When the rebuilt Masinasin School opened in 1950 it was shiny white and the four rooms were full of students in Grades 1-12. By its closing in 1996 the paint was peeling and there were 20 prospective students in Grades 1-6—not enough to stay viable. The last two Masinasin teachers, then principal, Sharon Hierath and part-time teacher, Bernie Wehlage, are grateful for their experiences and reminisce about how a place can become heart, of how educators can help their students “become who they are,” and of how a community knows when the time has come to embrace the inevitable.
Even now driving east on highway 501, heading towards Writing-on-Stone (the Cree translation is Masinasin) Park, there remains a simple sign post with the Sweetgrass Hills in the background next to a gravel road leading to a lonely square building that never had its own sign.
But, that never mattered because everyone knew where the school was. It was the place where every single student rode a bus so students were interacting long before the school day began. The bus travelled through every yard. Forgotten items were retrieved. Parents waved good-bye to all the children every morning. Even in the early days, back when teachers Sharon and Bernie’s own husbands attended Masinasin, it had multi-graded classrooms and a history of strong community support. Both Sharon and Bernie saw this as an advantage for the next generation which, of course, included their own children. Because of the combined grades students quickly learned the importance of routine, independence, and flexibility. As Sharon describes it:
“Teaching happened at the table. A small group of students would gather for instruction while the rest worked from notes on the board, often checking with one another to see if they were on the right track. There was more seat work back then.”
But, it wasn’t just about routine. Parents were supportive of the many “project-based” activities in which students and their teachers became totally immersed.
Science Fair was an annual event and all students in Grades 4-6 participated. Students explored scientific method and presented their results both visually and as part of a public presentation at the Lethbridge Regional Science Fair. Masinasin students consistently did well. Then there was the Christmas Concert. Again, all students honed their interpersonal skills in the production of a single play. Community members helped by sewing the costumes, playing the piano, and often helping with the scripts. Santa would arrive with individually named bags for all, including the pre-school children. The evening would end with a pot-luck event, coffee, and visiting. Sports were also a Masinasin priority. Basketball, mini-ball, tee-ball, baseball, and soccer were all coached by members of the community. The only rule: Everyone has to play or nobody gets to.
For the final ten years of its existence the Masinasin parents often had to make the case of why their little school should stay open. Their numbers could help bolster the declining enrolments in the neighboring towns. Presentations to school boards were regular events.
According to both Sharon and Bernie it was important to keep the school open due to the quality of education as well as the important lessons students learned through community. They note that Masinasin alumni seem generally comfortable with people of all ages. Perhaps the multi-graded learning environment coupled with the many multi-generational social events contributed to this. In any case, these teachers are proud of the “successful” graduates which proves, as Sharon noted, “What happens in a building isn’t about where it is or how it looks.”
One evening, on March 8, 1996, principal Sharon Hierath spoke at a Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meeting confirming the projected enrolment of 20 students for the following year. The Horizon School Division could only assign one teacher and a .2 FTE assistant. “Taking into consideration all of these factors, I just don’t feel that I am able to offer your children—my students—the quality of education that they deserve and you expect.” PAC, which included every parent of all the students currently enrolled, voted unanimously to close the school.
The following September students would ride a bus into the town of Milk River—still a rural school to be sure, but not the lone stocky box, with the hard-to-pronounce name, sheltered with battered caragana, and anchored to a community in the middle of nowhere.
Writer: Christy Audet
Video by Sharon Hierath, "The School in the Middle of Nowhere" (5:19 mins) click here
Other rural-related Faculty of Education stories:
Faculty of Education Dean's Message: "I had the privilege of starting my teaching career at a very small school in central Alberta … "
Learning and Teaching in Rural Schools: Janice Jensen (BEd '02)
A Circle is Complete: Nathan Comstock (BA/BEd ’19)
Land of a Hundred One-room Schools: Art and Rena Loewen
Teacher Still Learning at 105-years-old: Alma McLachlan
Wellness is Ranching: Danny Balderson
For more information please contact:
Dean's Office • Faculty of Education
University of Lethbridge
Learn more about the Faculty of Education: Legacy Magazine (2008-2019)
Twitter: @ULethbridgeEdu Website: uleth.ca/education
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