Innovative solutions for rural learners

For many years, the only school on Cortes Island was for students up to Grade 9. High school students had four options: home school, online learning, boarding in another town — two ferry rides away from home — or their families moving to a new community with a high school. Adult education was mainly online learning — for those who had internet access.

Then, Cortes Island organizations came together with creative ways to keep education alive in the community of 1000 people.

Manda Aufochs Gillespie is the literacy outreach coordinator for Cortes Literacy Now, director of the Cortes Island Community Foundation, and the founder of Folk University, Folk U Radio and Cortes Island Academy.

“I want to help fix the lack of access to inspiring educational options in our community,” said Manda, “so that people are empowered and given the freedom to pursue their goals. Literacy means accessing our human potential – we’re looking at the whole person. We’re bringing resources to where they are needed – to fill the gaps.”

Addressing the rural education crisis

Manda points to the rural education crisis as her motivation to try innovative local learning initiatives.

“The need for children’s assessment, IEPs (independent learning plans), literacy support and mental health support are massively under-met in rural and remote communities,” she said.

Rural high school students have a drop-out rate of 16% – almost double the rate of 9% for urban students.  (Charity Intelligence Canada report, 2008)

Lack of access to education can be a barrier to future employment, health, social connections and life goals.

Technology can be a barrier too. Up until 2022, Cortes Island did not have high-speed internet access and about half of residents did not have access to a computer or Wi-Fi.  High school dropout rates increased as classes moved online due to the pandemic. There are still many remote and rural communities in Canada that do not have high-speed internet.

“Rural Canadians are being left behind.”

Innovative education and community-building programs

With Manda guiding, and the collaboration of local organizations and volunteers, Cortes Island has developed several unique programs to support local learning.

“Literacy means accessing our human potential – we’re looking at the whole person.”

Cortes Island Academy (CIA) provides out-of-the box high school credits

A collaboration of Cortes Island organizations, parents, volunteers and School District 72, Cortes Island Academy (CIA) opened in September 2022 to provide place-based, project-based, experiential, decolonized public education to earn high school credits on Cortes Island.

“Our goal was to model out-of-the-box education,” said Manda. “Students learn aside local organizations, world famous scientists, Pulitzer-prize nominated journalists, local people who have known the land for generations, and Indigenous elders, overseen by local educators and a School District teacher. Instead of worksheets and tests, students participate in Hakai Institute-led citizen science initiatives, create journalistic podcasts published and distributed through Cortes Community Radio, and create documentaries featuring Cortes elders and local knowledge holders. A day may start in a classroom and end in a kayak on the ocean, or behind a microphone at the community radio station, or deep with a Mother Tree in the forest.”

Folk University and radio support adult learning

Manda started Folk University in 2018 as a way to bring the wealth of knowledge within the community to local residents of all ages. Modelled after folk high schools and Folkeuniversitet in Germany, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, residents share what they know in free weekly classes.

“We offer an incredible diversity of education. Everybody has something to share,” said Manda. “Once a week, a paid ‘teacher’ gives instruction on anything from how to tell a joke, how to use a chainsaw or how to do a spreadsheet. As extras, we also might organize game nights, movie nights, workshops and field trips.”

Amazingly, she was also able to quickly adapt the Folk University program during the pandemic.

“When COVID-19 hit, there was nowhere to go. We missed one week. Then moved FolkU onto the radio. It’s a two-hour program every Friday on CKTZ 89.5 FM.”

In addition, FolkU has podcasts, a brown bag lunch series, and projects and programs for all ages.

“Learning never ends. We can give people the tools and skills so they can manifest their highest self and be a fully functioning part of the community.”

Community micro-grants bring people together

Since 2011, Cortes Island Literacy Now has supported some form of microgrants for neighbours: providing small grants of $50-$1000 for community-building projects to help community members realize plans and deepen their relationships to each other. Past projects include youth literacy and after-school programs, seniors’ diet and health, book clubs, game nights, music, cinema, storytelling, community dinners and more!

Empowering communities with place-based solutions

“Decoda supports collaborative, place-based solutions,” said Maureen Kehler, program manager at Decoda. “We know that the literacy needs of one community aren’t necessarily the same as another and that local collaborations are essential. Cortes Island is a great example of how community development, through a literacy lens, can have tremendous impact in a small, remote community. So inspiring!”

  • In 2022-23, 20 students completed the first two semesters at CIA, about half were Cortes Island and half from other small communities and islands in the area. Beyond receiving academic credits, the CIA impacts teens in meaningful ways through social connection for isolated students and the ability to continue to live at home with family.
    • CIA student comments included:


    • “CIA helped me become more confident.”


  • “It’s such a different experience from normal school. And I think really, just connecting with people and having a class that you can be friends with everyone in it.”
  • Folk University has helped hundreds of islanders learn new skills. Weekly, in-person Folk U programs usually have 10-30 participants, hundreds of people tune-in to the radio shows, and this summer dozens come out to see the show’s broadcast live outside at the Friday markets.
  • More than 40 microgrants have been distributed for dozens of community-building projects.
  • Community collaboration resulted in raising more than $200,000 plus another $200,000 in in-kind donations of time or resources to support Cortes Island Academy.

“I’m grateful that Decoda is one of the few organizations that empowers people in rural and remote communities to find the solutions that work for them,” said Manda. “I feel empowered to do the in-between work. I can put the time into finding out what citizens need, collaborating with other organizations and fundraising.”

“Partnerships and innovative solutions like the ones happening on Cortes Island are vital to improving education opportunities in rural communities,” said Maureen.

About us

Decoda Literacy Solutions is BC’s provincial literacy organization. We support community-based literacy programs and initiatives in over 400 communities across BC by providing funding, guidance, training, resources, a library, a weekly blog, the Fostering Literacy reading tutor program, Parents As Literacy Supporters programs and The Westcoast Reader newspaper for learners.

Our work supports children and families, youth, adults, Indigenous and immigrant communities to help build strong individuals, strong families and strong communities.

You can help support literacy in BC with a gift to the Decoda Literacy Foundation.

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