Saving Alberta’s rural and remote schools one chicken, one egg and one circuit at a time

Tanika Brockmann may only be in Grade 7, but she has big responsibilities at her school in Altario, Alberta, nearly 400 kilometers northeast of Calgary.

She is a chicken manager at her school’s agricultural academy, a working farm behind the main building that includes a new barn and several enclosures in what was once an outdoor skating rink.

Every morning before school starts, Brockmann is responsible for feeding around 20 chickens, making sure they are healthy and providing them with fresh water. She also collects, washes and packs eggs for sale.

His classmates are in charge of the other farm animals, which include cows, pigs, sheep, and quail.

The academy is part of a program called a School of Excellence, specialized programming that some education officials say could help prevent rural and remote schools from closing — and even convince people to move nearby to raise their families.

Tanika Brockmann leaves the chicken coop at her school’s student-run farm in Altario. The school has enjoyed some stability after years of turmoil. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

That’s exactly what the school principal did.

Kevin Van Lagen moved there eight years ago after completing a master’s degree in education. He had planned to stay only three years, but he rooted himself in the community. Not only did he revitalize the school in Altario, but he created another school of excellence near Consort with a baseball academy.

School closures in rural Alberta may be more common than you think. Since 2019, a dozen schools have been closed.

According to Van Lagen, who calls himself the « prairie principal » on social media, the idea of ​​closing the Altario school had been brewing for years.

When he was hired, at age 32, he became the sixth manager in six years.

Staff came and went. Students and families were leaving.

Kevin Van Lagen, 40, has been principal of Altario School for eight years. He is credited with helping to revitalize the small school located nearly 400 km northeast of Calgary. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Van Lagen, now 40, says if he had seen what he and his family were getting into, it is unlikely he would have taken the job.

« Honestly, and I’m not hiding it, I think if we had shot, we probably would have said no, » he said.

“Because we found out, you know, what happened at school the year before. It was really dry that summer. And there are grasshoppers everywhere and it’s hot. was like, where is everyone? You know, there were hardly any kids. And when you were walking the streets, it was just dead. Like, there was nothing.

Enrollment on the rise

When he arrived, there were 49 students at the K-12 public school. Parents were unhappy with staff turnover and instability. A meeting was held in 2017 to turn things around.

Enrollment is now at 67, still a small number – but enough of a turnaround to spark more funding, staff and some stability.

« We talked about the future of the school and instead of talking about sustainability we want to talk about how we can actually thrive? How can we actually be amazing and kind of end this simmering idea to have to close the school? said Van Lagen.

“Our school was hanging by a thread,” said Anna Beier, whose family was part of the reunion to save the school and who became one of the main supporters of the new academy.

One of the classrooms at Altario School. An agriculture-focused school of excellence is believed to be one of the reasons the school has seen an increase in enrollment in recent years. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

« Without it, basically, we’ll probably turn into a bowl of dust, » she said, referring to the fact that Altario has less than 40 residents in the tiny village.

The hotel has been closed for years, the convenience store and the gas station were closed a long time ago. Locals have to travel to other communities for food, fuel and other essentials.

In Altario, the school is really the only sign of life and activity. People say it’s the heart of the community.

« She’s our matriarch of our community. Without her, we would be lost, we really would be lost. Our children would be lost, » she said.

A community mobilizes, a school is saved

It started with one robbery, then another. Soon chickens, sheep, quails and pigs followed. Turkeys are bred in winter and spring. Bees are kept and honey is produced.

The animals are bred and then sold. Profits go back to the school, with some of the money earmarked for scholarships.

Anna Beier’s son, Morgan, graduated in 2014 before the program was introduced.

The 26-year-old returned home after earning a degree in agricultural management. There is a good chance that he will one day take over the family farm.

He thinks the agricultural academy could convince others to do the same.

“There are multi-generational farms here, so it’s sometimes a shame to see them leave without anyone taking them back,” he said.

