Muskoka Highlands Academy (MHA) doesn’t look like a traditional school. That’s because it’s not.
The private school arose following the closure of Tawingo College, when Sheena Repath, a parent of one of the school’s students, decided it would be the ideal time to pursue her dream of creating an outdoor school in Huntsville.
Classes began last fall when the MHA secured partnerships with Hidden Valley Highlands Ski Area and Mark O’Meara Golf Club for both indoor and outdoor space.
“A lot of parents think the idea of an almost fully outdoor school is only for fit and active kids but it’s for everyone,” says Repath. “The kids love being outside, even in the dead of winter. The sun is on their faces and as soon as their bodies are moving their minds start opening. Our kids have such a strong intimate connection to each other and we are like one big family.”
But in the midst of a pandemic, even their novel school structure was forced to adapt. They were prepared to switch to completely outdoor classes, but that move wasn’t allowed under the Ministry of Education’s COVID guidelines.
“We quickly saw a huge decline in happiness and engagement in our students so knew we had to do something to get them back for in-person learning,” says Repath. “These children thrive when they are connecting and engaging with their peers.”
To make that happen, they founded the True North Outdoor Program, which was registered as a camp, consulted a legal team, and followed the provincial rules accordingly. The students would spend their mornings in online learning and then meet at Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve for three hours of outdoor learning. At first the groups were kept small—just four students were paired with one adult. During the second lockdown they were able to increase that to a one-to-nine ratio.
Parent volunteers stepped forward to help ensure the students could still gather and learn together. Teachers supplied the parent volunteers with science and technology kits that they could use outdoors.
“It was really amazing for both parents and students to move their bodies, get fresh air, and connect,” says Repath. “We ran it this way until the end of the school year and were so grateful we were still able to facilitate this. The kids were coming alive and so excited to be with their peers.”
MHA’s eight-person staff—six teachers plus Repath and Alison Bullen as administrators—oversaw 41 students by then end of their first school year. They’ll begin in September with 60.
Their long-term goal is to eliminate the need for tuition, making the school accessible to everyone.
“It shouldn’t be based on economic status whether or not you have accessibility to a place where your kids will flourish,” says Repath. “It is our job as adults to support, uplift, and encourage these children.”
They’ll soon be launching a community bond initiative to raise capital and introduce people to the school.
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