In 1978, Anne Cooper and her husband Bob packed up their belongings and hopped on a train to northern Alberta.
The new graduates were hired to teach at a small school in Conklin, a tiny hamlet in north eastern Alberta, which was then accessible only by rail or through the small local airport. Bob was hired to teach kindergarten to grade four and Anne grades four to eight.
There was no store, so they had to mail-order groceries from Woodward’s, who would ship the deliveries by train. “Woodwards would send us anything,” Anne told me one day last week. “We had ice cream – it came in dry ice. We had pretty much anything you wanted, you just had to eat the fresh stuff first.”
The school, due to its remoteness (it was 600 kilometres from the district head office in Peace River, Alta.), experienced a high teacher turnover rate. The year before they arrived, the school went through three teachers. Anne and Bob surprised many when they returned for a second year, and they ended up teaching there for four years. It was there that Anne started to develop the foundations that would make her a leading educator in British Columbia.
“The real biggest challenge was the reading abilities of the kids,” she said. “Not all but for some, they were really struggling with reading. I realized first off that reading for some of the kids in my class had to be my first priority ahead of everything else.
“I tried to do some early work with kids that were really struggling with reading in my first two years. That was the platform for those kids to do a lot better.”
Anne Cooper is retiring at the end of the school year after 35 years in education, including 14 as the superintendent of the Revelstoke School District. She leaves a legacy of lifting Revelstoke to become one of the top performing districts in the province, with province-leading early learning results, high literacy rates, high graduation rates, a new elementary school and a new high school.
I met with Cooper for a lengthy interview about her career in her office on the upper floor of the school district office. She vacated the superintendent’s office earlier this year when Mike Hooker assumed the post full-time. Since the start of the year, she has been helping Hooker transition, filling the post of district principal of support services, and working on the disposal of the old schools.
Cooper’s path started in high school in Calgary where, inspired by two of her teachers, and with her penchant for helping others, she realized she wanted to become a teacher.
“I was always helping other kids. Re-explaining things because they didn’t understand something,” she said. “I was always going to be a teacher.”
She and Bob – they met in grade 12 – both went to the University of Calgary where they pursued Bachelor of Education degrees. Anne specialized in teaching high school, with an emphasis on math and science. Bob specialized in elementary school education. Upon graduation in 1978, they decided they would go to whatever school district had positions for both of them.
“We thought its better that we both have our own classrooms,” she said. “Neither wanted us to go somewhere and be a substitute.”
That turned out to be Conklin, Alberta, which was part of the Northland School Division. While there, she got to teach all subjects across five grades in a two-room school.
In her third year there, she was asked to serve on the bargaining committee for the local teachers’ association. She wound up chairing the committee and her work got her noticed by the board office. After four years in Conklin, she was hired as the co-ordinator of staff development and teacher welfare.
“I think my experience I had bargaining with the teachers’ association, it let people see the kind of person I was,” Cooper said.
Over the course of six years at the district office in Peace River, she started down the path that would lead her into administrative work. She began work on a Masters degree in education from the University of Oregon.
In 1988, Cooper went to Fort Nelson for a six month stint as director of instruction while Bob completed his Masters. She worked on the budget and on collective bargaining and, at the end of the six months, she applied for a permanent position there.
“I got to Fort Nelson and immediately I knew it was a wonderful little school district,” she said. “It was a northern district. It was a compact district like Revelstoke. It had one high school and three elementary schools.”
She stayed for 11 years, becoming assistant superintendent and then the superintendent. Eventually, they talked about moving closer to Calgary to be able to better care for Bob’s aging parents (Anne’s had already passed away). By coincidence, she said, she happened to see an advertisement for the superintendent’s position in Revelstoke.
“We didn’t know where Revelstoke was,” she said. “We travelled a little bit in B.C. but we were really Prairie people.”
After doing her research, realizing it was another small district like Fort Nelson, and talking to people she knew in Revelstoke, she decided to apply for the position.
“With Anne, right off the bat the board felt she was the right fit for Revelstoke,” Alan Chell told me. “I still remember one thing. She said there was only two school districts she was interested in, and if she was fortunate enough to get the job, she would stay here until she retired.”
Upon arriving in Revelstoke, Cooper set about talking to parents, teachers and staff. Parents told her they were concerned about children falling through the cracks. Teachers said they were struggling to teach students who struggled to read. As she realized 20 years ago in Northern Alberta, literacy would have to be a priority.
