IT'S early Saturday morning as a group of teens shuffle woefully into a school library.
Strangers in the beginning, they will forge a tentative bond by the end. Gathered for detention, they are met with a cynical warning from their instructor: "You mess with the bull, you get the horns."
Filmmaker John Hughes' fictional account of a group of teens spending Saturday detention together in the movie The Breakfast Club is meant to spotlight some common high school shortcomings and challenge stereotypes. Although it's a comedy, the movie takes a serious turn when tales of emotional abuse, anxiety and bullying come to light. The movie reminds that, at least for some students, high school is not a pleasant flurry of spelling bees, prom dresses and glee club.
For some it's a significant struggle.
"When I started here, I was convinced I would never get anywhere in life, that I should just quit while I was ahead," says 17-year-old Cooper Heibloem of starting at her new school.
Despite her challenges, Heibloem didn't quit, and this spring she will join her classmates for their spring convocation. Similar to events at schools across the North Shore, the annual assembly will celebrate student achievement and recognize those who are graduating. This year will be more meaningful, however, because after nearly 39 years in the community Keith Lynn Alternative Secondary School (KLASS) is closing.
"Keith Lynn has done so much to prepare me for my next step: returning to a mainstream school," explains Heibloem in an email. "The support from the teachers gave me the hope and motivation I needed and I am so grateful for all their help. If it hadn't been for this program, I probably would have dropped out of school."
While current principal Michele Henderson admits some students are upset by the closure, it's not all doom-and-gloom at the school these days.
"The biggest gift that we can give the kids is resiliency," says Henderson. "What's most important is that whatever it is that life throws at them, they'll be able to navigate it, so this is just another example of helping them navigate something that is going to be anxiety-provoking and difficult."
In addition to the annual year-end picnic for students, the school will be hosting an evening celebration with a slide show, art and photos for all current and former staff.
Henderson says this year's events will be more special since they will be the last, but she wants students and staff to celebrate with a positive message: "Let's honour what was."
In November 2011, the North Vancouver school district voted to consolidate the KLASS program with other alternative school programs, and move the new program to the former site of Balmoral junior secondary, which closed in 2009. The Balmoral building currently serves as a temporary home to Carson Graham students displaced by that school's renovation. The new alternate program, set to start up in fall 2012, will consolidate the previously separate programs at KLASS, Therapeutic Day Program, Key Program, and the Youth Learning Program, as well as adult basic education classes. Details of the new program, including staff numbers and program philosophy, are still to be determined, but Henderson is sure about one thing: the current incarnation of the KLASS program is done.
Henderson says staff and students are anxious about the change, and it seems they're not the only ones. In January, a public information meeting about the new program drew more than 100 people, many of whom were critical of the move and voiced concerns about increased traffic and lack of public consultation about the change in location. Some expressed concern about the students of alternate programs attending school in their neighbourhood noting they might be a threat to area safety, property values or nearby elementary school students.
It is a reputation that reaches back to the very beginning of the KLASS program and sticks with it today, despite what Henderson agrees is a changed student demographic.
The history of KLASS starts in 1974, when an earlier version of the program was formed in collaboration with the ministry responsible for social services and youth probation services to address a large number of secondary students who had dropped out of school. The first year of the program, called PASS (Project Alternate Secondary School), enrolled 24 students who had been out of the mainstream school system for a number of years. Many were already known to the criminal justice system, and it was through a probation officer that Henderson came to the school. At the time, she was a childcare worker at a group home in Vancouver. A probation officer working with one of the youths at the home also had clients attending the new PASS program, and introduced Henderson to the school. After completing a diploma in learning disabilities and behaviour disorders, Henderson joined the school as an English teacher around 1976. The school had just relocated from North Star Annex to the current site on Shavington Street. At the age of 22, Henderson was teaching students 17 and 18 years old.
Students with behavioural issues, many of whom had dropped out of school, formed much of the initial student body. However, the program started to attract a younger population when it became more well-known among school counsellors and other administrators who were interested in the unique environment and individualized program for students still in school who were slipping through the cracks of mainstream programs. The student population at KLASS would come to include those who weren't getting their needs met or who needed more intervention; students who were withdrawn, depressed, or anxious; or those whose home situations were so dysfunctional they couldn't cope with school.
Henderson says the spectrum of students stretched to include those who weren't successful in school due to issues basically unrelated to behaviour but manifest in poor attendance and lack of engagement.
