Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Mountains & Marathons - Reflections and Gratitude

Last month's post had been written with a greater than usual sense of anticipation and anxiety, as I was feeling inadequately prepared for the first leg of the Mountains and Marathons challenge; riding from Jasper to the Calgary Marathon in one day.  It is with a significant amount of relief, a huge amount of satisfaction and an inordinate amount of thanks, that I can say it was a tremendous success.

Since the initial concept of Mountains and Marathons swirled through my mind (riding my bike through the mountains, one mile for every student, non-stop), there was an incredible amount of preparation, collaboration and planning to make the challenge happen.  Not to mention the few serious discussions I had where concerned people pulled me aside and quite rightly asked "are you sure you want to (can) do this?" 

From the outset, the goal of Mountains and Marathons was about ensuring we raise awareness about individuals and families living with Learning Disabilities, raise funds and generate interest in the necessity of the bursary program and Foothills Academy, and show all of the students, families and stakeholders of Foothills Academy Society that we, the staff and leadership team, understand the challenges faced daily by our students, and that we will do anything to support them; like almost literally going to the ends of the earth and back.

In true Foothills Academy style, our community rallied together, in a manner that would have been appreciated and encouraged by Founders; Tom Aylesworth and Gordon Bullivant.  Many people played an integral role in ensuring that the Marathon weekend turned out to be such a success.  From the early planning stages where people gave up time for brainstorming, to the planning of the launch, bringing in the marathon and media, creating rather splendid schematics around the gym walls, organizing t-shirts, helping so many people with entry fees, engaging stakeholders, setting up fundraising messages, managing entries and donations, engaging the local news media, rallying up students in classes, bringing in friends and families to the event, setting up an intensely energetic assembly and pep rally, challenging students and staff to fundraise and set goals, and so much more.

The support from the wider community was incredible, as people from far and wide became involved in the Mountain and Marathons intitiative, not because the Executive Co-Director was undertaking an absurdly difficult bike ride; but because people were captivated by the cause of doing everything we can to ensure that the amazing students and families of Foothills Academy are supported so that we can help make a difference in their lives.  Centron Construction, and their President Mr. Wayne Benz, were big partners in this challenge, as Wayne was the second leg of the event.  I was the Mountains part, and Wayne was the Marathons part, running 26 miles for 26 of our students. 

As for the ride itself, it panned out very nicely, although for someone who spends the better part of 11 hours a day sitting behind a desk, I felt justified to have some sense of apprehension (and perhaps a little bit of dread) about the challenge.  Having left Jasper at 6am on the Saturday morning, it was a blissful ride south up to the Columbia Icefields.  There wasn't a soul on the road, which made for an interesting, and slightly heart raising, experience when I pedalled past a couple of hungry bears by the edge of the road; fortunately, they were not interested in a skinny British fellow on a bike. Clearly, I wasn't worth their time for a snack.  Brad Weible and Dan Williams were a tremendous support on route, helping with food, and ensuring the bike was in working order.  After a couple of pit stops to switch over water bottles, the magnificent Columbia Icefields were behind me, and it was a 75kmph descent down to Saskatchewan Crossing. A stiff climb up to Bow Summit followed (the highest part of the journey) which was halted midway by a 30-minute delay due to a road closure as rocks were being basted onto the highway.  This impacted my overall time, but the legs were happy for a little respite.  A pot of tea greeted me at the top of Bow Summit, followed by a pacey ride down to Lake Louise, and a delightful home stretch through Banff, Canmore and onto the TransCanada Highway to the Saddledome. A quick stop at Highway 22 to put lights on the bike was necessary, as I didn't beat nightfall to Calgary, and then we finished at the Saddledome before midnight.  A few hours sleep followed, and then it was back to the marathon to cheer on Wayne as he did his part.

However, this was never about the bike, or about Wayne Benz's awesome marathon.  This was always about the needs of our students and families; so I thank you all most very sincerely for being a part of this wonderful initiative and supporting it in a manner that has seen our fundraising for the Mountains and Marathons / Calgary Marathon close in on $150,000.  Everyone involved with Foothills played a huge part in making Mountains and Marathons happen, and be so successful.  So I thank you all so very much for making a difference.

My only concern now is, what to do next year? I hear rowing across the Atlantic is pleasant in May. 

With most sincere thanks and appreciation,


Thursday, 26 April 2018

Overcoming Obstacles to Reach a Goal

As May 26th draws closer, I keep hoping that I will find an extra week that has been hiding on my calendar. It would give me just a little more time to prepare for the 263 miles in one day cycling extravaganza that is Mountains and Marathons

You might be surprised to know that although I used to cycle a lot in a previous life, I have actually only ridden my road bike outside twice in the past seven years. Coincidentally, seven years is roughly the same amount of time as I've been a dad and a Director at Foothills Academy so maybe there's a correlation? Although my head believes it is possible to ride from Jasper to Calgary in one day, my body is less convinced. 

