Stella Maris' success proves small schools make good things happen

In 1979, when Kevin Ryan started teaching in Trepassey, enrollment at Stella Maris Central High and Holy Redeemer Elementary totalled 732 students. Today there is one school from Kindergarten to Grade 12, Stella Maris Academy, which serves students from St. Shotts to Portugal Cove South. The student population is 40.
     “There were lots of families and lots of children,” Ryan says of his early years teaching in what was one of Newfoundland’s busiest fish processing towns. “It’s a different scenario (now).”
     The fish plant and trawler fleet was closed in 1991, taking hundreds of jobs. Many working age residents had to take their children and move away for work on the mainland. But Trepassey and the towns around it survived.
     Ryan argues a small school is not necessarily a bad thing. “All of my students who did public exams this year did very well,” he notes. “Ninety-eight per cent of the kids succeeded here because they’ve got a small school. Like they say, ‘good things happen in small schools.’”
Though he is principal, Ryan reckons he spends 70 per cent of his time teaching. Much of the administrative work he does after hours at home.
     Last year, Ryan taught all three levels of the World Geography course in a multi age classroom. “They (the students) beat the provincial average by nine points,” he says. “And five of those people had over 90.”
     Ryan says even though the school is down in enrollment and there aren’t as many teachers as years ago, Stella Maris is still able to offer the curriculum students need to move on to post-secondary education after they graduate. To accomplish that, Ryan, who includes himself among the school’s 5.8 ‘teaching units,’ has to work a little harder and plan a little harder.
Some high school courses, including honours math, French and some of the sciences, are offered by distance education. But the students do well.
     “There’s an attitude and the attitude is we’re here and we’re here to stay,” Ryan says. “Just because we haven’t got the numbers doesn’t mean we can’t do well.”
     There is no Kindergartner this year, but a student has signed up for next year. The school runs four home rooms: Kindergarten to Grade 3 in one room, Grades 4 to 6, Grades 7 to 9 and everything higher in the fourth room. Stella Maris has been operating with multi age classrooms for years. Kindergarten students generally stay for the full day and thrive. The older students seem to benefit from serving as role models for the younger students.
     “The younger you are, the more benefit you get,” Ryan adds,” because you see the older ones doing similar things to you, but at a higher level.”
     This year, Ryan is teaching Grades 7, 8 and 9 math the one time. He expects the younger students will pick up a lot of the concepts the older students are learning and by being exposed to it for a couple of extra years, they will excel by the time they reach Grade 9. “There’s something to be said for the multi-aging,” he says.
     In a school of 40, everybody knows each other, Ryan adds. If someone is down, there is someone to pick him up. “It’s almost like family,” he says. 
     The principal, who commutes from Fermeuse every day, is confident that as long as there are students in the region there will be a Stella Maris.
     “I’m very confident of that, not just because of the distance, but because of the geography,” Ryan says.
     Trepassey is flanked on both sides by 20 to 30 kilometres of windswept barrens –between Cappahayden and Portugal Cove South on one side and from Trepassey to Peter’s River on the other. It doesn’t take much snow to create blizzard conditions. That would mean a good many days during winter when students would not be able attend any school in Ferryland or St. Mary’s if they were to be bussed that far.
     “There are an awful lot of parents who have said to me they would never put their children on a bus on those barrens in the winter time,” Ryan admits. “And in my estimation they would lose more schooling than they would gain. There has been absolutely no talk of amalgamating or closing this school.”
     The above average achievement extends beyond academics to the gymnasium and sports field and to things like art, public speaking and music. Stella Maris students routinely win regional and provincial awards for their talents and efforts.
     “It is a special school,” says Ryan. “It is a special place. It is heartwarming. I could have retired quite a while ago. This is my 38th year and teachers generally retire after 30 years. I keep coming back because this is an awesome place to teach students. You see so much going on it’s amazing. And I suppose as long as I can still see the lights coming on in students’ eyes, it will keep drawing me back.”
     Over the years, many Stella Maris students have gone to great success stories, Ryan says. “People have graduated Stella Maris who became doctors,” he says. “There are three that I know of. And there’s two lawyers and more engineers than you can shake a stick at.”
Ryan says the students know that once they graduate they are probably going to have to move on to somewhere else for work. That influences their efforts too. Most move on to post-secondary education or training.
     The principal is expecting good things from this year’s classes too.
     “We’ve been defying expectations for years,” says the principal. “It’s done differently… but the results speak for themselves.”

Posted on September 28, 2015 .