“Special” Education in 1960s Saskatoon

In the early 1960s in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, a decision was made to place gifted children for Grades 5 to 8 in segregated classes at Brunskill Public School.  Children from all over the city were selected for these classes.  In each grade, there were generally two of these “special” classes, as they were called, representing roughly 80 gifted children from around the city in a particular grade.

There were no special buses to get the children to these classes.  Children used public transit, walked or rode bicycles, or were transported by parents.

The “special” class approach was coupled with a general policy whereby no children were accelerated through grades.  This meant that intellectually strong children did not find themselves with social problems in later years, being one or two years younger than grade peers.

The program was regarded as highly innovative for its time, and commenced in 1963 or thereabouts.   People from this program who have gone on to distinguished careers include Calgary lawyer Harley Winger,  Calgary psychiatrist Michael Trew, Saskatchewan social work leader Jim Walls, International Business professor Neil Remington Abramson, English professor Doug Thorpe, law graduate and internationally renowned artist Rebecca Perehudoff,  and senior provincial and federal Liberal David Miller–later Vice-President, Government Relations, for CN Rail.

The program was quite challenging and not everyone was able to complete it. There was one child in grade six who had to leave due to developing ulcers. I left the program in the fall of 1965, in the middle of grade seven, and returned to my former school, Grosvenor Park Public School, as it then was (and, as of 1993, becoming the Islamic Centre of Saskatoon).

I had crashed and burned over a science test. I was twelve years old.
Postscript, October 1, 2011: Another distinguished graduate of the program is Don Wright, currently the President of the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He has a Harvard doctorate and has spend periods of time at Deputy Minister levels in the governments of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. David Miller informed me of Don’s career path. News like this reinforces to me what I vaguely appreciated at the time: what a unique privilege it was to have been learning with these people. Very much a part of who we all are now.

Postscript, October 2, 2011: Another one I now remember is Joey Chertkow. Later known as Joe Chertkow, he was the first of my 11-year old or so contemporaries to share my preference for The Rolling Stones over The Beatles. He became what I thought I might have become, at one point: an expert on banking, financial institutions and related regulatory issues. He became a practising lawyer, also obtaining an LL.M. degree. Here he is, in 2009, advising the Government of Cambodia in relation to its banking sector.

Postscript, November 14, 2011: I was out to lunch with David Miller recently, in Ottawa. He reminded me of two others from our school and our cohort who were part of the “special” program: Nancy Lovell and Naomi Rose. I remembered both, but didn’t associate either with our former school, Grosvenor Park. David also reminded me that there were two classes of “special” students in Grade 5 (Neil Abramson had skipped a grade, and so was in Grade 6) and that I wasn’t in the class that included David, Nancy and Naomi, which perhaps explains why I didn’t make the immediate connection. Nancy Lovell is now a Full Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. Naomi Rose is now the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Ontario Branch of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Postscript, November 17, 2011: My impression as to a “no acceleration” policy is not entirely accurate. As it turns out, the reason that I didn’t recognize Don Wright, Nancy Lovell and Naomi Rose as being from Grosvenor Park is because all three had done the first four grades in three years, in a program specifically designed for that purpose, rather than explicitly skipping one grade after completing three. They were then a year behind me until we all ended up at Brunskill in Grade 5. Acceleration appears to have been relatively uncommon, nonetheless.

Postscript, November 17, 2011: Another person from that time, and one of the few with whom I reconnected in later years, was Marjorie Clelland. I last saw her in the early 2000s in Ottawa, when she was visiting relatives during the Christmas period. My last memory of her was skating on the Rideau Canal, with my older daughter. Reflective moments cause one to wish to continue the reconnection. Earlier this week, I searched for her on Facebook; nothing. Then I did a general internet search, and found out, to my shock, that she had been dead for over four years. According to the death notice, her sudden death occurred at her residence in July of 2007. A scholarship is now in her name at the University of Saskatchewan, established by the Dean of the Library. The scholarship, reflecting Marjorie’s life and concerns, is “for a CUPE employee in the University Library to attend a conference related to their field of work, such as the annual National Conference of the Canadian Library Association (CLA).” Marjorie was noted as having been born in 1954. To my surprise, she was one year younger than most of us, and therefore, like Don, Nancy and Naomi, one of the very few “accelerations” in the Brunskill cohort. She took a different path from many, becoming associated with the University of Saskatchewan Library following university graduation, and staying with the library for her entire working career. She became very much involved with union activities, being the Treasurer of her union local for a number of years. I spent some time with her in Saskatoon when I was visiting there in the 1980s. She was an obsessive reader, as was her roommate. If they had read all the books in their apartment, they would start reading catalogues. For a time, she was working at the Law Library. Watching the law students go by, of whom she could have been one. Mentioned how she wasn’t impressed with their pride. Didn’t mention (but I will mention) that, intellectually, she could have run rings around most of them.

