By Frank Bucholtz
Dave de Wit is Canada’s outstanding principal.
The principal of Rick Hansen Secondary has been named one of the country’s top principals by The Learning Partnership, a non-profit organization that focuses on excellence in public education.
De Wit became principal of Rick Hansen in April, 2014 after eight years in charge of Abbotsford Continuing Education, which under his watch became the Bakerview Centre for Learning. Prior to coming to Abbotsford in 2006, he was a teacher at an alternate school in North Vancouver, and later a vice-principal.
Since coming to Rick Hansen, he has worked with staff, parents, students and Rick Hansen himself to position the school for the future. They engaged in a visioning process, looking at programs and how education is delivered in an increasingly technological world. This led to setting up the Rick Hansen school of science and the Rick Hansen school of business. Both are in the planning stages, with advisory committees from outside the school system providing feedback and suggestions. Current students will be able to be part of each within the next two years.
“We were looking for a way to distinguish ourselves,” he said. “We want opportunities for kids to make a connection with the real world and solve real world problems.”
Part of what the school is doing is inspired by Hansen’s example. The Man in Motion’s world tour to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries was, in de Wit’s eyes, a wonderful example of being a difference-maker. The principal wants to see his students follow that lead.
“This is a cutting-edge approach to education, but we are taking a slow and methodical approach. The staff are courageous in looking at changes, and the payoffs will be huge.”
A key change is the dynamic within the classroom. Rick Hansen has adopted a project-based learning environment, with students learning the curriculum through answering a specific question. Learning becomes more personalized, and teachers act as the students’ guide.
De Wit says students are asked to bring laptop computers or other technological devices into the classroom to use as learning tools. Students have access to so much information that teachers are no longer “the holders of knowledge,” but instead play the critical role of making a connection with their students and helping them to take the knowledge they gather on the internet and learn how to apply it.
“When students see the direct application of what they’re doing, it is much more powerful.”
In addition, the school has determined that social innovation will be a key component of learning. This was suggested by Hansen, who has made people from his foundation available to help. In Grade 9 this year, the foundation is partnering with a group of four teachers who together teach math, English, science and digital literacy. The subjects are not taught in isolation but rather in an inter-related manner.
De Wit explained that the Grade 9 science students have been paired with an ambassador from the foundation, and talk to each other via Skype or other methods of communication. They research spinal cord injuries, their treatment and how technology is changing in the treatment of patients.
“When I visited the classroom, each student group called me over to talk about the project. They were excited to talk with the ambassador and learn about spinal cord injuries and the treatments available,” de Wit said. “This personal connection allowed them to do learning in a dynamic and different way that textbooks don’t provide.”
He will be honoured at the Canada’s Outstanding Principals gala in Toronto on Feb. 23. As part of that event, he and other nominees will take part in a management leadership course at the University of Toronto during that week.
One student said, when asked about the course work: “I wouldn’t change a thing. The experience was life-changing and very inspirational.”
De Wit said that’s his goal for students – to make them difference-makers, instead of note-takers.
“I’m proud to be the principal here,” he said.
The Learning Partnership
The Learning Partnership is a non-profit, national charitable organization that exists to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.
Canada’s Outstanding Principals is one of its programs, and “shines the spotlight on the important role of principals in the education system and the community,” said president and CEO Akela Peoples.
“You can’t have a great school without a great principal” she said.
“It is an increasingly complex and challenging role.”
TLP states the following on its website about outstanding principals:
“There are many excellent principals leading publicly-funded schools across Canada who do their jobs very well, ensuring that all students in their school achieve success is the main focus of their efforts as they provide strong leadership in their school and community. They are visionary in effectively preparing students for success after education and they provide safe, respectful and nurturing learning environments for all students and staff.”
The winners are assessed in the areas of student achievement, innovative leadership, instructional leadership, professional learning, partnerships with families and the community and personal and professional growth.
Peoples said the nomination process is very thorough. A total of 40 principals are selected each year, and in addition to the gala where they receive their awards, they attend five days of management courses at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto.
“This is a highly unique aspect of this program. Many principals say it is transformational in their careers,” Peoples said.
The initial nominations, which include letters of support from parents, colleagues and other stakeholders, go to provincial principals’ associations with the finalists from each province and territory going to a national selection committee.
Principals who receive the award become part of an alumni group, known as the academy, and have the opportunity to attend three-day management programs each year.