'It's like a little piece of heaven'

Jason Schwartz, vice principal at Giscome Elementary School, stands in the library, located on the school's upper level.

Giscome Elementary School is 45 kilometres to the east and north of Prince George. The school, which also houses the East Line Activity Centre, opened in 2014.

The school field backs onto historic St. Frederick's Catholic Church.

Not all visitors to Giscome Elementary School and the East Line Activity Centre walk on two legs.

This rock face just down the road from the school is a Giscome landmark.

No matter the time of year, the scenery around Giscome Elementary School is spectacular.

Fresh off an assignment in one of China's largest cities, Jason Schwartz is loving life
at rural Giscome Elementary School

When Jason Schwartz decided he was ready to come back to Canada to live and work, he attracted interest from employers across the country. He chose to start his newest adventure in School District No. 57.

Schwartz moved from Guangzhou, a city of 16 million people in southern China, to Prince George, British Columbia, population 75,000. As part of the move, he accepted the post of vice principal at tiny Giscome Elementary, a rural school 45 kilometres to the east and north of Prince George. Giscome has a grand total of 28 students, 13 in Kindergarten to Grade 3 and 15 in Grades 4-7.

For Schwartz, who had been a vice principal and English teacher at Guangzhou’s Huamei-Bond International School – with nearly 5,000 students spread across its campus – the change in scenery and lifestyle was radical. Almost four months into his new job, he couldn’t be happier.

“Coming out here every day, it’s like a little piece of heaven,” Schwartz said. “Really it is.”

Schwartz helps cover administrative duties at Giscome because principal Sarah Petrisor also oversees Blackburn Elementary School, 32 kilometres away. As part of Schwartz’s regular duties, he also teaches Language Arts, Math, P.E. and French in the Grade 4-7 class.

When Schwartz was going through his decision-making process, School District No. 57 rose to the top of his job prospect list because of the persistence of Cynthia Mangan, the district’s recruitment and retention officer. In January 2019, during a three-week break for Chinese New Year, Schwartz visited Prince George for the first time. The city was being blanketed by a major snowstorm but, as an Ontario boy who did an undergraduate degree at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, the wintry blast only increased his enthusiasm.

“It was snowing the whole time I was here,” Schwartz said. “And Cynthia joked with me. She said, ‘Well, if it didn’t scare you off, then I guess it’s meant to be.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think this is meant to be.’ Because it really reminds me of my years in Thunder Bay. And those years, I absolutely love to reminisce about because I was so active outdoors – hiking, and I loved to get out and do cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and canoeing, just that whole idea of connecting with nature. With this opportunity to come to Prince George, (the location) has all of that, plus more, it seems. It’s the best of everything that I’ve had so this is a real highlight.”

Schwartz went through the application process and accepted a job offer from SD 57 but didn’t find out until late July 2019 he would be assigned to Giscome Elementary. He and assistant superintendent Cindy Heitman went over the options and Heitman suggested Giscome would be a great fit.

“I thought, ‘Fantastic!’ Schwartz said. “But I did not know where Giscome, British Columbia, was at that point. I had to pull out a map and find out where it was. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s in a rural setting’ and did a little bit more research online and the geography of the area looked fantastic, with a lot of wildlife. In fact, I now experience wildlife three or four times a week driving back and forth. It’s either moose or deer or bear or coyote – you’re always coming across something. It’s so fantastic – this little place is a gem in the wilderness.”

Schwartz is a guy who has always been willing to stray from the beaten path. After he received his teaching credentials, jobs were tough to find in Ontario so he seized an opportunity to go to Hall Beach, Nunavut. He worked at Arnqjuaq School on a two-year contract.

“That was a fantastic experience,” said Schwartz, who estimated student enrolment at 220. “I was right on the Arctic Ocean. The school, my classroom, looked over the ocean. Literally you could see sea life – the narwhal or walrus or any type of whale that was going by. It was a fantastic way of learning and connecting with the Inuit culture.”

Schwartz’s career then took him to Woodstock, Ont., where he was an elementary school teacher and later a vice principal with the Thames Valley District School Board. After 10 years with Thames Valley, he took advantage of a chance to move to China to work on a three-year contract at Huamei-Bond International. Huamei-Bond has Canadian, German, American and Chinese branches on a university-style campus. The Canadian school, of which Schwartz became vice principal, offers students the opportunity to study under the guidelines of the Ontario curriculum.

Regardless of where he has gone, Schwartz has found common denominators – even between the hustle and bustle of Guangzhou and the peaceful country setting of Giscome.

“No matter where I’ve lived, it’s always that sense of culture and community – respect for the culture and community and an understanding that we all view things very differently. But, at the end of the day, we all have the same sense of focus on student achievement and sharing in the safety and welfare of the students,” said Schwartz, who holds a Master’s degree in Special Education.

“Coming from an environment which was so fast-paced and so advanced in terms of infrastructure and technology and transportation, and then coming to an area like this, I’ve had these varied experiences but then I can share these experiences and relate them in such a way that it helps the students understand that there are lots of opportunities out in the world so long as you stay in school and you work hard.

“Ultimately I’m hoping that with me being here and the varied background and the stories that I share and the connections that I make, it makes some sort of a difference. It’s like planting seeds in the hopes that it will encourage (students) to seek higher levels of education or a skilled trade or whatever is of interest for them and it’s going to open up all sorts of doors for them.”