WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Leo Turcotte has 'a passion for looking at situations and seeing if we could craft a different approach that would bring about better results.'
EDMONTON – In more ways than one, Leo Turcotte is a pioneer in Catholic education. Turcotte has been working in education for almost 40 years. A longtime principal with Edmonton Catholic Schools, he was one of 32 recipients of The Learning Partnership's Canada's Outstanding Principal award. Only three Albertans were honoured with the award.
"Interspersed in my career I've always had a passion for looking at situations and seeing if we could craft a different approach that would bring about better results, not just academic, but results of gratification, satisfaction and collaboration for that enterprising question," said Turcotte.
For 15 years, he did groundbreaking work in French immersion education and francophone education. Turcotte was the first principal of the first francophone school in Alberta.
The accomplishment he is most proud of is launching the first sports academy in Edmonton Catholic Schools. Modeled after Australian examples, he turned St. Francis Xavier School into a sports academy, ballooning enrollment from 650 students to more than 1,200 during his nine-year tenure.
Now sports academies are in most schools for elite athletes in hockey, soccer, baseball and golf. The idea centred on keeping students interested in school, while at the same time allowing them school hours to hone their athletic skills.
Before accepting the role of assistant superintendent earlier this year, Turcotte was the principal of St. Joseph's High School for eight years.
During his time there he eliminated the school's deficit and introduced innovative apprenticeship programs aimed at preparing students for technical schools. He also brought in a health services academy to fast-track students into nursing careers.
While Turcotte acknowledged that good principals are common, he explained the initiatives in his career that led to his designation as outstanding.
Turcotte helped establish a process of personalized self-directed learning at St. Joseph's High School. Only six schools in Canada use this method of learning.
It is based on the notion that high school students, if empowered to make decisions about their education, and if they are trained and mentored in proper ways, will do outstanding things.
He sought innovative ways of making the curriculum available to the students and accelerating their learning, without teachers leading students every step of the way.
"In other words, we make them autonomous learners and we direct them to be better self-directed learners, how to make decisions, how to refine their work habits, and everything associated with good studying practices," said Turcotte.
The students at St. Joe's have developed a culture of pride in what they are doing without having to be told. Teachers are guides only. One student could decide to spend his entire morning in the science lab, while another might choose to work on other courses.
"There is no timetable structure as there is in a traditional school," explained Turcotte.
In a traditional school, students never decide which classroom they should be in. A teacher determines when they write their exams and when assignments are due.
"We share ideas on how to make students more productive, more successful, and it's all personalized," he said of his time at St. Joe's.
Every student has a teacher advisor. That advisor is responsible for 15 to 25 students over the course of three years.
"The teacher advisor does many things. The advisor serves as a parent advisor, personal counsellor, career planner and everything associated to their learning. They are there to track and monitor the performance of the student," said Turcotte.
In a typical high school, the timetable is structured for students to attain an average of 40 credits per year. A student spends about 125 hours to earn one credit. At St. Joseph's, the average number of credits earned per student is 57 per year.
"We have students in that school who gain over 100 credits in one year. They fundamentally just about get their high school diploma in a year, as opposed to three," said Turcotte.
There is no waiting. The students write their exams when they're ready.
The structure might sound no different than correspondence courses or cyber learning. The difference is that the students still come to school every day, socialize, and participate in sports and other school activities.
Turcotte's bold prediction is that in five years university students will learn in an environment similar to that of St. Joseph's High School.