July 10, 2012

September 1988: Maxwell Baha’i School, the first full-time academic Baha’i school in North America, began classes for grades 7-9

Well over a year of hard work and careful preparation was culminated September 19 when the Maxwell Baha’i School in Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia, Canada, the first full-time academic Baha’i school in North America, began classes for grades 7-9. The following report from the school recounts some of the history of its development and discusses its plans for the future.

Maxwell’s first-ever group of students represents a variety of nations and cultural backgrounds -- Japan, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, United States, Native American, Persian, and black American -- expressing one of the fondest hopes for Maxwell. As one looked around the dining hall at students and staff gathered for their first meals as the “Maxwell School family,” one truly had an opportunity to “consider the flowers of the garden: though differing in kind, color, form, and shape, yet ... invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increased their charm, and addeth to their beauty.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha)

As the school develops, it is hoped that students from all nations will attend. Dr. Ray Johnson, the principal, has invited local and national Baha’i communities to consider funding scholarship programs to enable an ever-increasing number and diversity of students to attend Maxwell. “We remember the Master’s statement,” says Dr. Johnson, “that one of the purposes of education is ‘to bring those who have been excluded into the circle of intimate friends,’ and we deeply hope that Maxwell may be such a place.”

The story of the Maxwell International Baha’i School actually began long before the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada purchased the property in the spring of 1987. The site was first developed at the turn of the century as a tourist retreat known as Strathcona Lodge. Later, in the early 1900s, the lodge became Strathcona Lodge School, a girls’ boarding school. Strathcona School continued until the late 1970s when financial difficulties forced it to close.

Some years before the closing of Strathcona School, a major fire destroyed significant school buildings, which necessitated the rebuilding, expansion and modernization of the campus. It is this rebuilt and expanded version of the Strathcona School property which passed into the hands of the Baha’is. Because the school property had been unused for more than a decade, preparations to receive students included substantial work on the physical plant. Although work on buildings and grounds will be a continuing process, the major projects relating to making the campus safe, functional and lovely were completed by the time students arrived. Because of the efforts of school staff and many dedicated volunteers to refurbish the long-unused buildings and to beautify the grounds, visitors now are touched by the beauty of the campus -- the freshly painted buildings, the lovely gardens, and the forested, lakefront setting. Maxwell School is, indeed, a developing jewel on Shawnigan Lake.

The Maxwell teaching staff were asked to arrive on campus five weeks before the coming of the students to allow for an extended period in which to develop a strong foundation of unity with respect to the school’s educational vision, curriculum, and methods of instruction. This period of orientation was intended, first, to “spiritualize” the vision -- to orient thoughts toward the spiritual significance of education and to develop an educational approach that was firmly grounded in the Baha’i principles. Intensive group consultation was focused on the Baha’i Writings, as they provide guidance regarding the human reality of body, mind, soul and spirit; the purpose of education; the role of the teacher; suggested curriculum and methods; and other pertinent topics. Integrated in this exploration was consideration of contemporary “cutting edge” educational theory and practice, the goal being to develop an educational approach that best expressed a dynamic fusion of the Book of Revelation and the Book of Creation -- of Baha’i principles and the best of contemporary research and thought.

Before the opening, preparations were given special meaning through visits by the Hand of the Cause of God William Sears and Mrs. Sears, and two members of the Universal House of Justice, Hooper Dunbar and David Ruhe with Mrs. Ruhe.

The Maxwell teaching staff have a wide diversity of previous teaching experience and professional training. All staff teach classes in one or two “core” subject areas (visual arts, English, science, social studies, French, music, physical education, math and computers) but consciously approach these areas from a transdisciplinary perspective -- creating a rich intermingling of ideas, approaches and concepts from many disciplines. Most of the teachers have taught in cross-cultural situations and/or have experience teaching in other countries -- from native settlements above the Arctic Circle to European cities and African villages. When this wealth of personal backgrounds and diverse disciplines was brought together and encouraged to intensively study the spiritual meaning and significance of education, the most wonderful “unfolding” of Maxwell’s educational vision took place as the fruit of a truly consultative process.

The Maxwell International Baha’i School sees learning as a process in which all branches of knowledge, human concerns, spiritual values and personal aspirations converge. Thus, the Maxwell curriculum expresses a wholistic concern for human spiritual, intellectual, social and physical development. As a learning community, Maxwell affirms nine core principles which guide the over-all program:

The Vision Principle: Infusing throughout the Maxwell program the spiritual vision and practical wisdom of the Baha’i principles, and affirming these principles as the foundation of the over-all Maxwell program.

The Respect Principle: Expressing an unconditional positive regard for all persons and promoting, through word and example, a sense of reverence for God, oneself, other people, and the natural environment. Encouraging an awareness of the important relationships between oneself and all living things.

The Balance Principle: Recognizing the interconnection of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health, and promoting the health of the whole person by providing balanced activities.

The Integration Principle: Demonstrating that each area of learning is highly valuable as a “window” on a rapidly changing global civilization. Exploring interconnections among all areas of learning and subject matter, showing through theory and practice the relationship of one area of learning to another.

The Excellence Principle: Providing clear, well-defined processes by which learners and teachers can together assess what is being learned and celebrate achievement. Helping each person to understand and value “excellence in all things.”

The Relevance Principle: Exploring the relevance of all learning for total life development (life -- work, family, community service) and helping the process of understanding one’s own values in relation to real-life issues.

The Personal Development Principle: Developing a sense of personal responsibility for learning, and encouraging a capacity for independent investigation of truth. Aiding in developing creative and critical thinking abilities through all learning activities.