Postscript, January 5, 2012:: I have tried to find out a bit about the history of the program, as noted here.

Postscript, January 5, 2012: One of the members of the cohort, with a greater appreciation of the program’s history, has recently written to me, pointing out that the program was also conducted at certain points at the Victoria School in Saskatoon; Brunskill was not the exclusive location.

Postscript, October 8, 2012: I thought I was going to be in Saskatoon with Neil Remington Abramson last week, hoping to see Nancy Dill for the first time in nearly fifty years. Didn’t happen; maybe will happen at the time of the Junos in Regina in 2013. Nancy was also in the class. She is now the Program Head of the Early Childhood Education and Educational Assistant Program at the Kelsey Campus of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. Perhaps more than most, she has been able to apply the lessons learned from the “special class” to future generations. She is also active in Grosvenor Park United Church, which I knew as the church of my mother, brother and sister, in the context of the mixed marriage of my parents. Also the Boy Scout location for the neigbourhood; no concept of “Catholic Boy Scouts” at the time, or any such concept that my parents would tolerate. My father was one of the parent Boy Scout leaders at Grosvenor Park; we were there together, weekly.

Postscript, October 9, 2012: Seeing Nancy Dill again would have bridged a forty year divide, rather than fifty years. The same period of separation prior to reconnecting with Neil Remington Abramson. I was in Saskatoon in 1972 for the wedding of Steve Carter, now and as of 1995, Judge Carter, and visited Nancy at that time. I remember a particular kinship in that Steve and I, as well as Nancy, all owned copies of Edgar Winter’s White Trash.

Postscript, October 9, 2012: Nancy reminded me of two other distinguished graduates from the program. Mary Ellen Wright became a Judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan. Glenda MacDonald became the Director of the Continuing Pharmacy Professional Development Program at the University of British Columbia.

Postscript, April 3, 2015: I just noticed that in early 2013, Don Wright resigned as President of BCIT, in anticipation of a significant position in government, if the NDP formed the next B.C. government. Since the NDP did not form government, Don Wright went on to become the President and Chief Executive Officer of Central 1 Credit Union, “the central financial facility and trade association for the B.C. and Ontario credit union systems”.


About brucelarochelle

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13 Responses to “Special” Education in 1960s Saskatoon

  1. Wagdi says:

    I was accelerated through grade 6 math (1 subject only) and thus never took that math year and ever since (up to and including grade 12) have been one year ahead than the people sitting around me in math. In addition, I was in “gifted” classes in high school for science (in Ontario in the early 2000’s) and I didn’t feel the same pressure to perform. Though this is likely as a result of a different attitude towards putting undue pressure on schoolchildren to achieve in class in the 40 years since your experience, I can certainly empathize with what you went through.

  2. Elaine Dewar says:

    Dear Bruce: I found your site because I was searching for information or studies on the gifted program in Saskatoon, specifically Brunskill School. I was in the program when it was established there, which was 1958 not 1963. There seemed to be an hypothesis we were meant to test regarding enrichment versus advancement. I have been looking for any papers or follow up studies done on any of the children in this program. If you hear of any, please let me know. I am working on a book for Penguin on intelligence and need to hunt some facts down.

    Elaine Dewar

  3. On October 9, 2012, Nancy Dill commented as follows (e-mail correspondence reproduced with permission):

    Interesting thought about the AcTal (Academically Talented) program. The program, through Saskatoon Public, has been operating since 1928…and has been located in different schools. When we went to school, there were two classes for each grade, but the grades alternated between schools, so the two grade five classes would be at Brunskill and the two grade six classes would be at King Edward, perhaps to provide cohort groups for the students, but it did mean that students had to get there from all over the city. Now there are still two schools, situated farther apart- one on east side and one on west side, and each of those schools has an AcTal class for each of the grades. Brunskill was developed to be affiliated with the university, as a demonstration school…though I don’t think that role was operational when we were there.