So why am I doing this challenge? I was keen to make a significant gesture to all of our students and families, and to the broader community, to show that as one of the Executive Co-Directors of Foothills, I understand the challenges our students face. And, I couldn't think of a better way to do this than an absurdly gruelling quest to symbolize some of the overwhelming difficulties that many children with Learning Disabilities face daily.

Anticipation and a little bit of anxiety are creeping into my head about the ride. I am becoming irritated at myself by a touch of perfectionism because I haven't been able to invest sufficient training time to make the ride perfect. But, rather than give up, I’ve had to make my training sessions precise and targeted. I have had to lean on significant supports elsewhere at work and in the rest of my life to help me overcome obstacles as they come up. As I reflect on it, I recognize that some of my obstacles and strategies for success parallel those experienced by our students every day when they are facing their Learning Disabilities. And, that keeps me motivated to want to do more for our students. So, I keep on training.

Road through the Icefields ParkwayThe elevation gain through the mountains over the Icefield's Parkway is enormous and the distance of the ride is ridiculous to complete in one day - especially for an ageing Executive Co-Director who spends 12 hours a day sitting at his computer. But, I cannot think of a better way to express my admiration and respect for all of our students and their daily struggles.  If our students, families and community members are facing their own challenges every day, then surely I should be able to attempt to overcome significant challenges for just 24 hours. 

I have a confession to make. I am not 100% certain that the ride is entirely possible (or has even been done in the exact route I am taking). So, taking on this quest is a risk and a challenge. But, if I knew that it was definitely possible, then it wouldn't be a challenge worth doing.

So why am I doing this ride?  Because, like all of our staff, I care so much about each and every one of our students, and we will go to the ends of the earth (almost literally) to show them and support them all. Just like in the classroom, we can conquer our challenges – especially with the fantastic support of the Foothills Academy community. I will set off on my journey determined to meet the goal I have set for myself – one mile at a time – for each and every one of our students.

In the meantime, I hope to get outside on my bike for at least my third road bike ride in seven years before the big day. I will continue to go the extra mile for all of our students and families and take on the risk and challenge of this epic journey.

I am hopeful that friends and supporters of Foothills Academy will help cheer me on (virtually as the ride will be updated online as I go) and also help me reach our goal for the Mountains & Marathon team of me and Wayne Benz (Centron Group) to raise $50,000 for our bursary fund. This will help ensure that a family's financial situation is not a barrier to them accessing the supports they need and Foothills Academy can continue changing the lives of children with Learning Disabilities and their families in Calgary.

Your support can go a long way to motivate me to finish the challenge I have set for myself and complete my epic quest successfully. Please donate to support the Mountains & Marathons team and me. Look for the Mountains & Marathons team registered as part of the Charity Challenge at the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon.

Monday, 9 April 2018

What’s As Predictable as Snow in Spring?

What is as predictable as spring snowstorms in Alberta? Every year, in the lead up to the Provincial budget, we can count on the discussion in the media questioning the current level of funding for Independent schools in Alberta. Some lobby groups continue to argue that independent schools should not receive any funding at all from the government. Some groups attempt to paint a picture in the media that all Independent schools are inherently wealthy and for the elite and are therefore undeserving of educational funding. As we all know, that does not paint an accurate picture of the situation at Foothills Academy.

As a Designated Special Education Private School (DSEPS), Foothills Academy receives 70% of the per student funding given to a public school. If there was no government student funding, tuition that families pay would have to increase by $12,240 to cover the current costs of operating our program. This would put Foothills Academy completely out of reach financially for most of our families.

We are fortunate to have a Minister of Education in office currently who understands education and the varying needs within the education system. Minister Eggen has spoken on numerous occasions of the need for choice in education. When the budget was released last month, we let out a collective sigh of relief that in these tough economic times the government chose to continue to provide predictable and sustainable funding for all Independent Schools. 

We truly appreciate the efforts that the Department of Education is going to, to work with schools such as Foothills Academy, ensuring that we can provide essential educational services to children and families living with Learning Disabilities. We encourage you to express your appreciation to the government, Ministry of Education, or your MLA, for our stable and predictable funding and express the need for the government’s continued support.

Here’s to another year of support for all Designated Special Education Private Schools and here’s to working together for all of our schools’ and students’ futures! 

Now, let’s get winter out of the way and things will be looking even brighter!

As always, you can email me at siwilliams@foothillsacademy.org.



Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Welcoming Spring & Renewal

Hi to all of our Parents, Students, Staff and Stakeholders,

I hope that you are all braving this seemingly endless winter and looking forward to some reprieve from the weather during Spring Break.  As I look to the arrival of Spring (which admittedly we will not see for another few months (but which my English DNA fools me into believing is just around the corner), I realize how quickly time is flying.

It may not be on your radar yet, but September 2018 will be a significant landmark for Foothills Academy as we proudly enter our 40th year of operation. Our founders - Gordon Bullivant, Tom Aylesworth and the Mackasey family - have left us with an incredible legacy and we intend to mark this milestone anniversary by celebrating our growth and direction. Just as we did 40 years ago, we continue to strive to meet the needs of children, youth, and young adults, as well as their families, living with Learning Disabilities whether it is through the school program or through Community Services.

With our upcoming anniversary in mind, we have embarked on a project to revamp our website thanks to the generosity of an Anonymous Donor who believes in the work we are doing.  Through this revamped website, we will continue to share what we do at Foothills with the world while we ensure that we provide a functional website that serves the needs of current students, parents and staff, prospective members of Foothills Academy, as well as other stakeholders.

As a vital stakeholder in our community, we would like to ask for your feedback on what you would like to see in this revamped website. To do this, we have created a form that you can submit with your ideas. Let us know if you feel that there is something on the website that you would like to see or something that you would like to see changed or removed. We encourage you to think back to before you came to Foothills. Were there things that were not easy to find? Or, do you know about something that would be a great asset to the LD population if it was readily available on the website? Please know that any feedback you provide about the website will be very much appreciated and thoughtfully considered. Our feedback form will be open for responses until noon on March 23rd (start of Spring Break).

I hope that all is well with every one of you and remember that Spring is coming (somewhere).

Warmest (quite literally) Regards,


Monday, 29 January 2018

Foothills' Resolutions for 2018

Welcome 2018!

A belated Happy New Year to all of our Foothills families and stakeholders! I hope that 2018 will be a year of growth and success for us all. 

Each New Year, many of us make resolutions to grow or to change those less desirable habits we may have developed the previous year. Aside from ongoing professional learning, I have resolved this year to gain a modicum of fitness in order to be able to meet the Mountains & Marathon challenge of riding my bike from Jasper to Calgary in one day for our Foothills students in May. While I know many parents, staff and students have set goals for growth, this made me wonder what kind of resolution an organization like Foothills Academy could set.

As always, we (staff of Foothills Academy) resolve to provide the best possible learning and life experiences for our students; striving to help develop the most capable, contributing and caring young people of the future. Integral to this goal is the professional development engaged in by our staff. We resolve to hone our skills as professionals to ensure best practices are followed in the classroom for teaching individuals with Learning Disabilities. 

A focus of this year’s Foothills’ resolution will be to examine the way we assess students with Learning Disabilities. Although there are general assessments in the education system to which we are constrained, we also need to be responsive to student learning and assessment in the moment to support student learning. Where much of the educational world assesses student learning by simply awarding a grade and then moving on, we must resolve to consider other assessments that benefit our students and their learning. 

By just providing a grade, we aren’t engaging students in effective learning as we are telling our students that grades are more important than the learning process.  Of course, grades are inescapable in the current educational systems of North America and have some merit for monitoring progress. But, we have to assess growth in learning and examine what we can do to support it. We must resolve to include students closely in the assessment practices of the classroom so that they are engaged in effective learning and understand and enjoy the importance and challenges of learning as much if not more than a grade.

Foothills resolves to assess students in a range of ways, daily, weekly, monthly, bi-annually and annually and collaborate as a staff, with students and parents, to assess how students are growing in school; and to identify how we can adapt our professional practices. Our collective resolution, as stakeholders of Foothills Academy, should be that together, with our ongoing open communication, sharing of best practices and positive collaboration, we can all be the best that we can possibly be.

Here’s to a wonderful 2018 and I look forward to watching each and every student at the school grow.

Now I’d better find time between all of this for a quick bike ride. May is coming fast and I don’t want to break any of my resolutions.

Simon riding his bike


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mountains and Marathon

One of the most unique aspects about Foothills Academy is the commitment to never turn a child away from our programs due to their financial circumstances. Everyone associated with Foothills Academy – students, parents, staff and our corporate supporters are asked to come together to help us fulfill this mandate.

Parents play a huge role in our fundraising efforts to support our Bursary Fund. A great example of this was on display at our annual gala, Fall Funtasia, which was held last Friday. Without parent volunteers and without parent attendees, the event would not happen. It contributes approximately $100,000 towards the Foothills Academy Bursary Fund. It was also the culmination of all the efforts of Foothills Academy parents (and staff) who helped make the FAPA car raffle such a success. The raffle also contributes about $100,000 toward the Bursary Fund. We, Dr. Karen MacMillan and I send out our sincere appreciation to everyone who contributed to the success of both these events.