The Community Principle: Striving to promote the integration of the entire Maxwell School “family” (students, staff and families) into a caring and unified teaching/learning community. Helping each person to realize the fullness of potential within a nurturing community. Valuing both masculine and feminine attributes and encouraging respect for the necessary contributions of both to healthy community life.

The Global Citizenship Principle: Developing, through study and activities, a vision of “servant leadership” in the “global village.” Encouraging trans-cultural understanding by exploring the essence of diverse cultures and celebrating the contributions of all cultures, peoples and religions toward human advancement. Promoting an understanding that world peace is an urgent need of our time, and encouraging the attitudes and skills necessary for each individual to contribute to peace-building.

Informed by these guiding “first principles,” the teaching staff have chosen five themes to provide a special focus of the curriculum throughout the school year. The themes are: “The Books Are Open” (referring to the need to study both the Book of Revelation and the Book of Creation for a balanced education); “The Oneness of Religion”; “The Oneness of Mankind”; “The Hidden Words,” and “Planetary Peace.” These themes will be followed throughout the Maxwell School program for 3-5 weeks each, and provide a common focus for inquiry and exploration. At the end of each theme period there will be a community-wide “celebration of learning” that will showcase special projects, provide opportunities for students to share learning, and include special arts and music programs.

The intent of the Maxwell School is to provide an excellent education infused throughout with the principles noted above. The core of the academic program, as far as content is concerned, is the curriculum recognized by the Provincial Government of British Columbia, a standard North American course of study providing broad exposure to central subject areas such as math, English and modern languages, arts, social studies and science. The Maxwell School will meet or exceed the government’s requirements in core subject areas and, additionally, provide courses in world religions, Baha’i studies, visual arts, music, aquatics and computers that are not present in the regular government curriculum. Peace studies are infused throughout all curriculum areas. All students take part in weekly service projects. Although there will be no separate courses in those areas, environmental and outdoor education will play a large role in the Maxwell program because of the school’s setting in the heavily-forested mountains of British Columbia and the staff’s awareness of pressing ecological problems.

Preliminary steps are being taken for Maxwell to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a highly regarded, internationally recognized secondary school degree. Because the International Baccalaureate program is quite rigorous and recognized for advanced placement purposes by colleges and universities around the world, an extensive application and preparation process is required for schools that request permission to grant the IB degree. Maxwell has taken the initial steps necessary to properly apply and prepare itself to offer the IB program, and the staff look forward to the time when the Maxwell School will be approved to offer the International Baccalaureate diploma.

Visiting classes at the Maxwell School, one sees an approach to learning characterized by (1) careful attention to assuring that high-quality learning takes place rather than a minimal compliance with standards; (2) a blending of various learning approaches to make the best possible connection with each individual student; (3) a classroom extended beyond the campus to include, as integral parts of the learning process, people, museums, libraries, arts events, and other resources from the culturally rich environment of Vancouver Island; (4) a focus toward trans-cultural and global learning experiences to help students learn from diversity, to see things that are common to different peoples, and to understand global issues; (5) opportunities to learn about all the great world religions from an attitude of respect and acceptance; (6) a balance of competitive and non-competitive activities with an emphasis on respect for common group goals and values in all of them; (7) exercises to teach creative conflict resolution; (8) use of group consultation to explore value questions and to encourage seeing issues from a thoughtful, compassionate perspective; (9) opportunities for public speaking; (10) the integration of arts and music throughout the curriculum; and (11) regular evaluation of students’ over-all progress using a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures.

Maxwell students are organized into “family groups,” in addition to grade-level and class groupings for other purposes. Family groups contain seven students and a faculty leader. These groups represent a mixture of ages and a balance of males and females. The family group always eat the noon meal together and meet frequently at other times for discussions and activities. As the family groups develop they will provide a trusting, comfortable atmosphere in which to develop consultative skills in such areas as problem-solving and exploring issues of moral development. Since most of the Maxwell School’s students are far from their own families, and many are away from home for the first time, the family groups also provide a setting for friendship and family-style intimacy. Family groups are responsible, on a rotating basis, for planning and leading the daily 15-minute all-school assembly program which normally includes prayers, singing, and a thought for the day.

A Youth Year of Service program has brought eight young volunteers to the Maxwell School for a 10-month residence. Youth serve in such areas as gardening; office services; tutoring; kitchen; maintenance; helping supervise student activities such as recreation, sports, drama and service projects; housekeeping; leading deepening classes; and providing leadership in the residence halls.

During this first year of operation, most Maxwell students have come from outside the immediate area and thus live in residence halls on campus. There are a limited number of “day students” who live at home and commute each day to the school, and it is planned to increase that percentage of the student body each year. Each residence hall, besides housing students, has a live-in faculty “dorm parent” and several youth volunteers. The residence hall program includes daily group prayer, morning and evening.

With the first academic year under way, the Maxwell International Baha’i School looks to the challenges of its future development with a sense of expectation and optimism. Dr. Johnson and his wife, as principal and head of residence, respectively, are often heard speaking about this sense of expectation:

“We expect to produce students who will make a positive difference in these dramatic transitional years reaching toward the 21st century; we expect to develop approaches to education that will break exciting and healthy new paths; we expect to become a center of educational service and learning resources that will gradually come to infuse and enrich every Baha’i community; we expect to become known throughout the world for the style of ‘servant leadership’ that characterizes our contribution to humanity; and we expect to work closely with the worldwide Baha’i community to transcend the tests that will surely come. If we do not expect great things, and give every ounce of our faith and work to achieve even greater things, why should we exist?”  
(Baha’i News, November 1988)