“I think that was really my focus right from the get go,” she said. “The real focus that we needed was to ensure that kids left grade three reading. And once we could do that, kids needed to be leaving grade seven reading fluently. And once we could do that, we would have a completely different system because we wouldn’t have resources at the secondary school supporting kids who can’t read.”
A committee was formed to look at literacy and the ambitious target of having 90 per cent of students leave grade three reading at grade level was set. The target was met after only a few years and has been reached ever since.
“I think that’s the best work that I’ve done here – to be focused on a system that focuses on a children’s success early, which is success in reading,” Cooper said. “By doing that, kids benefit from greater success in math and have huge levels of success in how they conduct themselves, their comportment and social responsibility.”
Another thing she realized right away was that Revelstoke had too many elementary schools for a district its size. “It was obvious to me that trying to spread resources around five K to 7 schools was going to be a real struggle,” she said.
With that in mind, the process was started on closing two schools. First, they looked at closing Mountain View Elementary, but it was eventually decided to close Big Eddy Elementary first, which happened in 2002.
Afterwards, the district started looking at closing either Mountain View of Mount Begbie Elementary. A business case was submitted to the Ministry of Education that it would be better to close both schools and open a new building.
At around the same time, the district was also looking at what to do with Revelstoke Secondary School. It was in need of a renovation, and the district conducted a building audit. Part of the school could stay as is, part would need to be renovated and part would need to be replaced. Once again, the case was made to the Ministry to build a new school.
“The projects got married because they came together at the same time.” Cooper said. “That’s hugely exciting to have two new facilities but I must tell you our kids were succeeding at the old facilities.”
Anne Cooper came to Revelstoke just as the Ministry of Education was expanding the mandate of its school districts to include early childhood education and literacy.
“She was the perfect person to take us through that transition,” said Chell.
Not long after the School Act was changed to reflect the expanded mandate, Cooper attended a talk by Dr. Clyde Hertzman, a leading expert on early childhood development. He spoke about when children develop different cognitive and physical skills. For Cooper, the talk was an epiphany.
She started working with the people in that field, such as Tracy Spannier, who had assembled an early childhood development committee.
“I think it was a huge opportunity in our community for a lot of people interested in learning about early learning and children to develop a strategic plan and look at developing programs and services for families,” Cooper said. “We’ve really done that for the last, oh, eight years and now Revelstoke is first for vulnerability in the province.”
Another area where the school district has seen improvement is in graduation rates. When Cooper arrived in Revelstoke, only about 65 per cent of students were finishing high school, she said. That meant that in a cohort of about 130 students, only about 85 were graduating. The struggles students had reading meant they weren’t doing well in school and would lose interest in their courses. “It’s hard to do well in school when you can’t read,” she said.
The work that had begun on literacy in the early years began to translate into more success at the high school level.
Cooper also credited the diversity of courses at the high school with helping keep students interested.
“I think we’ve got an extremely well rounded high school and I give Mike (Hooker) and his staff credit for that,” she said. “We have a culture that recognizes that kids are different, that kids can excel in different ways.
“Kids can build a time table of stuff they’re interested in with teachers that care about them. It makes it OK to come to school every day. If you come every day and have stuff do, then the five years go by very quickly.”
In her 14 years in Revelstoke, Anne Cooper has had opportunities to leave for a bigger district, but she never considered them. Her plan all along was to retire here, and she stuck to it. “I don’t think a career should be judged by how big a school district you’re running as a superintendent,” she said. “There’s been nothing to make me pick up the paper and see if there’s a better job out there. I’ve got the best job.”
I asked her what her most significant memories are. She mentioned several:
— Seeing the grade three literacy data and realizing the school district had reached its goal of 90 per cent of children reading grade level after only two years.
— Receiving the first set of Early Development Instrument data, which measured children’s vulnerability in kindergarten, and seeing how well Revelstoke had scored.
— The work on the Neighbourhood Learning Centres and bringing in the theatre and early learning hub.
— The opening of the new Revelstoke Secondary School. “To actually be in such a beautiful facility and to be able to look out in the audience with parents and community members, that was almost breathtaking,” she said. “That was such an exciting day, not necessarily because we were opening the school, but it was a culmination of what we had accomplished in the school district. In my head, I already knew I was retiring.”
Even with retirement, Cooper plans on staying active in education in Revelstoke. She intends on staying on the literacy committee and early childhood development committee. She will also be working as a mentor for new school district superintendents.
“I want to do a few things because I think I have something to offer, whether it’s around early learning, or student achievement,” she said. “I’m going to work less, I’m going to get on that ski hill. I’m going to get to the farmers market. I’m going to enjoy Revelstoke.”