JULY 12, 2009
It feels like Hollywood: the presenter at the mike, the announcements, the spotlight on the recipients as they make their ways to the stage while the audience hoots and claps.
But this is the auditorium at a high school called Polyvalente La Samare in Plessisville, Quebec. And this is an awards night. The trim, youthful man on the stage is Stéphane LeBlanc of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, who is presenting Millennium Excellence Awards to Sophie Boutin, Cloé Marcoux and Mathieu Samson. These awards recognize not only academic achievement, but also citizenship and leadership.
Stéphane now reveals that over the past decade, this rural school has produced more than 50 Excellence Award laureates more than any other public high school in Canada. Indeed the only school of any kind to win more awards is Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, an exclusive private school in Victoria. La Samare has captured as many as eight Millennium Awards in a single year.
What is its secret?
An intense relationship with the whole community, says Danielle Béliveau, La Samare’s directrice, or principal. Plessisville is a small town of about 9000 people, “so the school becomes the centre of the community,” constantly humming with non-credit courses, meetings of clubs and associations, festivals, fundraisers. The school operates from early morning till late at night, seven days a week, and that very fact draws people in. The janitor, for example, seeing the students and teachers working on projects together late into the evening, was moved to volunteer. He now coaches the basketball team.
La Samare’s philosophy, says Mme. Béliveau, is that it’s everything outside the classroom that makes students love school, so the school provides a huge spectrum of extra-curricular activities. That’s where students learn the skills of citizenship and leadership and that’s why La Samare has a drop-out rate of 5% to 6%, as opposed to the typical rate of of about 25%.
With just over 1000 students, La Samare is the perfect size, says guidance counsellor Patricia Bourque large enough to offer any activity, but small enough that people know one another very personally. Because roughly 80% of the teachers were also students here as were the local doctors, lawyers and business people, as was Patricia herself they fully grasp the tradition of community involvement. And they know its effect on the students.
“When I first came to an awards ceremony at La Samare,” says Stéphane LeBlanc, “I noticed that parents, grandparents, siblings and community mentors and volunteers all participated. All the students mentioned the immense support they received from their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors.
“Actually, I had already seen that support. Back at the beginning of the program, I used to get phone calls from a teacher here named Majella Lemieux. He’d have questions about the criteria, and about the application form. We’d talk, and he’d thank me very politely and then these great applications started to come in from Plessisville.”
Majella Lemieux is a slight, intense, good-humoured man, now retired. For him, the essence of a teacher’s calling is to know the students profoundly, not just as “students,” but as unique individuals with passions and problems and to support them fiercely.
“Kids can do marvellous things, but you have to push them,” he says. “And if you push them, you have to support them, you have to be there. Many student organizations meet after school, and I liked to be ready for the next day, so I didn’t leave until 5:00 or 5:30. They were just down the corridor, so I’d look in on them, see how they were doing, help them if they needed it.
“And if you’re there, and they have personal problems or whatever, they come to talk to you. And that’s when you get them! After that you can work with them.”
And that’s where the scholarships come from, says Patricia Bourque. Students think they aren’t special but a teacher urging them to fill out an application makes them reflect on what they’ve actually done, and teaches them how to present themselves. If the school has given them opportunities to flower, the application will reveal that.
The students will appear to be special. And that’s because they are.
Author note: Silver Donald Cameron is writing a book on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Next week he reports on a remarkable youth organization in Plessisville which complements the work of La Samare.