a colorful climbing wall. “Can you remember being young and wishing you could just run around a little?” (I think back to that meter stick coming down hard onto my desk and being scolded for my mind wandering.) I nod my head and smile.
“Students with special needs tend to require an environment where they can run and play and through that process we can assess how to approach the learning needs of the students.” Kids are swinging from a swing off to the side of a set of monkey bars. Other kids are sitting quietly by themselves, putting puzzles together.
Ashley walks me into another room. A young girl is making slime. Ashley sits with her. “Well, we don’t have a few ingredients for slime but let’s try anyway.” The two of them sit there stirring in gooey pastes and try to make a slime type mixture. “Maybe it’s not slime,” Ashley says. The little girl smiles up at the spatula and a long, stringy, purple blob plopped back into the bowl. “Looks like purple goop.”
The little girl looks into the bowl and says, ‘goop is good, too.’ We all have a laugh at that.
We head into the kitchen. “What are some of the big hurdles in all of this?”
“Oh, it’s always funding and letting the community know that we’re here. We’ve had a $40,000 cut in funding so we’re constantly looking to fundraise and apply for bursaries and grants.”
Ashley wears a tower of hats, flying this vehicle of learning. She’s the Executive Director, the planner, she has been a carpenter and designer, she’s the promoter, the accountant and she’s the face of this venture. She pulls an average of a 19 hour work day, seven days a week, fully committed to keeping everything afloat.
And it’s working. Through it all, Vista begins its voyage.
As I write this, Ashley is making the final arrangements for her open house. She tells me ages range from 12 months old up to young adults. She has 10 full time employees. The doors are nearly ready to be open for the public. It’s an exciting time here and I for one am in awe of the passion, persistence and perseverance Ashley and her team has displayed in getting everything off the ground, during a pandemic. It’s yet another example of what one can do when they are truly passionate about what motivates them.
Ashley’s been blessed with having two kids of her own who’ve had to find their own way along the wide spectrum of learning. It’s been a journey and it’s led Ashley to not only dedicate herself to help educating others, but to build a school, and build it from the ground up.