    I have certainly thought about that experience, especially so since both of my children attended the AcTal program as well. When they were invited, it meant that they had to leave the French immersion, so it was a big decision. Because I felt that the experience had been positive for me, I was more inclined to sign them up, even though it meant that they had to give up more than I, as Brunskill had been my home school anyway. In fact, if the program hadn’t been at Brunskill, I wouldn’t have been allowed to go. My parents had declined the opportunity for my eldest brother, when he would have had to move schools.

    I wonder if it is a different experience for males as opposed to females. I think it was a defining experience for both my daughter and myself, in how we view ourselves and our intelligence. For so long, and certainly still for some, girls and women did not see being “smart” as a valued attribute.

    I think that the impact of the program was also related to how the child had previously been fitting into the regular stream, and for some children who were a little more eccentric in their interests or in the way that they expressed their intelligence, the program was a place where they found acceptance .I remember those years very fondly, but I did not feel pressure to succeed.

    • Nancy Dill’s comments resonate for me – those four years made me confident and able to participate in any debate or discussion I ran into ever after with gusto! No doubt to a fault! There, in grade 8 in 1967, i was able to give a speech on the evils of nationalism in the very summer of Canada’s most nationalistic celebration, the 100th anniversary of Confederation!

      We did perhaps have some affiliation with the university education department even then, as I believe they tested a new mathematics program on us complete with a trial rough text book, and perhaps our science program was linked in with that as well.

      The other class made that film on Louis Riel, we all learned how to survey, we put on difficult plays (Shakespeare’s Henry V – where is the lead actor Tim Maher? etc), and so on. Most important, we also learned how to draw, even receiving a lesson or two from Nancy Dill’s brother (Don, I think)! Mostly I remember enjoying it all immensely and thinking that we really hadn’t studied much or learned anything; we had been having too much fun. High school was a whole different matter, but Brunskill set me up for life.

  4. On November 28, 2014, Jim Walls commented as follows (reproduced with permission):

    Bruce, I happened upon your blog as I was looking for information on Brunskill School. Your thread about Brunskill and the experience of the “special class” transported me back. I have always felt it was a remarkable group of people. Some remarkable teachers, as well. My inclusion among so many accomplished careers is perhaps misplaced, but I accept it nonetheless. Actually, I was looking for information about Michael Trew, as I noted that he was presenting a Telehealth lecture from Alberta that I was alerted to. Harley and I still have intermittent contact, and I am aware of the careers of Nancy Dill, Mary-Ellen Wright, Doug Thorpe, Glenda MacDonald, and Rebecca Perehudoff. I was aware of Marjorie Clelland’s tragic death. She influenced many at the U of S. The others you mention are no less accomplished. I think Miss Leslie, Miss Hope and all the others would be proud, and maybe amazed in some cases!

    Having practiced social work in geriatrics all of my career in Saskatchewan and Ontario, I retired as Director of Social Work for the local Health Region last year. Retirement lasted one week and I am now working for the Alzheimer Society. I am a husband, father and grandfather; an amateur musician and actor.

  5. On May 27, 2014, Tony Paine commented as follows (belatedly reproduced with permission):

    Hi Bruce:

    I am just at home between trips scanning e-mail that needs to be looked after. I looked up your WordPress Blog with a bit of history. My Brunskill class included Naomi Rose and Nancy Lovell plus Don Wright, David Miller (a common name and your link is broken so I can’t check) and I knew Mike Trew (in High School at Walter Murray, anyway). My mother Vetha, now 89, lives across the corner in the independent living section of Luther Towers, so I see the school once a year in my annual pilgrimage. I didn’t keep up with most folks from Brunskill and recall most of the high school class did not stay in Saskatoon. I did see Naomi Rose about 15 years ago in Toronto.

    To be honest, I don’t recall your name, although the names I mention above spent quite a bit of time together in school – I think because David and Don lived on my walking route home. I’m not sure if you are aware that we made a Louis Riel movie in Grade 7 and David Miller was Riel; the nick-name “Louis” stuck with him in high school (Evan Hardy in his case), I am told.

    My younger brother, Michael Paine, went a year later to Victoria school in the AcTal program. An aquatic biology and statistical consultant, he passed away in North Vancouver 3 years ago.

    I’m far from distinguished in my career, but I can summarize it for those who care:

    BSc Chemistry 1974 U of Sask; Top Graduate in Science
    Hons Cert in Chemistry 1975 U of Sask.
    PhD in Chemistry, Magna Cum Laude, McMaster, 1979.