« Farm sales are always a bit sad, when you see them here and you lose people [from] the community. »

Maggie Baeier taught at Altario School for 38 years. She says the arrival of Principal Kevin Van Lagen in 2014 was a career highlight. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Teacher Maggie Baier, who has worked at the school for 38 years, credits Van Lagen for her leadership.

« He was the highlight of my career, » she said from her classroom, where she teaches kindergarten through 3rd grade.

« His expectations are very high. But his students come first for him, which has always been our philosophy.

« But rebuilding our community, rebuilding our school. It’s actually pretty amazing to see, »

Schools of Excellence

After Van Lagen was hired as director of Altario, he held the same position at the school in nearby Consort, a village of 700 people that is best known as where singer kd lang grew up.

Consort’s outlook wasn’t as bleak as Altario, but listings were still trending lower, according to Van Lagen.

Instead of duplicating the agricultural program, he turned to baseball.

He contacted longtime baseball coach Drew Boyer, who traveled 2½ hours to see what Van Lagen was planning.

« I remember it like it was yesterday. I told him it might be something special, » Boyer said.

The Neutral Hills Baseball Academy trains as a veteran. The academy was brought in to help reverse a trend of declining enrollment at the school in Consort, where it is based. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Van Lagen has been given the green light to convert a neglected curling rink in nearby Veteran into a training facility. It has artificial turf, a throwing mound, strike zone, weights, and stationary bikes.

About a dozen children moved to Consort to join the academy, which increased school enrollment and revenue.

The team, the Wranglers, won a provincial championship in its first year. During the winter, the players train and supervise the younger ones. This sparked an increase in baseball registrations.

Leif Wilson moved to Consort from Virden, Man., to attend the academy and school.

The 18-year-old graduated this year and was recruited by an American college.

“I will gain experience playing junior varsity baseball and hopefully transfer to a four-year program and continue my baseball career and hopefully reach professional baseball,” Wilson said.

Leif Wilson, 18, moved to Consort to join the Neutral Hills Baseball Academy. He has since been recruited by a university in North Dakota. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

One of his Wranglers teammates was also drafted from the United States.

« I actually just signed to go to college in Florida next fall, » said Hogan Jacobsen, a catcher and third baseman with the team.

He has seen the impact their team has had on the community and how the game is growing.

« Kids seem to be more engaged in sports, they’re more excited about everything. »

Baseball enrollment at Consort has reached 160 kids – many players come from nearby farms and other communities, but that’s an impressive number in such a small community.

« It’s booming, every kid wants to get in on it. And it’s pretty exciting for our community, » said Tammy Beier, president of the Consort Minor Baseball Association.

Avoid the « status quo »

Van Lagen says it is this growth that motivates him. He doesn’t like the status quo and is always looking for ways to improve programs and opportunities for students.

His next business is located across from the school in Altario.

It is a student-run hydroponics operation that is expected to produce enough vegetables to feed 150 families.

“We have spinach and kale, romaine lettuce and butter lettuce,” said Haley Beier, Anna’s daughter, who is about to graduate.

Raya Roesler, one of the Altario School students, prepares to transplant a small rocket plant inside the hydroponic farm. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The $300,000 project was funded by local and federal grants, the Agricultural Society and the School Division of Prairie Lands. It’s a strong endorsement of what Van Lagen and his team are doing. Although he had his detractors.

« I’ve been told that myself, actually, you’re wasting your time, because Alberta or rural communities are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And that’s the way it is. And you can’t do anything about it. And I actually don’t agree. »

A pair of work boots sits in a hallway at Altario School. The school opened an agriculture program to help boost enrollment. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

He says the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that people can live and work from anywhere, and that’s when he pivots to say people should rethink rural Alberta as one. place to raise their family and send their children to school.

« The concept of how a village can raise a child, the proximity to school and families, are all selling points, where I can really see the movement back to rural areas where families want to live in these situations and these type of communities and send their children to these type of schools, so I think we have an additional opportunity to change that.

« I’m a minority voice on this. But I kind of prove it here, » he said.

bryan Labby is a corporate reporter at CBC Calgary. If you have a great story idea or piece of advice, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


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