"It occurred to me early on
that a central key to student success
was a sense of belonging.”
When I heard that District Superintendent and CEO Jim Cambridge had announced his retirement after 37 years, I knew it was time to catch up with him before he got absorbed into the next stage of his life. He’s worked in a variety of roles from classroom teacher to school and district administrator in School District #62, but it was his progressive approach to education that caught the community’s interest. During his tenure as District Superintendent, he championed ways to improve student and staff engagement, to expand the view of what defines student success and the importance of the arts in public schools.
I spoke with Jim Cambridge at his office for insights behind the innovations he has infused into the educational practices in our schools and to reflect on his most enjoyable moments as an educator.
Q: For those of us who are unfamiliar with School District #62, just how big is it?
A: School District #62 is a huge district. We have approximately 11,000 students within a region that encompasses the communities of Sooke, Port Renfrew, the Highlands, Metchosin, Colwood and Langford.
Q: A special interest area for you has been the role of arts in public schools. What early influences moved you in that particular direction?
A: As a teacher and educator for decades, it occurred to me early on that a central key to student success was a sense of belonging. A connection that was personal for a student to feel that their school was there to support them. Student athletes have understood this concept for years, that if I was a member of a sports team, then I had another reason to come to school. I felt that some non-athletic students were missing this important connection. Arts is an amazing way for kids to connect to each other, their teachers and inevitably their schools. With this sense of belonging, students are seeing better outcomes.
Q: What kind of learning environments are students going to need to succeed in the fast-paced 21st Century?
A: Teachers are reporting that classrooms are more complex than they’ve ever been—especially at the beginning years. The challenge, as educators, is how do we greet these young children at whatever stage they are at? The norm of what a five-year-old or six-year-old is like socially is very different today. Some kindergarten children have a very difficult time even being in a group of two or three students, let alone twenty. They haven’t learned how to play in groups or understand how to learn socially.
I envision kindergarten teachers working alongside early childhood educators [ECE], each with different roles to support these children coming into the system. A kindergarten teacher could take the majority of the class who are ready to do an activity together. The ECE would work on skills for those two or three kids that aren’t able to join in, who haven’t reached the stage where they can participate for even 10 minutes and help them to bridge past that gap.
We no longer identify kids with development issues as having a ‘disability’ as we had done in the past. Early labelling sticks with them forever. The damage that happens to children who don’t see themselves as good students as six-year-olds, takes years and years to get over—if they ever do. From the start, children need to know they belong and to feel like they’re a competent learner.
Q: In what ways are children responding to the complexities of life today? What’s important to them?
A: Our kids nowadays have an amazing sense of social responsibility. They have a strong view of their world— much broader than when I was a kid. They’re raising funds for all sorts of really important causes, such as food banks or food rescue. When they hear about an issue, they want to get involved. I find that really encouraging. I think that this generation of young people has been amazing in terms of their ability to adapt.
Q: Is school curriculum today more engaging for students?
A: Yes, I think it is now. A typical classroom nowadays is much noisier than it was in the past. Active, good learning is represented by talking, lots of conversations, working in groups, being part of a group so children learn to express themselves. These are the learnings that really help them move and adapt through life. If they aren’t critical thinkers, if they’re not socially responsible, if they’re missing those pieces, it doesn’t matter what they’ve memorized [from a textbook]. Newly-designed schools today have lots of open, social space for students to engage. That’s deliberate—and that needs to continue to be deliberate in the future— because learning happens throughout the building. Learning should be transparent. You should be able walk in the hallway and see students learning without opening a door to see what’s happening. Older folks like myself might think that students would be distracted; but, they’re not. If the learning is engaging, they’re engaged.
Q: What kind of growth is the School District expecting in the next 10 years?
A: Well, it’s interesting that you should ask that. We just had a presentation on our ‘Long-Range Facility Plan’ and the consultant we’ve engaged projects a 3 to 5% growth for the next three decades. There’s capacity within this area for more homes and that will add another four thousand kids in the next ten years. That’s 40% more than we have right now. The School District’s goal for the last two years was to acquire land for more schools to ensure we have good learning spaces available for kids in the years ahead. We just acquired two pieces of land in the last couple of months for two elementary schools and middle school and we’re actively looking for another three pieces of land that we think will hold us for the next decade. And then, we have to convince government why it’s important to build here.
Q: What about post-secondary education?
A: The School District and myself particularly support the notion of getting post-secondary into this community. Right now, for graduates in Colwood or Langford to go to UVic or Camosun college, it’s an hour and a half bus ride away. If they live in Sooke, it’s 2¼ hours, one way. So, they’d have to be a pretty tough seventeen or eighteen-year-old to persevere through all that. And Mom and Dad better have deep pockets!
Q: What’s been one of your most memorable moments as an educator?
A: One of my most enjoyable moments as an educator was when I was a Vice Principal at Saseenos Elementary School in Sooke, a big school with about 400 students. Two other teachers and myself decided on a completely contemporary Christmas show. We had so much fun with the kids, designing how we were going to do it. The teachers actually performed along with the kids, singing songs from the Bare Naked Ladies—including having to dress up in costumes as part of the act! Parents seem to really enjoy it, too. It was one of those times where we knew we’d hit this one out of the park, probably by accident. We still talk about how much fun that concert was.
Q: How are you feeling about your upcoming retirement?
A: July 31 is my last day. To be honest with you, I have some trepidation—and some excitement as well about the prospect. I know it’s the right time for me to retire. I feel good about that. But, I’m one of those people who’s had a job since I was fifteen, so I’m not sure what it will feel like not to have a job. That’ll be an experience. We’ll definitely do some travelling. My wife and I are triathletes so that means we can train more. It will be really great to be able to go swimming in the afternoon for a change rather than early in the morning or late at night. Really looking forward to that freedom. I think the best advice I’ve heard from friends who are retired is not to plan too much. Just let things flow and see what happens.