Degrees of Success: School board trustee John Stephenson finds fulfillment as a volunteer

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Much of John Stephenson’s life has revolved around children and youth – whether it’s been raising his own or advocating for the education of others.

John Stephenson, who has served on the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1) school board in Yellowknife for more than 10 years, says students who excel almost always have strong parental support in their education.
Blair McBride/NNSL photo

“That’s the best thing I ever did in my life was have children. It’s a daunting task when you’re at the beginning of it, but on this side of things I’m a very proud father and grandfather,” says John Stephenson, a longtime trustee of the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1).

Three of his four children, all Yk1 graduates, have embarked on careers and one is enrolled in university.

But Stephenson isn’t done with the Yk1 school board just yet.

First elected as a trustee in 2009, he returned for a fourth term in 2018 with strong support from the voting public.

He was chosen as board chair during his second and third terms. He says he’s proud of the education students receive in Yellowknife and particularly through the Yk1 school district.

A retired 30-year civil servant, Stephenson has long been involved in his children’s education as a volunteer. He took on the presidency of the Yellowknife chapter of Canadian Parents for French, was a member of parent advisory committees and was active in his children’s various sporting endeavours.

“I think volunteering in our communities is one of the most significant things we as citizens can do,” he says. “My life has been enriched by my volunteer activities. I’ve met so many people, so many friends.”

Stephenson is also well-known as a pillar of the Yk Ski Club and as a speed skating coach and an official. Physical activity is a welcomed counterpart to classroom learning, he says. Schools have embraced the concept of physical literacy, which emphasizes the fundamentals of running, jumping, throwing and catching at an early age and that instills confidence as youngsters mature, according to Stephenson.

“I am absolutely convinced that an active lifestyle – getting outside in particular – is a real boost to our well-being, whatever our age,” he says. “It’s got to be a key part of our programs in our schools to encourage physical activity.”

Stephenson says schools do a good job of fostering a sense of voluntarism in the next generation. Various activities, such as travel programs in high school, require students to do their own fundraising, he points out. The Catholic schools have a long tradition of student participation in Students Against Drinking and Driving (SADD) and some teenagers become assistant coaches of sports programs, he offers as further examples.

“There’s so many ways I think our schools support additional initiatives in schools for the kids,” he says, heaping praise on the Me to We movement with its inspirational speakers and promotion of helping others locally and around the world.

“There are these incredible (Me to We) conferences that the kids go to. I went to one once with the (William McDonald Middle School) kids and they just rocked Rogers Stadium at Vancouver. When they got up, I could feel the stadium move with all of these kids from across Western Canada gathered there,” Stephenson recalls. “The idea (is that) the kids will absorb that and take it back to their communities and create their own projects for volunteer services. It’s been a real force.”

New school and new superintendent

The Yk1 school district will soon be undergoing some significant change.

Degrees of Success 2020 — a report on education in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Construction of the new J.H. Sissons School will begin this summer. It’s the first new education facility for the Yk1 district since Range Lake North School was built in 1993.

“This is a big deal for the community. This will be a state-of-the-art, new education facility in Yellowknife,” Stephenson says.

There will be some disruption for existing Sissons students in the meantime. They will transfer to William McDonald Middle School, starting this fall, during the two-year construction phase. Stephenson assures that program delivery standards will be maintained.

“We made a lot of adjustments. Administration listened carefully to parents’ concerns,” he says. “I believe, for the most part, parents understand and we’ll move forward. I think it will be a positive experience wherever our kids go. We’ve got great facilities. We’ve got great teachers. Kids are resilient. They will not have a problem at all. They will make new friends. They will make new relationships.”

The school board will also have the tall order of replacing 15-year superintendent Metro Huculak, who will be retiring at the end of this school year.

“He’s served as chair for the NWT superintendents. He has roles on national boards. He is definitely a leader in Western Canada in education,” Stephenson says of Huculak.

Having dealt with the GNWT as an education board chair for several years, Stephenson says he has a sense of optimism that the recently-elected territorial government will make significant gains in education. He also gave credit to former education ministers Alfred Moses and Caroline Cochrane, along with erstwhile deputy minister Sylvia Haener, for forming the NWT Education Leaders Forum, which comprises the education minister and 10 education board chairs from across the NWT.

“I see that as one of the most positive steps of the last couple of years,” Stephenson says of the enhanced collaboration and communication.

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