    25 year career with Xerox Research in Mississauga, first as a researcher, then I got an MBA (1998 Ivey Business School with some kind of honor roll that escapes me at the moment) and worked in technology licensing and spin-outs for a few years before taking an exit package in late 2003 when my job was contracted out (age 49). Then I worked part time consulting and as Adjunct Professor in the McMaster Master of Engineering and Entrepreneurship program until 2008. If you want to find any of my 20 patents or 35 scientific publications, searching under Anthony James Paine might turn them up.

    Somewhere in the past 15 years I found time to earn the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst designation from the CFA Institute) and I managed a little mutual fund for friends and family for 30 years and write an occasional investing newsletter advocating low cost, low maintenance investing for do-it-yourselfers. For 10 years now, I have been saying that future stock returns will be much lower than in the past: 2% dividends + 2% inflation + 1.6% real historical earnings growth = 5.6%. Inflation and dividends were higher in the past which is the only reason historical returns were 10% annually.

    Another oblique reference is that I was on the provincial junior golf team for Sask in 1972 – probably the peak of my golf career 😉 and I’m really glad I had the good sense to realize I wasn’t competitive enough and got a good education instead. Through my working life I played quite a bit of golf and maintained (what I thought was) a good work-life balance, so never rose to any kind of stardom in either the golf nor business world. I would probably make a terrible politician because I feel an obligation to tell it like it is.

    Since retiring young (no kids and a teacher wife), I’ve taken up photography and I’m a member of 3 or 4 clubs and competition director at Etobicoke Camera Club where you seem to have found me. My own web site is http://www.tonypainephoto.com and my wife’s is http://www.susancollacott.ca (she is an abstract painter). I also love hiking and travel.

    I don’t do Facebook or Linked In, and despite working for a former leading edge “High Tech” firm, I don’t own a smart phone and my cell phone plan is $10 a month and I hardly ever turn it on.

    I guess if I’ve written all this I’m OK with you posting it verbatim (if you want), providing you don’t include my contact information, although a link to my photo site is fine. Meanwhile, if you were in my Brunskill class (home room 13, I recall) maybe you can stimulate my memory with a story or two….

    Tony Paine
    May 27, 2014

  6. Tony Paine mentioned the broken link in relation to David Miller. Here is David, in 2014:


    David Miller
    Source: Grain Handling and Transportation Summit, 2014
    Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

  7. Hi. I’m so delighted to find this blog entry. In 1962 or 1963 (I don’t recall which year, the past is foggy), I began attending Grosvenor Park. I was in Grade 3, and was at Grosvenor Park for two years before being transferred to King Edward. My name at the time was Heather-Lee Jones (I have since changed my name). For most of those two years I remember being in some kind of mini-class several days a week (and in regular class the rest of the time) with Joey Chertkow’s brother Howie, and several other students. The names I remember are Sandy Smellie, David Meier, Henry Allen Spencer and two other girls I remember only as Carol and Carol Elaine. The teacher of this mini-class was named Wideen.

    I was at King Edward in the AcTal class for grades 5 and 6, with the kids I remember from Grosvenor Park and a number of other children. My family moved to Winnipeg at the end of grade 6 and I lost track of everyone in Saskatoon. I’ve often wanted to see if I could find out more about those programs, but while I’ve searched the Net before, this is the first time I’ve found any mention of what appears to be that program.

    I’d love to connect with anyone who remembers the mini-class or any of the people in it.

  8. I was directed to this blogsite by Neil Abramson, and read it with interest. There are a couple of points where my experiences differ, in terms of the period I was there in a class with Neil. The years I was at Brunskill (’62 to ’66), there was only one AcTal class there for my year, and the regular class for that same grade, so 24 students from the East side of Saskatoon. There was also a class for the West side, that went to King Edward. Two of my 3 younger sisters were also in the program, but they ended up at King Edward and Greystone Heights schools (our home neighbourhood). My parents realized by the 3rd go round that going to a school out of the neighbourhood was a problem, and my youngest sister did better staying in her home school. I truly think that my class was challenging and valuable, but being in a different area meant that some of us didn’t make friends with the kids in our own neighbourhoods.

    I’ve often wondered what happened to many of my classmates. I’ve stayed in touch with most of those who went on to Evan Hardy, and run into a few of the others over the years. To add to the roll call of “distinguished alumni” of the program, don’t forget Ken Romanchuk, an ophthalmologist in Calgary, and Anne Doig, a family physician in Saskatoon, both who were in the Grade 8 class of ’66 with me, and Jonathan Kaplan, at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as Jerusalem University College. He was one year behind me.

