You have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat Erin Corbett to work. A dedicated member of staff at River Valley School in Calgary, Canada since 2005, she’s clocked up many more hours since taking over as Head in 2011. That’s necessary, says Erin, when nurturing the leading thinkers of tomorrow.

“We know that some of the world’s most successful people struggled in mainstream school, so we work differently,” she says. “Instead of having a box for children to fit into, we create an environment that allows them to flourish.” Corbett starts work at 6.30 am every morning to develop individualised programmes for her school’s 325 children, aged three to 12.


Inclusive environment

For River Valley families, these programmes start with a simple choice: Montessori or Progressive. Both are hands-on, inquiry-based models of education that encourage children to think critically and broadly, linking studies to real-life experiences. However, while Montessori children guide their own learning, only moving forward as they master each area, Progressive classrooms are more structured in terms of targets and timetables.

As an inclusive school, River Valley also offers the Arrowsmith programme to support children with special educational needs. “It’s based on cognitive training exercises, and it’s intensive and repetitive,” says Corbett. “Instead of training children’s brains to accommodate for their disability, as in typical education, specific cognitive work exercises the part of their brain that isn’t allowing them to make certain connections in their learning. It’s miraculous to watch. We’ve seen children join at Grade 4 with pre-kindergarten-level reading and streamline right back in with their peers.”

Against this backdrop, the school stresses unity. “We work very hard to bring all the children together within our family-centred community,” says Corbett. River Valley has a flat hierarchy, impressive teacher–student ratios, and offers specialist teaching in physical education, French, drama, music and art, as well as from visiting experts. All this provides exciting experiences within a flexible, child-focused environment. “There’s also an open-door policy for all our parents to come in to volunteer, talk to us, meet with other parents,” says Corbett. “We’re in this together, committed to the idea of the school as an extension of home.”

Speaking as someone who clocks up more hours on school grounds than anywhere else, Erin feels the value of this just as keenly as every River Valley family.