The news that Tawingo College has been forced to close its doors came as a shock to many, especially those in the Tawingo community. However, when the Province announced that overnight camps would not be permitted to open this summer due to COVID-19, it also delivered a fatal blow to a beloved Huntsville school.
“Because [Camp Tawingo] closed, we knew the school was not going to happen,” said principal and operator, Tia Pearse. Camp Tawingo, which should have been celebrating its 60th summer this year, has been integral to the operation of Tawingo College.
Tawingo College was started in 1996 by Jack Pearse, the founder of Camp Tawingo, and John Jorgeson and Jane McCutcheon, also of Camp Tawingo fame. “They always knew the educational value of camp was real,” Tia Pearse said. “So they started the school to give kids the year-round camp education in a school setting.”
Because the school could only draw from a small community, they knew from the beginning that the school would only be able to survive because of the summer camp. “We can’t make any money,” Pearse said. “It was always a labour of love and I have always loved it. I believe we do good work.”
And judging from the outpouring of support from the community and the level of sadness that news of the school’s closing has created, the feeling is mutual.
“I haven’t been able to stop crying every time I think of it,” said Suzanne Baxter, whose son Milton graduated from the school in 2018 and her daughter Grace is currently finishing Grade 8.
“I wanted my kids to love school,” she said. “Not just like it and go through the motions of school routine, but to actually want to go to school everyday and love it.”
Baxter, like many others, said the school creates a community and becomes one big family.
“Tawingo College gave me an amazing education and was a second family and a second home to me,” Grace Baxter said. She started in the kindergarten program said even though she is graduating this year, she is upset because she can’t go back to help. “And the teachers have lost their jobs and there are so many kids who are not able to go back. Everyone is so close, you know everyone in the school…and all the teachers are supportive. The entire school is a big group of friends.”
In 1999, Pearse and her husband Mike, who is the son of Jack Pearse, moved back to Huntsville and Mike took over from Barry Laughton as the school principal. Both Tia and Mike are teachers, however, Tia didn’t begin teaching at Tawingo College until her youngest son, who was born in June 2000 on Tawingo College’s graduation day, began attending the school. “Once the boys started school, I started teaching drama,” she said.
There are many factors that create the unique environment at Tawingo College, including its location on the shore of Lake Vernon and the teachers. Of note is Jeff Laughton, who has been a teacher at Tawingo College since its inception. In fact, the school building is named Laughton Hall after Jeff’s father Barry who had been the principal for 11 years prior to his retirement and handing over the position to Mike.
“Hopefully Tawingo knows how much they impacted my life, helping me when I needed it most,” said Andy Maduri, a student who is currently in Grade 7 and has been a student at the school since Grade 2. He adds that he feels that Tawingo has helped shape him into the person he is today.
Three Maduri children have passed through the Tawingo College doors, including Ben, who graduated in 2018 and is currently in Grade 10 at Huntsville High School, Andy, and Sophie, currently in Grade 3 at Tawingo.
When the Maduri family moved from the city to Huntsville, they chose to send their kids to Tawingo because the alternative was to have them in three separate public schools, their mom, Rebecca Brown, said. One child would have been in French immersion at Riverside, another in French immersion at Huntsville Public School and the third in the English stream at Spruce Glen.”When they came home after the first day [at Tawingo] they were so happy,” she said, adding that that year there was an early snowstorm that made Hwy 60 impassable and the kids were angry they were not able to attend school.
Brown said she can see the impact the school has had on her children, noting Ben was terrified to get on stage when he first started at Tawingo. Now in high school he willingly tries out for the school play. “The kid was terrified, now he is totally fine and that is due to Tawingo,” she said. Ben added that always felt that Tawingo College was a safe place and allowed him the freedom to express himself.
When they heard the school was not going to be reopening in the fall, Brown said it was a really bad couple of days. “It literally felt like someone died,” she said. “My nine-year-old was hysterically crying.”
Brown reiterated what others have said: that the school is like a family. “Because we were new to the community there were so many events we did with Tawingo that made it a highlight and now it’s not there,” she said. “To Tia’s credit the staff she hired had always been amazing and the loss of those members is devastating to the Huntsville community. Jeff Laughton was one of the best teachers we have ever had. So many people remember him and how amazing he is. It is sad on so many levels.”
Brown said that Tawingo always opened its doors and welcomed students, some who were really struggling in the public system. “Kids would be having a difficult time in the public school system and when they left Tawingo, they left better off and more confident.”
Bevan Wilson is a teacher at Spruce Glen Public School, but when he graduated with a Masters Degree in 2010, his first teaching job was at Tawingo College. There he was exposed to teaching music to all grades, as well as teaching physical education. “It was a great experience and I loved it,” he said. “I was fresh out of teachers’ college and it was the first time I was in charge of subjects and it was a nice way to be introduced to the world of teaching. The staff were extra welcoming and very helpful, it was very much a community.”
Wilson was only on the staff of Tawingo for one year, but has very good memories of working there and says he still regularly receives a birthday card from Mike and Tia.
“My days at Tawingo College changed my outlook on education and my future,” said Amanda Wyville, who graduated from Tawingo in 2000 and, like so many others, was heartbroken when she heard the news of its closing. “The staff and teachers were daily going above and beyond just the usual teaching methods. With a variety of different learning styles each person felt special and their day tailored to encourage each person to grow at their own pace. From outdoor education to homemade cookies, how could you not love Tawingo?”
Wyville said it took her awhile to write down her thoughts about Tawingo because there are so many amazing, wonderful things she can say about the school.
While the school is definitely closed for the next year, Pearse does not rule out the possibility it may one day reopen. However, for now the focus and concentration must be on the camp. She understands why the Province did what they did in closing camps, and adds she hopes they will be providing some relief to camp operators as nothing has been announced. For the majority of overnight camps, three months of income must sustain them for the entire year.
“We have to sacrifice this summer to save the industry,” she said, since there is so much still unknown about this novel coronavirus and the way it operates.
The future of the Tawingo Outdoor Education Program, which sees thousands of students, is also up in the air. Between the teachers’ strike which prevented class trips and COVID-19, it has been a rough year.
“We are all weathering the same storm,” she said. “It is hard and it is scary and yet we can really never second guess when it is your health on the line.”
Although she will “never say never,” she said, “it will take quite a number of years to recover. Like we said in the start of the letter [announcing the schools closure] ‘if anybody had told us in September what the spring would look like…'”
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