"Seeing little miracles unfold in classrooms…the child that couldn’t walk taking their first steps or the child who couldn’t communicate saying “I love you” to their parents for the first time… I never get tired of those stories and that’s what I’m most proud of."
Janice McTighe is founder of Calgary’s Renfrew Educational Services. Renfrew’s innovative internationally-recognized approach to education for students with physical and cognitive special needs has translated into stronger learning experiences and richer lives for countless young Albertans.
Janice Edith Edwards was born in Vancouver on January 30, 1941 and grew up in Parksville, British Columbia with parents, Kathleen and Carlisle Edwards, and three siblings. Her childhood offered ample opportunities to swim, bike and hike through the beautiful scenery of Vancouver Island. After high school, Janice was ready for new adventures and moved to Vancouver where she worked and learned valuable lessons in finance, creative thinking and management that would prove useful in her future endeavours. In the early 1960’s, Janice made a trip to Calgary to take in the Stampede and, although she had only planned for a short visit, she ended up staying and calling Calgary home. During her early years in Calgary she married, becoming Janice McTighe, and welcomed four children into her life.
In the early 1970s, Janice set about looking for work that would allow her to contribute to the community while spending as much time as possible with her children, Michael, Kelly, Denise and Daniel. Janice was working as a part-time coordinator for Calgary’s Renfrew District Kindergarten when the Alberta Children’s Hospital approached her and asked if a special needs child could join with the 55 typically-developing students attending the community-owned program. Janice saw no reason why a child with special needs couldn’t be integrated into the classroom and began working with therapists from the hospital to make necessary adaptations to the program. She soon realized that much could be done to help children with disabilities reach their maximum potential and she welcomed additional special needs students to the Renfrew classroom. Janice also began to see that typically-developing children benefited from the integrated program as much as their disabled counterparts, by learning compassion and understanding and by developing their innate skills as teachers and mentors to classmates needing assistance with socialization, language or play skills.
Organizing and running the program was difficult in the early years. Janice and her teammates had limited access to appropriate facilities and had to work within a very small operating budget. In those early stages of the Renfrew story all hands were directly involved with every aspect of the program, whether it was sweeping up sand, substituting in the classroom, changing diapers, wiping away parents’ tears, running parent support groups, or arranging exercise and recreation activities for moms.
As the programs moved into a second decade, Janice and her team had succeeded in establishing Renfrew’s credibility and could now focus on working to expand their expertise, extend the depth of programming and meet the growing demand for Renfrew services. As the capital bank account increased, planning began for the next stages of expansion. This included the goal of establishing purpose-designed and wholly-owned Renfrew facilities in various locations across Calgary.
By the turn of the new millennium, Janice and her team had embarked on an exciting new chapter in Renfrew’s evolution as diligent fundraising efforts allowed classes to begin in the new, specially-built Renfrew Main School, which has since been renamed the Janice McTighe Centre. Over the next few years more buildings and programs were added and the school expanded its small fleet of buses. By 2009, Renfrew programs were being offered in five day schools around Calgary, including three that were built through Renfrew fundraising efforts. Plans were also underway to create a new Renfrew centre within the Child Development Centre at the University of Calgary.
Something that had started as a modest community kindergarten had grown into a world-class, innovative educational leader serving some 650 children from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 6. Thousands more students were benefitting from support programs provided by Renfrew to 170 schools across the city, while rural communities were served by outreach programs for children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Remarkably, Janice and her outstanding team of special needs teachers, psychologists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, family support workers, child development facilitators, and administrative and support staff have built it all without ever operating at a deficit or carrying long term debt. Janice’s solid business model, commitment to staff development and careful succession planning will help ensure that Renfrew’s exceptional programs are in place to serve children and families well into the future.
Janice McTighe has been the leader and visionary throughout Renfrew’s impressive evolution. She has served children and families in her community with a unique blend of modesty, creativity, diligence, pragmatism and strong business sense. In 1994, her efforts were recognized with the Premier’s Award for Outstanding Service to Alberta Families. She received the Calgary YWCA Woman of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and received the City of Calgary Community Achievement Award for Education in 2009. For nine consecutive years, from 2000 to 2009, Renfrew was among the one percent of Canadian schools to win the Platinum School Recognition Award from the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
Janice McTighe’s accomplishments to date offer a powerful and inspiring example of all that can be achieved when caring and compassion for others are combined with energy, enthusiasm and a strong drive to make our Alberta communities better places to be.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence