For more than five years, the Chilliwack school district has consistently languished below the provincial average in graduating students.
In the 2009/10 school year, just 69 per cent of students made it to graduation – 11 per cent below the provincial average.
The Chilliwack Progress is putting faces to those numbers. This concludes the four-part series.
For four months, Clara Hooper was repeatedly asked ‘why are you here,’ as she sat in a classroom with teenagers half her age.
Her response was always the same: “It’s important to graduate.”
Last September, Clara – business owner, wife, mother of two teenagers, Chilliwack secondary’s PAC president, and high school dropout – went back to school.
“It was something I had to do,” says Clara, 39. “It’s been a nagging irritant in the back of my mind for 20 years.”
In November 1989, two months into her Grade 12 year at Chilliwack secondary, Clara quit school. Her boyfriend at the time, who she had intended to marry, wanted to continue his schooling. The plan was for her to work full-time at Woolworths, making $7 an hour, to save for the wedding and help her boyfriend with his post-secondary education.
At the time, the decision was easy.
“I was bored with school. Quite honestly, I was a very mature student and I was being treated like a kid who knew nothing and I was beyond that. As a mature student, being talked down to by teachers, that didn’t work for me.”
Clara’s dad, a Chilliwack farmer who also didn’t graduate, pleaded with her to finish. She was so close, it seemed like a waste to not complete what she’d started. He offered to pay full tuition for university if she stuck it out, but Clara was undeterred.
“It was about my independence. Anybody could go to school, but I had a job.”
For 20 years, she’s been fighting to take that decision back.
“I always wanted to go back. But life gets in the way, you know.”
She broke up with her high school sweetheart shortly after he graduated. She married her husband Greg when she was 20, had her first child at 21, second at 22, and started her car repair business Buny’s ‘n Bugs in her mid-20s. She opened a women’s shelter, ran for mayor, and became PAC president at Chilliwack secondary – the school she deserted so many years earlier.
Last year, as her sons, both on accelerated education programs, inched closer to graduation, she knew she had to take the plunge. She could have done it online, she just needed English 12 and Civics 11 to get her Dogwood, but instead Clara chose to go back to CSS.
“I wanted to graduate from the school I was meant to graduate from.”
Every morning from 8:25 to 11:25, she walked through the hallways just like the high school kids and sat in classes with them.
“It was a little scary because I was an adult in a teen world. But it’s about completion, if you leave loose ends, you’re always going to be looking back.”
The school system 20 years ago didn’t work for Clara – and for some kids, it’s still not working today.
Some say the academic, one-curriculum-fits-all model that schools have been operating under since the early 1900s are alienating millions of kids every year.
International education advisor, Sir Ken Robinson, has a theory that’s been making the rounds all through B.C. school districts this year. Robinson believes standard, “factory-model” schools, which were designed and imaged after the industrial revolution, don’t work for today’s kids.
Samson Bradley, 17, agrees.
School came easy to him. Getting As and Bs was routine. But in Grade 5, he grew bored with the system. It was far too repetitive. The curriculum taught one year was the same being taught early the following year.
“I already knew the stuff. Everything was really, really easy, nothing challenged me, and I just stopped caring.”
Samson, who can spend hours drawing buildings and creating Lego monstrosities, checked out. Rather than listen to his teachers lecture at the front of the class, he read through his textbooks, and when he got through those, he stopped going to class altogether.
“I learn more browsing the Internet in one day than I did in a whole year at school.”
He was expelled in Grade 10.
School districts across the province, including Chilliwack, have been researching how to incorporate a more personalized, 21st century learning format into their schools.
With 21st century learning, education is tailored to individual student’s needs, interests and aptitudes. It’s more research-driven than textbook, more active learning than passive, more student centred than teacher-driven. The focus isn’t solely on academics, rather it addresses the social, emotional and intellectual needs of each student in the system.
“We are going through a renaissance period in our public education system right now that has finally awakened to the reality that the pedagogies, the practices, and even the curriculum is not adequately preparing our students for life in the 21st century and is not reflecting life in the 21st century,” says Awneet Sivia, head of the teacher education program at the University of the Fraser Valley.
A significant component of 21st century learning includes technology, which Sivia says is long overdue.
“The reality of children’s communication, learning and access to information is technologically based and that needs to be mirrored, and in fact, further enhanced by what they do in schools – not diminished by it.”