    As for myself, I am currently living in Dryden, Ontario, and have had a career as a Library Technician, but I regard my best work as being the mother of 3 great kids, wife of a graduate of the AcTal program at King Edward (Gr. 8 class of ’64), and long-time La Leche League Canada Leader.

  9. Colleen Byrnes Kennedy commented further, as follows (reproduced with permission):

    My husband also had a gifted family —his older brother was at Victoria School, starting in 1956, but in those days it was an accelerated program where they did grades 5-8 in 3 years, and Dick was at King Ed from 1960-64. They had both ends of the academic spectrum at King Ed, and he jokes that he might have been in the wrong class. He had Melba Hope as his teacher, before she moved to Brunskill to teach us.

  10. Frances Mundy commented further, as follows (reproduced with permission):

    I too was in the ‘special class’ at Brunskill, along with Rosemarie Rupps (of Vancouver) who indeed was the one who sent me this link. I am writing mainly because I was a close friend of Marjorie Clelland right to the end, when she died, on July 7, 2007, at the age of 54. She often came to Toronto and stayed with me and I stayed with her on my visits to Saskatoon. Her death was very tragic and a great loss, as she was like family to me. She and I grew up on the same street in North Park, a working-class neighbourhood, and we were both excited to be travelling to Brunskill for our later years in public school. We enjoyed the experience immensely and we talked about the time we spent there and of fellow students often over the years that followed. She was especially fond of Miss Hope and visited her several times after her retirement from teaching. At that time there was no AcTal class at high school (as I believe there now is) and we spent four years at City Park Collegiate together. At the grade 12 graduation we were mentioned for our common claim to fame, which was to be the first to wear round wire-framed ‘John Lennon’ glasses to school in grade 10. I wonder if that’s what Miss Hope meant by us becoming the ‘future leaders of the community.’

  11. Frances Mundy commented further, as follows (reproduced with permission):

    Brunskill was, for me at least (and I think for Marjorie and Rosemarie), such a formative part of my education. Rosemarie and I actually met up in Saskatoon last August and walked all around Brunskill school trying to place memories here and there. Then we walked down the street to where we had carved our initials, but they were gone this time (Rosemarie had found them some 5 or 10 years ago). We walked all around the area and someone could have done a study of memory, as she and I sorted through our usually only slightly but sometimes very different recollections!

  12. Neil Remington Abramson commented as follows (reproduced with permission):

    Unlike you, I do not remember that program with any fondness. As I recall, there was one girl who was an outcast, bullied and badly treated by all her classmates.

    And there was one boy who missed the first year, having skipped grade 5 and coming a year late, in grade 6, after all the friendships had been established the year before. If he had been smarter and more strategic he would have made friends with the bullied girl and cursed the rest who were all, in their own ways, either bullies or indifferent to how the bullies behaved. But he was desperate not to be treated as a second victim so he went along with the victimization of the girl. That boy was me.

    It’s funny how all these others don’t seem to remember how they treated her. I suppose it’s my psychological type that causes me to remember that injustice better and as the most important thing, not allowing it to fade beneath a rising tide of sticky reminiscence.

    I feel sad that I participated in the injustice. I hated my three years, or at least the first two, in that program. I guess I couldn’t find anyone who saw things like I did..

    Life sometimes involves balance and justice. Anyway, I went to high school with the girl we had all bullied. We became friends. She did well in high school and married an Anglican priest. I think she’s been fine despite the nastiness of those years. God knows how she survived that abuse. Some kids, treated that way, might have committed suicide but she was strong, I guess. She was always a good person – I wonder how the mean ones turned out?

    I suppose it made me strong, too. Or maybe I was strong anyway. Or maybe I wasn’t, but had that potential. Even as a child, I didn’t seek the gratuitous approvals that seem so meaningful for some others. It made me hope, during my time at Brunskill, that I would grow up as quickly as possible. I was very glad when it was over and I could move on to high school, and then university.

    You escaped the program, thanks to your panic crash. I did not, thanks to my endurance. To me, you were the lucky one.

    I suppose the past often looks rosier when one no longer has to endure it. But I don’t miss it and wouldn’t want to relive it.

    Years later I ran into one of my Brunskill classmates at Western, when I was doing my PhD. She was one of the popular girls, both then and then. Never bullied. .We recognized each other, and spoke for a few minutes.

    I never followed up. Neither did she.

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