"In the beginning schools were reluctant to give up their students," says Rae Shidlo, a former counsellor and teacher at KLASS for nine years. Now retired, Shidlo says initially the school dealt with students mostly through their probation officers, but as the program took root and began to appeal to younger students, there was a waiting list to get in. Parents regularly met with Shidlo to find out about the school and if it would be a good fit for their child before enrolling. Some expressed concern about KLASS's reputation for having "gangsters and druggies." Shidlo would reply to their enquiries: "Sure they're there, but they're also at the regular school."
Shidlo came to love her time at KLASS. "It was wonderful. I mean, I couldn't wait to get up in the morning," she says, but admits she had some doubts in the beginning.
"I'd heard things too and I thought, goodness am I ready for this? And I thought no, I'm going to do it. This sounds like a good challenge. And you know what? I never regretted a day," she says. "I loved every bloody minute. It was challenging but it was so rewarding."
Having previously taught at Balmoral and Carson Graham secondaries, Shidlo arrived at KLASS to a student body not quite ready to let her in. Shidlo, who says she smiles and laughs a lot, realized the students thought her pleasant demeanour was phony. "After they realized that was just the real me, it was OK," she recalls. "They were just absolutely delightful to work with because they were like sponges, they were soaking it up because they were accepted. Not tolerated, accepted."
The philosophy behind the alternate learning program at KLASS was to provide the students with a chance to succeed.
"Generally the kids felt like they were failures at school," explains Shidlo. "Our attempt was to change that attitude, because if you feel like you are a success, or not a failure at least, well you're going to go on to do great things."
Rather than focusing on negative behaviour, the school endeavoured to highlight positive behaviour and hard work, and provide different pathways through the traditional high school curriculum. A flexible schedule at KLASS allowed students a longer timeline to complete courses if required, and curriculum was sometimes adapted or modified depending on a student's needs.
"We teach in many, many different ways," explains Henderson.
Those ways may include a combined auditory, written and guided practice approach rather than a standard stand-anddeliver approach, which might not be effective for a student with auditory processing challenges, for example. It's a varied and unique approach to educational challenges that may seem beyond the scope of a teacher's regular job description, but Henderson says she likes the part of the job that helps her make a difference in individual lives.
"It's sort of like a calling," she says. "It's the kind of school that a lot of staff just stay for a really long time."
In recent years, KLASS maintained a regular enrolment of about 130 students who worked in classes of about 12, with one teacher and at least one aide per class.
Shidlo says the majority of students at KLASS did well in her time at the school, but, like any high school, some didn't. For some students, it didn't matter how much the school did for them, there were a lot of other factors involved. Those other factors may have included alcohol or drug addiction combined with negative community or friend associations, or dysfunctional home environments.
In general, the goal of the KLASS program was to prepare students to return to a mainstream high school program, usually after Grade 10. A small group graduated Grade 12 at KLASS, and some entered a work-experience program.
"A lot of these kids have gone on to university; they have jobs, they are responsible citizens," says Shidlo, who remains in contact with many former staff and students from the school. "The connections you made, last," she says.
"I think part of the success that happened for the Keith Lynn kids was that they were in their own building, it was their own spot. If they had disruptive behaviours it didn't bother anybody else. It was part of the program, so then they weren't ostracized or told to be quiet because they were upsetting another classroom," she says. "The school was their home, and I can't see another place offering all of that."
Henderson says there was indication that there would be changes in alternate education on the North Shore about three years ago when the school district experienced a reduction in funds. Public forums and gatherings were held to discuss the budget cuts. It was the beginning of a process that later included meetings with the school district and members of the various alternate programs and their PAC groups to discuss possible consolidation, cohabitation or maintenance of stand-alone programs. In the end, it was decided to consolidate the North Shore's alternate secondary programs in order to reduce costs associated with administering separate programs.
Although Henderson would describe the current mood of the KLASS staff as "sad" about the change, the focus now is on the students. Rather than adding to their stress and making the transition more difficult, Henderson says they are holding steadfast to the school philosophy to try to view any kind of crisis or difficulty as an opportunity to learn.
"I think this is just one more hurdle that we need to view as an opportunity to help kids believe in themselves and that they're going to be successful and that they can do it," she says.
It's a message current KLASS student Sarah Lacroix, 17, appears to have taken to heart.
"Keith Lynn has helped in many ways to prepare me for my next step. It has brought me from a place where I thought I couldn't do anything, to now where I know I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. Today I am prepared to go back to mainstream school, and to continue on with my life with a brighter outlook on things coming my way."
The end of the school term in June will mark the end of an era for KLASS students and staff, and Schidlo has a final parting message for those students who are moving on and for those who are still struggling: "Don't give up. Every inch of you is worth gold."
The KLASS student celebration is scheduled for Sunday, June 24, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.