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ChangeMaker: Have a Learning Disability? This Principal Understands

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ChangeMaker:

Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to ordinary Canadians who are making extraordinary differences.

Let's meet Brent Kreuger, who's working to change schools from the inside.

Brent Kreuger was written off as "lazy" and "stupid" in elementary school in the 1960s -- a time before the "distracted student" was a mainstream social problem. It was years before he was officially diagnosed with dyslexia and borderline ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

A generation passed. His kids started to struggle in school. So Krueger set out create a learning environment where outside-the-box thinkers were labelled "entrepreneurial" instead of "learning disabled." It took him eight years and three degrees (two in education), but he did it. Instead of getting troubled students to fit in at school, he built a school to fit them, where there are no learning disabilities, only teaching opportunities.

Kreuger founded in 2007 the Praxis International Institute, the alternative high school he now runs as principal. The school is like summer camp meets business education -- an eco-friendly building in rural Saskatchewan where students study entrepreneurship, technology, global citizenry and environmental sustainability. Students learn that distraction is part of the creative process, and that frustration while learning makes you inquisitive, even analytical.

Given his personal struggle, you'd think Krueger would buck the system. Surprisingly, he's working within it.
Brent Kreuger is a ChangeMaker.

You struggled in school. But what was the final push to start your own?

Right up to high school, I did almost no homework. I was born in 1957. "Learning disability" wasn't even a term until 1963. Back then, they had no idea what it was. Today, they know there's dyslexia and they know there's ADHD, but they still don't know what to do about it. Eventually, we had our own kids. We have four kids [now grown], and two started struggling exactly the same way that I had.

So, the impetus... there were two factors: our kids were struggling in the school system, and our business, Global Infobrokers Inc. [which is essentially a school for small business owners] hit its 10-year mark. When we spoke to our graduates, we found most of our clients self-identified as having a learning disability, and some had never completed high school. But they'd gone on to become successful in business. We had to take what we'd learned at our company, and [translate that to teach] a younger audience.

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So the school was partly inspired by small business philosophy. Why is it important for high school students to be "entrepreneurial"?

We don't expect high schoolers to start their own business. If you look at the typical entrepreneur, they're creative, they think outside the box. They carve their own paths, and they're problem solvers. That's what makes them entrepreneurs. Most companies today need free thinkers and creative people. People who need little direction. Now, we want to develop [those skills] in our school [while also accommodating] alternative learning styles.

It's not that it's a school for students with learning disabilities. I have a different philosophy: I think they're teaching disabilities. So we've changed the way we teach. It's [an entrepreneurial] mindset we want to impart.

In your mind, what is the ideal educational experience for today's high school student?

Hands-on learning. Blur the distinction between the subjects, and blur what's recreational and what's educational. We have cross country skis out here and [we organize] geo-tracking, which is like a treasure hunt. We give [students] a GPS and they geo-track these little treasures [like a technology-assisted scavenger hunt]. That's part recreation, part physical education. How does the geo-tracking system work? That's [a method for teaching about] satellites and geometry. We learn by doing.

On the surface, given your personal struggles, one might assume you'd go against the system. But on closer inspection, you seem to be working within it. Are you?

We get that question a lot: "Is your school acknowledged by the province?" Yes, it is. We teach the Saskatchewan curriculum. What we're teaching is not proprietary; it's our method [that's unique].

The method is hands-on learning and it's integrated. [At Praxis], it's hard to distinguish between an English class and a Science class. [What I mean by that is] students will find themselves writing journals in science. And sometimes, the kids are like "Why do I have to write something? It's accounting class." The [traditional] education system is like taking a watch apart. We break things down into smaller and smaller pieces. But the watch doesn't work unless you put all the pieces back together. In the real world, everything is connected.

Your system has four pillars: entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, technology and global citizenry. We were struck most by "global citizenry." What's the importance of a global education?

We recruit a lot of international students. My kids have friends all over the world who they are literally communicating with all the time. Ideally, I'd like our students to travel internationally, but that is a whole other set of challenges. That interaction, knowing cultural differences, even because of the [experience of having international students as peers], even simple things like knowing what is an insult in certain cultures...the problems of the world can only be solved with a complete worldview.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. It's youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com