But the problems in schools aren’t centred solely around disengagement. For Samson’s older sister Julia Frances, 18, it was about being accepted.
Julia first started being bullied by her peers in Grade 1. She came from a low-income, broken family. Her mom couldn’t afford to buy her new clothes or school supplies every year. And her peers preyed on that.
She tried homeschooling, but because her mom had other priorities with a boyfriend and a baby in the house, she fell behind. When she returned to high school, she couldn’t cope.
“I’m not lazy and I’m not dumb … I actually enjoy learning. I just couldn’t deal with school.
“There are so many problems in our schools, kids talking back to their teachers, girls selling themselves, drugs … our generation is so screwed up psychologically. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t deal with the kids and how they were.”
Julia dropped out in Grade 11.
For Evan, who requested his name be changed, staying in school wasn’t a choice.
“I needed a job to survive.”
At 16, when his mom’s boyfriend moved into their house, Evan was told to leave. Finishing school fell to the bottom of his priorities.
For two years Evan struggled to find work to offset the costs of rent, bills and groceries, but because he was a high school dropout, he was often overlooked by employers. He lived off rice, worked under the table, and sold his guitar and Playstation to survive. And although he has since acquired seasonal employment that pays $15 an hour, it’s still a struggle.
“I live pay cheque to pay cheque.”
And he’s constantly judged by employers, parents, and peers.
“When you meet people for the first time, and they ask if you graduated, you don’t always get the best looks when you tell them you dropped out. They assume you’re dumb, even when you’re not.”
Tim Bohr, director of Youth Services, says success in schools and in the community, starts at home.
“There are reasons why kids are dropping out of school, and typically it’s because stuff is happening at home or in their life.
“Just one caring adult, that can be the turning point in the life of an at-risk youth.”
On June 11, Clara Hooper will be crossing the commencement stage ahead of her two boys.
“No matter what in life, if you want to advance forward, the minimum you need is your Dogwood diploma.
“High school isn’t just about what you’re learning – it’s about dealing with people, dealing with different personalities to achieve a goal. And just like in a workplace, there are different personalities and you’re not going to get along with everyone, but you still have to work with them. By proving that you can stick it through and get your Dogwood diploma, you are proving that you have what it takes.”
Supports are available
At risk youth in Chilliwack are not alone. Roughly 200 have been identified as homeless, and hundreds more are scraping by in the public school system, with limited or no support at home, battling abuse, neglect, exploitation, teen pregnancy, mental health, and disengagement from school.
• Futures Continuing Your Education: (8855 Elm Street) provided by Chilliwack school district, this program offers flexible hours for education, career and personal planning, young parent service, a breakfast and lunch program, and educational opportunities designed specifically for First Nations students.
• Chilliwack Youth Services (45904 Victoria Ave.) provides one-on-one youth counselling as well as family counselling, hot lunches, clothing exchanges, hygiene supplies, as well as drop-in recreational programs. Youth Services staff advocate on behalf of Chilliwack’s marginalized youth and provide supports and referrals to resources in the community in areas of health, personal safety, housing and legal matters.
• The Astra Program (45904 Victoria Ave.) through Chilliwack Addictions and Prevention Services assists youth who have demonstrated problems with alcohol and or drug use through one-on-one confidential outreach counselling. The program also offers group support, referrals, and peer leadership training.
• Sto:lo Nation Reconnect (29-6014 Vedder Road) is a confidential service for youth on the street or youth at risk of street involvement. Reconnect workers help connect youth with services and referrals in the community.
• The Salvation Army Emergency Youth Shelter (behind the Care and Share Centre at 45746 Yale Road) is for children and teens between 12 and 18 and is open from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., 365 days a year. The Ministry of Children and Family Development is notified of any youth who stays in the shelter for follow-up assistance and ongoing support.
• Fraser Health Youth Wellness Centre (45470 Menholm Road) provides public health programs and services including birth control, sex education, STD examinations, pregnancy testing, immunizations, early prenatal care, HIV/AIDS information, health education, counselling and referrals.
• Child, Youth and Family Advocate helps children, youth and families when they feel they are not getting the services they need from the provincial government, particularly in regard to services provided by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
• Kids Help Phone is a 24-hour, 7-day service, staffed by professional counsellors, for children and youth in need of someone to talk to about everyday problems.