It’s 9:32 on a January morning, the first day back from the holidays. Rushing into city hall, I’m met with a troop of seven- and eight-year-olds from École J.A. Fife, a French immersion school in Lake District, venturing single-file into the pedway maze en route to Churchill Station. Many of them are about to take their first LRT ride, but they’re not the only ones. “I’ve lived in the city for 10 years,” says a parent assisting with the field trip, “and this is the first time I’ve been here.”
City Hall School is now in session.
Led by Linda Hut, a public schools instructor for 30 years, the civic education her students are about to receive quickly outstrips the average Edmontonian’s experience. Every year, about twenty-five elementary and junior-high classes spend a week downtown with “Mrs. Hut,” learning about Edmonton’s history, municipal government and urban infrastructure. Former councillor Karen Leibovici, impressed by a classroom in the Legislature, initiated the City Hall School in 2005. Similar schools have since been added to the Valley Zoo, Fort Edmonton Park and Edmonton Journal offices, but none immerse the students so completely in the city’s innards as this. Hut, who took over the program six years ago, now receives double the number of applications she can accept. By maintaining an even distribution among both Catholic and public school wards, she will, at least once, meet most of Edmonton’s student body by the time they’re in high school.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to work with over 600 students each year and plant seeds for the future,” she says. “Edmonton’s future is in good hands with these thoughtful, engaged, caring, socially active citizens.”
Before City Hall School, she taught grades 1, 2 and 3 at Westglen Elementary School in Westmount. “Although I miss being in a regular school and the rapport that you build with one class and your staff, I’m constantly rewarded when I see how students and teachers take City Hall School connections and build them into year-long experiences.” Hut keeps in touch with all 25 of her participating classrooms through her weekly newsletter, City Beat, which showcases city events and initiatives, such as the Winter City program, and offers suggestions for classroom discussion and activities.
Moselle Semeniuk, this Grade 1/2 split class’s regular teacher, appreciates Hut’s ability to make each week relevant to individual classes. “Linda is always looking to make new contacts to help students get the most out of their City Hall School experience,” she says, pointing to a visit from the City’s chief architect Carol Belanger. “It’s a wonderful surprise that she was able to find an architect that speaks French.”
After discussing his passion for public buildings, en francais, Belanger shows the class renderings of the new police academy, which everyone agrees looks like something from Star Wars. Hut then challenges them to design their own civic building: Junior sketches a city hall with towers that rival Tolkien’s fortresses. Morgan imagines a pet shelter shaped like a dog’s paw. Keeva draws a library. Maja, a soccer club. Under Hut’s direction, the students move from learning about cool buildings to showing appreciation for a civic service that touches their lives in an important way.
Beside the classroom’s formidable Lego replica of city hall, Hut keeps a copy of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz. The book is about observing the same environment from different perspectives. Likewise, Hut tries to open her students’ eyes to their own city by asking them to observe the urban core from the perspectives of people most familiar with it. A typical week at City Hall School might include tours of the Art Gallery of Alberta, CBC, McLeod Building and MakerSpace at the Stanley Milner Library, plus visits from aboriginal relations liaison Gord Stewart, city hall’s artist-in-residence Jennie Vegt or Kevan Lyons, “the Poet of Churchill Square.”
“Many children have never actually been downtown,” she says. “It’s such a pleasure to introduce them to the heart of their city and open their minds to all the possibilities that it offers—all the possibilities for connecting citizenship and career pathways through encounters and experiences with real people in authentic situations.
No week is complete without a visit to council chambers. Hut asks the J.A. Fife students to find the seat of their ward councilor, Dave Loken, and then steps up to the lectern to demonstrate the process for speaking as a citizen in a council meeting. She asks the children to vote on the question of whether smoking should be permitted on school playgrounds. They unanimously vote “no.” Hut turns to the class. “Guess what? You voted the same way that city council voted on this very same question!”
After completing their week at city hall, the students may not see Hut, or downtown, again until the year-end Citizenship Fair in June, to which the year’s participating classes are all invited. That’s when Hut asks them one fundamental question: “What is citizenship?”
Last year, the responses were, perhaps, all too typically Canadian, focused on being polite and rule-abiding. This year, Hut hopes her students will express an understanding that “citizenship is more than being kind, being nice.” For Hut, seeing her students develop even the smallest traces of participatory and justice-oriented citizenship is both the most important and the most exciting part of her job.
The full impact of the City Hall School stint often manifests after students have returned to their regular routine. Last year, for instance, a Grade 6 class from Belvedere Elementary that joined Hut in volunteering for the city’s homeless at the Mustard Seed started a Make Something Edmonton project called Calendars for Hope that raised money to help end poverty.
“City Hall School students recognize that they have a place and a voice in their city.” But they’re not the only ones. “I have always been a proud Edmontonian—born and raised here—but over the six years in this role I have developed a deeper sense of pride and belonging.”