The Birchbark Discovery Centre, billed as a new format of school for the Northwest Territories, will open its doors in Yellowknife this fall.

A joint venture between the YK1 school board and NWT Montessori, the school – dubbed a “community-based alternative education program” – expects to take up to 15 students as it begins a three-year pilot.

Registration has opened for students heading into Grades 1 to 4.

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Birchbark differs from other schools, say its founders, because it hands some control over learning to children – using a format already tested in some southern provinces.

Teachers, renamed “learning advisors,” take subjects children are interested in and structure large periods of uninterrupted time around those subjects, with a significant amount of time spent either outdoors or exploring the community.

According to a brochure for Birchbark, this format will encourage students “to be creative, innovative and take risks.”

Courteney Lizotte, YK1’s supervisor of instruction, told Cabin Radio: “On the average school day, the learning advisor will be given a large chunk of time in order for students to work on a project in a self-directed way.

“That could be to explore, research, create, develop, or find information, or for the student to be taken out into the community, visiting different areas in Yellowknife and different organizations, learning through volunteers and different community people.

“That will be uninterrupted so they can focus on that self-directed piece.”

More: YK1’s information page for Birchbark

Lizotte says Birchbark will be “family-oriented,” with an expectation that parents are involved “as much as possible” in their child’s learning.

While the initial intake will involve up to 15 students, the program will grow over time if the pilot is successful.

YK1 and NWT Montessori are currently working on ways to measure that success.

“We will follow the NWT curriculum so there will still be a standard the learning advisor will have to follow,” said Lizotte.

“Reporting to parents will still happen; academic achievement will still be measured in terms of them following and learning the curriculum.”

Registration is open until August 15. Parents will be told if there is a place for their child by August 17.

Brendan Callas, who was born and raised in Yellowknife and has taught at Range Lake North School for the past five years, will be the pilot program’s initial learning advisor.

Mildred Hall School, which Callas attended as a child, will provide Birchbark with classroom space.

“They will still be a part of the community of Mildred Hall,” said Lizotte. “It’s just the shape of their day and their focus will be a little bit broader, in terms of having more freedom to develop that curiosity and be in an outdoor classroom.”