Chapter 9: Parents and other Volunteers

“It’s not only children who grow.  Parents do too.  As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.  I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun.  All I can do is reach for it, myself.”

___Joyce Maynar

            We simply could not have had a school like Sundance without the parents.  They were the foundation it was built on and the engine that drove it.  If the children were the soul and the staffs were the heart, the parents were the muscles and bones.

Dave Nordstrom wrote:

At the time that negotiations were underway about establishing Sundance and Sentinel alternatives, I was a district counsellor and soon learned that it was not politic to be directly involved.  My activities in establishing boys’ and girls’ secondary alternative programs were sufficiently controversial!  When the Bank Street location opened, it was in my “counselling services” area, so I was a weekly visitor even before Tony enrolled in 1975. My own training, teaching and counselling experience, combined with years of involvement in cooperative preschool, made me a strong supporter of Sundance concepts.  Being upfront about my preferences was unwise in other staff rooms in the district; I had great practice in active listening as ill-informed and defensive rhetoric spilled out whenever THAT SCHOOL was discussed! A characteristic comment came when Leni Hoover and Philip were brought to my attention: “Philip’s a pleasant little boy, but his mother is one of those who listens to children!!!”

That was one of the significant differences.  The parents listened to children because they believed that they knew what they needed, or were at least capable of finding out for themselves what they needed.

When Jason started at Sundance, the staff would list their offerings for the week in the newsletter and ask for parent help and the various times when it was needed.  I noticed at once that many offerings calling for volunteers went without.  As a new parent wanting to be involved, I created a form that I circulated, for parents to list the skills they were willing to share and times when they would be available.  Each week-end I’d go over the offerings in the newsletter and phone parents to alert them to places where the school could use their particular help.  I felt my help made a difference.

The parents at Sundance did fundraising and drove on field trips like parents do in all schools.  But they also attended Whole School Meetings where everyone, parents, kids and staff, got together and hammered out issues of philosophy and practice.

The parents made presentations to the School Board whenever the issue of closure arose.  It was a small school, and less efficient to operate, so from time to time the Board would want to shut us down to save money, or suggest we take over a wing or floor of another school.  Parents were invaluable in creating a show of strength and arguments supporting our continuance.

Other people volunteered, as well.  They were often connected to the school through the children that attended. One exception was Beryl Hedley-Smith.  Here’s what she had to say:

The school was a block away, and I had taught before, so I thought this would be a great way to volunteer. I walked over to the school one day and met Paul, the principal, in the main hall. I said, “I am here to volunteer”. He said, “That’s wonderful”, and he gave me a big hug. I felt so welcomed. It was marvellous. So I said, “When can I start?’ He said, “Right now!”

          He introduced me to Bindo, the secretary. They both suggested I volunteer for Evie. I read to kids at Circle Time, and I listened to them read.

My favourite part of the day was the appreciation time. Rarely do people express what is in their hearts, and at Sundance this was such an important time. I loved being a part of the school.

Beryl continued to volunteer.  When I moved to George Jay School, I was working with a group of Grade One students for part of each day.  These were just kids that were having some trouble picking up reading skills.  We had a very “different” classroom.  We sang a lot, gave oral reports, and did many other things that allowed the children to be successful.  Evie told me that Beryl was interested in volunteering, so I invited her to come and play the piano for us from time to time.  Sadly she had just had heart surgery, and found it too strenuous to continue.  However, the connections she had made at Sundance were strong and the impetus to work with kids continued.

Here’s what Evie says about Beryl:

Beryl Hedley-Smith volunteered at Sundance from 1987-1990. She was mainly associated with me, spending time with my family and helping with Learning Assistance.

          She died July 10, 2007.  I spent time with her through the years and was with her in the days before she died.

Parents always played an enormous role in the school and strongly influenced the directions we took.  Dave Nordstrom also writes about some of the changes parents and staff decided to try in order to facilitate our children’s healthy development.  He says:

As an experimental alternative, Sundance went way beyond the norm in many ways; I never believed that it was “less structured” – if anything, it was more structured, but in a child-centred way.  Two experiments stand out.  The first, limiting sugar intake had dramatic results.  Realistically, Hallowe’en and Valentine’s Day were exceptions to the no-sugar lunch guideline.  It soon became obvious that on the days following these events, the Sundancers who came to school were wired on sugar, and large percentages were sick in bed!

          The second resulted from John Ott’s lectures on full-spectrum lighting, and the decision of the parent’s committee to pay for replacement of half the fluorescents in the Bank Street location with daylight alternatives, and to turn off the others.  There was a noticeable change in hyper behaviour, as John Ott had predicted.

Parents brought their skills and interests to the school and shared them at offerings.  Natalie Ogilvie (Turner) writes on Facebook:

Not only were there lots of awesome and cool teachers at Sundance, how about the parents? Okay,  who learned about “witchcraft” with Ariel? I’m not kidding!!  Also, I remember the potato pancakes with Howie Siegel.  They were so good!!

            Dana Putnam who attended Sundance from 1975  to 1979, writes about her memories of Sundance and how she wanted a similar experience for her daughter.  She says:

I started at the old school on Quadra St. I loved that building! I think it was perfect for a little alternative school like Sundance. Sundance was such an important experience for me that I had to hunt out something similar for my daughter here on the mainland. We discovered Windsor House School in North Vancouver and it was a great experience for her. It, however, is now experiencing the same sort of compromises to it’s philosophy that I hear Sundance went through. Pressure from the school board to comply with curriculum and grades etc. Sigh.

Parents play important roles in the school lives of their children, but especially so at Sundance where they were expected to participate or take an interest in the choices their children made.  I think that the children learned a great deal from how their parents dealt with the decision-making process.

I’ll conclude this chapter with something Giles wrote about Sundance parents in the late 70s or early 80s, after going through some particularly difficult times.  Parents were looking at their role, their ownership in the school.  He wrote:

Basically they support Sundance though their commitment to communicating with their child, by discussing problems, joys, decisions on a daily basis – and consulting with staff whenever necessary – and being responsive to teacher and child.