“This is not a population that does well with this,” says Mary-Lynn Wardle, indicating face-to-face interaction. “They do great side by side.”
The population Wardle is referring to is the “learners” at West View School: Calgary Youth Attendance Centre, or CYAC, where she is a teacher. Students must have a probation officer to be referred to CYAC, and some come from the Calgary Young Offender Centre. All are involved with the justice system in some way.
“The whole goal is to disentangle them from the justice system,” Wardle says. Many of her learners struggle with addiction or mental health issues or have special learning needs. Some of the teens live in shelters, on their own or even on the street. They haven’t succeeded in conventional school settings, and for some, CYAC is a “last chance” school.
A fresh approach to learning
Fortunately, CYAC is decidedly unconventional. Wardle and her partner-teacher Shan Hollywood provide instruction in curriculum subjects from social studies to math and English, but students here don’t sit in classrooms, respond to bells or grab lunch at the cafeteria.
Instead, they follow personalized learning plans that focus on earning credits and developing practical skills and trades. Wardle, who wrote her master’s thesis on at-risk learners, says paper modules are fine for some students, but one approach should never be expected to suit everyone. “We work from where the learner is,” Wardle says. “Not from where the rules are.”
Of the 19 students currently attending CYAC, about half are off-site on any given day earning work experience credits or pursuing training programs in trades like pipe fitting, iron work and culinary arts. Those who come to the southeast campus, even for part of the day, are served a hot lunch. These meals and the structure they provide, says Wardle, make all the difference. “Food is a real community builder here. If your hands are busy, that’s when the stories come out. And being around the table, that’s when some of your best conversations happen. Anything could come up at that table — and it does.”
Besides receiving nutritious meals, students are encouraged to contribute to the shopping lists and help make menus. They’re instructed in nutrition, digestion and Canada’s Food Guide, and they practice budgeting, stocking a pantry and shopping economically. They’re expected not to swear at the table and not to raid the fridge. “Some of them were raised in places where they didn’t learn how to sit at the table and use cutlery,” Wardle says. “Some of them might not know the difference between some fruits and vegetables.”
The CYAC kitchen
CYAC has been working with BB4CK since the school opened seven year ago. The school receives funding from the Calgary Board of Education for curriculum-specific learning modules, like baking classes, but that funding doesn’t allow for morning snacks and noon meals. “That’s where we found the need,” Hollywood says. “We find that if they do eat their brain cells start to spitfire at about 10 a.m. And by 11:30 they’re hungry again. They’re teenagers.”
Hollywood, who handles most of the food preparation, took BB4CK’s safety and sanitation course, and the school uses a BB4CK binder containing nutritional standards and food guides. While many BB4CK schools receive bag lunches through the organization, CYAC has a different arrangement that allows for it to operate its own kitchen and create the family-style meals that have become central to its sense of community.
CYAC uses BB4CK gift cards to purchase supplies, but handles all its menu-planning and cooking in-house, an arrangement Hollywood says gives CYAC the flexibility to serve its on- and off-campus population while keeping costs low. “When we started it cost about $1.25 for a hot lunch,” Hollywood says. “Now it’s about $1.50. It’s very cost-effective.” It also means CYAC can match its meals to other school activities. On the students’ physical education days, Hollywood prepares spaghetti so they can carb load.
It takes a village
Wardle says the more people and organizations who can advocate for these students, provide encouragement and opportunities, or simply sit beside them and share a meal, the better their chance for their long-term success. “I’m a big believer in the idea that it takes a village to raise a child,” Wardle says. “It takes many, many villages to raise these ones.”
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