Ann Cook, founder and principal of Flex ED

Ann Cook was ready for the virtual classroom

While people around the world were rocked when COVID-19 took over our lives this year, Ann Cook (BSc’88, BEd’89, MEduc’09) was already in her comfort zone.

When schools across the country closed their doors mid-March 2020, many were forced to adapt to a changing educational landscape, forcing parents into a role they had never considered before. 

This wasn’t the case for Cook and her company, Flex ED, a virtual school in Saskatchewan which offers students an experience to learn that differs from the conventional school setting. 

“Thankfully, (our) school is a bit of a stabilizing factor because we’ve been doing this for 15 years,” says Cook, who has seen enrolment in Flex ED skyrocket recently as concerned parents look to learning alternatives. 

As August crept closer to September, Flex ED’s website warned potential students that it had reached capacity with a waiting list established for potential primary and middle school students. 

“For us, it doesn’t seem as dramatic in some ways,” says Cook. “It’s still crazy for us, there’s lots of concerns. But people are flooding over to us because there’s a stability factor.” 

Cook, a lifelong Saskatoon resident and a graduate of Walter Murray High School, always knew teaching was where she was headed. After all, it is in her blood. 

“I come from a long history of teachers. My mom was a teacher, aunts … I have a lot of teachers in my family line – cousins, nieces and nephews, my grandmother. It was a pretty natural fit.” 

After graduating from USask in 1989, Cook jumped right into the profession; teaching kids from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and enjoying every minute. But as her career experience progressed, she started to see gaps in the way education was delivered. She knew something had to change and had full confidence to make that happen and get ahead of the curve in the way students received their education. 

“The transformation that’s happening right now in education, that’s what I was feeling back then." 

“There should be a lower student-teacher ratio. There should be a freedom to create their own learning environment. There’s lots of things I was thinking about then that are coming to fruition now.” 

As a teacher to mostly younger grades, Cook saw things needed to change. Somehow.

Ann Cook

“I had large classes and there were so many needs, so many ability levels and I thought this just isn’t working well,” she recalls. 

The seed was sown and Cook looked to turn her education model into a business model. This was not an easy transition, she recalls. 

“I had pretty much no (business) training. I didn’t know anything about it. So, I’ve learned by experience, by trial and error and it was really interesting, shall we say.” 

“I had never thought about education as a business. What I have come to realize that it is a business.” 

Even though the vision she carried stayed with her, initially creating that business was not easy and there were times she considered throwing in the towel. 

“But the right help and the right inspiration would come along and new doors would open,” she says. 

Cook would often go back and recall her days on the USask campus where one of her Education professors requested his students to think differently as teachers. 

“He was a very out-of-the-box thinker. But he really shocked me. I was in his class and he said, ‘All of you should homeschool your children.’ I didn’t even know what home-schooling was.” 

His words and his teaching methods resonated deeply with Cook. 

“He had some very strong opinions and he talked about how learning happens. He pummelled us with questions and none of us answered. None of us could answer his questions,” she says. 

It all came down to the method of teaching she had only been exposed to – being taught just facts rather than a process of learning. 

“He had some very interesting opinions and that really made me think a lot. I guess I’ve always had a bent toward alternative education.” 

She firmly believes there is room for students who don’t necessarily flourish in a classroom setting and her alternative allows for another option for parents to consider. 

Today, Flex ED prides itself as a school without walls that allows students in Saskatchewan to learn in a way that suits them and the system. 

Cook says distance learning, or remote learning, is something they have spent 15 years perfecting. There were bumps along the way, but she learned to make things better for her students. 

However, she doesn’t want anyone to think technology has replaced human contact between teacher, student and parent. 

“We have a philosophy at Flex ED and I tell people that while technology is a great tool for educating at a distance, it will never replace human interaction and connection.” 

Building relationships remains very important to Cook and is really the bedrock of her success. 

“We’re like the opposite of most schools. Most schools are brick and mortar at their core, and then they add virtual offerings. We are virtual at our core, and we have brick and mortar offerings,” contends Cook. “When it’s not COVID, we do have lots of real space activities that we have for our kids and our families.” 

That includes year-round get-togethers as well as a full formal Grade 12 graduation for students. 

The curriculum is the same one used in school systems around the province, but it’s the delivery of that curriculum that sets them apart. Part of that is the use of technology, something most people are forcibly just getting their heads around now. 

“Our core learning does not have to be interrupted and our core community doesn’t have to either. We are used to having a virtual community,” she says. 

With so many years of perfecting their business model, Cook is confident Flex ED fills a need today more than ever. 

Now it’s Cook’s turn to provide uncertain parents some comfort, knowing Flex ED’s a potential solution for many and their children will still receive a great education. 

“It’s been very moving. I’ve literally had people say to me, ‘thank you for giving me a ray of hope.’ ”

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