Karen and I, as Executive Directors, have been brainstorming ways we can make a significant contribution to the ongoing fundraising efforts of the organization. On Friday evening, I announced a new, one-time initiative that we are doing in partnership with the President of Centron Construction Group, Wayne Benz. It is being called Mountains & Marathons. Together, we will bike and run 289 miles - one mile for every student who attends Foothills Academy. We will overcome the challenge of mountains and marathons to reflect the challenges that students with Learning Disabilities have daily; overcoming their own learning mountains and giving marathon efforts in the classroom.

I have committed to ride my bike from Jasper to Calgary, (yes, the Jasper on the other side of the Icefield’s Parkway), going up over the Columbia Icefields, over Bow Summit, past Lake Louise, through Banff and home to Calgary. This is a ride that is normally suggested to take 6 days to complete. However, I will do these 263 miles in one day. I will start the ride at 7 am on Saturday, May 26, 2018, and finish (hopefully) at the Saddledome at 7 am on Sunday, May 27, 2018; which is incidentally when the Calgary Marathon starts. There, I will pass over a baton to Centron Group’s Wayne Benz, who will run the 26 miles of the marathon for us.

By pledging to support us in our efforts to conquer Mountains and Marathons, all donors you will be directly contributing to make a difference to the lives of so many children and families in Calgary affected by Learning Disabilities. You can help them access specialized programs and resources that will help them conquer their Learning Disabilities and become the individuals they are capable of becoming. I hope that we can count on your support and spread the word to your friends and family to also support this initiative.

Keep a lookout on the website for further details of the Mountains and Marathons initiative. And, if you didn’t get a chance to donate toward this initiative on Friday night, feel free to call Melissa at the front desk to give your pledge (403.270. 9400) or go online through our CanadaHelps donation page to get an immediate tax receipt. 

We are all in this together. And, being a strong community of parents, stakeholders, staff and students makes Foothills what it is. For that, I would like to thank each and every one of you.


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Routine and Motivation - A Parent's Role

Welcome to the first of a monthly blog post in which I will let you know some of my thoughts about the happenings at Foothills Academy.

During October, after the typically frantic start to the school year, things are now settling down, and Foothills is gently humming along with the usual routines which are important to all of our successes. Students and teachers are forging new and stronger relationships essential to students’ academic and social outcomes, and parents are getting to know new staff, new curricula, and new expectations with new grades. 

Father helping with homework

Each year we discuss the crucial role of parents in their child’s success, and being in a routine is a small, yet essential part of this. Ensuring that your child has adequate ‘break time’ when they get home, for healthy nutrition, exercise or relaxation, is vital; so too is the routine and structure they require for their homework and studying. If you want to support your child with their work, try to make regular, consistent, set times each evening for working, and help your child to organize a clear space at home that is free from too many distractions. 

Once working, we need to keep our students motivated, and where we try to enhance motivation at school with rewarding praise for effort, parents can follow suit at home by praising children for their efforts in organizing themselves and structuring their work or study. We have to ensure to praise our children for things which they can control, such as the way they layout their work, how they use strategies, how they organize their study time with schedules or timers, or how well they follow explicit instructions to accomplish tasks. All of these matters are within a child’s control, so we can comment on them and give praise or support where required. If we focus our praise on achievement, we will struggle to motivate students, because sometimes, despite a child’s effort, their overall performance is beyond their control, and they can become de-motivated if they are trying hard yet not achieving to their (or their parents’) expectations. Focusing upon praise for effort will enhance a child’s performance now, and will develop greater persistence of their intrinsic efforts in the future, so it is truly helping us to set each child up for success. 

Parents can begin this on a small scale to build student motivation, by praising a child for setting up their ‘work area’ neatly and consistently or praising the way by which they structure their work in their notes, on their computer, in their files, or on their flashcards. All of these things are within a child’s control, and so praising these areas for good effort can only improve their motivation.This foundational piece of motivation at home can be built upon throughout the course of the year, although it is important to avoid generic praise to boost motivation such as ‘good job’, or ‘you’re so smart’, because these don’t mean anything to a child, certainly to one who is struggling.

Such effort praise fits into the overarching umbrella of Self-Determination Theory that we have been building throughout the school community over the past few years. A key part of this is the staffs’ focus upon effort-reward, autonomy, and the strong student-teacher relationships which are part of the foundations of Foothills Academy. Where students may once have been only motivated by the fact that they are told to do work (introjected motivation) or that they will receive an incentive prize (identified motivation), or that they see work as an important means to an end (integrated motivation), we aim to develop the passion in our students to do well because they want to succeed, know they are capable and have a lifelong love of learning (intrinsic motivation). 

Simon Williams
Executive Co-Director