Footprints for Learning Academy: An alternative in Alberta

Footprints for Learning Academy offers residents of Airdrie, Alberta Canada a different approach to education.

Founded in 2011, the school focuses on mastery-based learning, intensive language study, and entrepreneurship. It currently serves about 320 students in grades K-9 and is looking to grow in the coming years.

Principal Katie Nanuan said the school aims to be an accessible alternative to public school for any student who wishes to attend.

“We believe in education for all,” Nanuan told ThinkWave. “Our founders wanted to have a school where children would have the opportunity to not only learn the curriculum through Alberta Education, but have opportunity to learn through a mastery based program.”

Tamie Pilling, parent of ninth grade student Kailee Ann, said she found Footprints four years ago while searching for alternative to homeschooling.

“We went to information night and fell in love with the whole concept and enrolled her right away,” Pilling told ThinkWave.

There are a few key components of the Footprints curriculum that separate it from a public school: Mastery-based learning, entrepreneurship, language immersion and individual attention paid to students.


Mastery-based learning

Math is an essential part of any school’s curriculum, but it does not always rank highly on the list of students’ favorite subjects. That is not the case at Footprints, Nanuan says.

The school’s Math U See program is mastery-based learning approach to math. Classes are organized by ability level, not by age, so students can feel comfortable learning at their own pace.

Students spend as much or as little time as they need on each math concept. They are expected to attain 90 percent proficiency in an area before moving on to the next topic.

“Students right from younger grades start setting goals for themselves and achieving them,” Nanuan says. “They actually feel more comfortable and confident rather than being in a class where they feel they are behind. They are not intimidated to ask questions.”

Math U See is a national program based in Pennsylvania and used in schools throughout the United States and Canada.

Each student at Footprints takes a math placement test to ensure that they begin at an appropriate level, and achievements are rewarded as student progress through the curriculum and master new concepts. Those rewards and the pride that comes with achieving them set up reinforcements that foster a positive attitude toward learning math.

The same concept applies to the school’s approach to literacy. Reading and writing are taught in a level format, rather than by grade. Teachers span multiple levels and work with students individually to ensure progress.

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The mastery approach also involves multiple types of learning, Nanuan says. The Math U See program follows “build, write, say” model of teaching that draws on visual and physical learning techniques in addition to solving problems and equations on paper.

Jessica Charbot, the school’s office manager and mother to three of its students, says the mastery approach has benefitted her children.

“My son is in grade 5 but doing grade 7 math because he gets it,” Charbot told ThinkWave. “With literacy he can take his time a little more. He’s proud of his math and can still show that he’s shining elsewhere, which I like.”

Second grade teacher Lianne McMullin said the mastery approach provides lots of opportunities for “light bulb moments” among her students.

“I am constantly seeing their light bulbs come on when they finally figure something out that they’ve been struggling with,” McMullin told ThinkWave. “They can set goals and feel proud when they accomplish them.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kailee Ann Pilling says she appreciates being able to move on from she grasps rather than spending time waiting for other students to catch up.

“The lessons you understand you can zip right through and just keep working at your own pace,” she says.

With such an individualized plan for each student, ThinkWave allows teachers to easily create and modify lesson plans on the fly and notify parents of changes and student progress.

“Students are expected to maintain a 70 percent average in the majority of their classes.” Nanuan says. “There are a lot of communications with parents around progress and ThinkWave makes it easy to communicate.”


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Entrepreneurship focus

Footprints aims to teach students the value of money and how to have an entrepreneurial mindset — skills that will be beneficial long after students leave the school.

As early as first grade, students begin learning what money is and how to manage it. As they get older, they branch out into activities like running a school store and doing mock investments.

Nathan Cheney, the school’s assistant principal and head of the entrepreneurship program, said the school’s focus on entrepreneurship has grown over the years. Cheney came to the school after working at a travel company and used his business skills to expand on the program that was already in place.

“One of our founders had a curriculum she had adapted from the U.S. I took that and created programming for every program from grade 1 through 9,” Cheney told Thinkwave. ”It can be anything from learning how to budget to learning what money is.”

The school also partners with Junior Achievement, a nonprofit, that matches students with business leaders from throughout Canada to discuss things like resume design, interviewing and networking skills with older students. The interactions with professionals reinforce what students are learning from their teachers.

“Our grade 8-9 students do a program where they do a mock investment and create a portfolio over a six week time period,” Cheney says. “It’s extremely useful for them to know.”

Entrepreneurial skills are put to the test at Market Day, which is held several times throughout the school year and allows students to set to booths and sell items of their choice. Product choice, pricing, and marketing are entirely up to them.

McMullin said some students baked cupcakes, while others brought in video games and virtual reality headsets for their peers to try.

“The kids got to see what it’s like to run a business,” McMullin says.

McMullin brought Thinkwave to Footprints after discovering the free version on her own while looking for a way to easily convert percentages in her grade book for fourth grade science.

“I found it and started using it and the next year the school started to use it,” McMullin says. “I use it for everything from attendance to report cards.”


Language immersion

Footprints understands the importance of foreign language in a global society, and strives to create an immersive experience for its students.

Every two years, eighth and ninth grade students travel to Mexico and spend 10 days at the Meztli Immersion School in Tulum.

“It was fun,” Kailee Ann Pilling says. “The teachers there would only ever speak Spanish to us and we had to speak Spanish to them the whole time.”

Nanuan says the trip also has a service component in which students collect supplies and take them along on the visit.

“Our whole school participates,” Nanuan says. “It’s a real world application of what they’ve been learning in Spanish classes.”

Outside of the trip, Footprints uses the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach to teaching language. The TPR method involves speaking a word, then doing the corresponding action. For example, saying the word for “jump” in Spanish, then actually jumping.

The approach works with both younger and older students, and allows students to teach each other once they’ve mastered vocabulary or other concepts.

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Looking ahead

As the school continues to establish roots in Airdrie, it has overcome misconceptions in the community about its role. The academy is located next to the Footprints for Learning preschool, which has lead to confusion between the two.

Last year, the school started holding open houses, which have been useful in getting its name out into the community. While Footprints is unique among private schools, it still adheres to the curriculum defined by Alberta’s education system.

“People can come in and see we’re not just a daycare or whatever notion they might have about our school,” Cheney said. ”We can break down those assumptions and let people know that we do follow Alberta program of studies.”

Teachers at Footprints value the individual attention they can provide to students and parents, and Thinkwave helps make that communication possible. Parents can easily login to track student progress, and teachers have an easy way to communicate progress reports and other important updates.

“It’s like having a report card at your fingertips, but one that’s a living document,” Tamie Pilling says. “You can see where things are going well, what might need attention, and what’s coming up.”

In the coming years, footprints hopes to grow enough to have two sections of students in each grade, Cheney said. However, that growth will not compromise the school’s core values or its diverse student body.

“As a school we would like to improve the education for students who may not thrive in a public school setting,” Cheney says. “We want to be an alternative to public education but not overly burdensome as far as school fees go.”

Footprints currently caps attendance at ninth grade. Another long-term goal is to expand that to grade 12, Nanuan says.

While the school hopes to increase its student body in the coming years, it does not want to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“We want to grow by leaps and bounds while ensuring that our students are receiving quality education from trained teachers,” Nanuan says.

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