AbOut Tier 3
by Natalie Gates
Walking through the bustling hallways of Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS), Brett Hancock offers easy smiles and fist pumps to almost every student he passes. Smirks form on their faces as they greet him back. “I learned a lot traveling, but I sure as hell didn’t learn much in high school,” he says. “The goal with these programs is to let them learn valuable things — like the acceptance of others, empathy, and respect.”
Hancock wears pointy leather shoes with an intricate gold design, a stylish blazer over a t-shirt, and various ear piercings that make him look more like a rock star than a high school teacher. He oversees the alternative schooling programs of School District 68, known as “Tier 3”, for students with debilitating challenges in their lives, such as poverty, addiction, or other mental health issues. NDSS hosts four different alternative programs alongside its mainstream ones. Hancock is the primary teacher for the AbOut program, which stands for Aboriginal Outreach, or Adventure Based Outdoor Learning.
Several boys from AbOut are heading to the gym in muscle shirts and shorts with a staff member.
“Gunna get a nice big swell on?” Hancock teases.
“You know it,” they call back.
In its fourth year, AbOut is geared towards vulnerable grade 9-12 students and helps them complete their graduation requirements in unique ways. Being Aboriginal is not a requirement to enroll in the program, and a few students are not, but Aboriginal culture is a large focus.
Students learn about career options and participate in experiential learning in the community, such as volunteering for construction, farming, landscaping, maintenance, and carving projects. These non-traditional classes help to engage the students, and inspire them to create their own assignments. “One student made a ‘Dragon’s Den’-type proposal for a logo for the AbOut program,” Hancock says. “It was a raven, which is known as a wise trickster of a bird, to symbolize the kids. It blew me away, the way that student sold his idea.”
AbOut has built strong relationships with the Snunemuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nations, Tilicum Lelum Friendship Center, and the Young Professionals of Nanaimo, which helps grow the students’ self-esteem and goal-setting skills. The family-like element is what keeps the program together, says teacher Kathi Clapoff, who is known as the mother-figure of AbOut. “We have some older students who are really strong and act as elders and leaders,” Clapoff says. “Relationships and culture drive the program.”
“The ‘Circle of Courage’ is also a big focus,” notes Hancock. The Circle of Courage is a metaphor used in education that says students must have a feeling of belonging in order to have a chance to become independent and the ability to show generosity. Without belonging, independence and generosity can’t happen. “And humour is a very important part of teaching. They learn to be able to laugh at themselves.”
Clapoff agrees that AbOut provides a sort of sanctuary to students. “There are kids that come in some days under the influence, but they come right into the AbOut room,” she says. “AbOut is like home. It gives them a sense of belonging, a safe place, and lets them focus on where they want to be.”
Across the hall is the room for the Ravens Lelum Teen Parenting Centre, a program for young parents to fulfil academic goals. In its third year, the Raven program was created as an extension of AbOut when enrollment numbers grew too big.
”It’s kind of like the dads are in AbOut and the moms are in Raven,” Hancock says. “At first we wanted them together to focus on joint parenting skills, but the kids seemed to need a break from each other sometimes.”
That and the fact that having several babies in the room at once can make for quite a crowded space; this way, the mothers are able to bring their kids to school and interact with them.
Raven and AbOut graduation rates are up 20% over the last 6 years, and more Aboriginal students have graduated from the program than at any other school in Nanaimo or Ladysmith, Hancock says.
Hancock walks through the halls back towards the school’s main entrance. He passes a windowed room where a large group of students are watching a presentation about proper school conduct. There are students inside from the French Immersion program, mainstream students, and students from Tier 3, along with a few babies from the Raven program listening as they sit on their mothers’ laps. “There’s such a mixture of students under one roof,” Hancock smiles.
Hancock explains that some students finish their high school classes while starting in the trades programs at Vancouver Island University. This is done through the Career and Technical Centre, which is another innovative district program. Other students who may not have completed all the courses required for the program they want to attend at VIU will connect with Adult Basic Education. “Many Tier 3 students take a number of tours to see all that VIU offers, and we try to connect them to staff at VIU that can be a positive support,” he says. “And some of our students have gone straight to VIU degree programs and had great success.”
Back at the main office, Vice-Principal and District Transitions Advisor Bob Brooks sits at his desk, a creased white piece of paper before him. Written on it is the ultimate goal of Tier 3: “Our school provides learning opportunities enabling students and staff to achieve personal excellence and pursue their passions in an inclusive, supportive, and respectful environment. We educate students by teaching skills and modeling attitudes needed to become successful lifelong learners and responsible, caring school and global citizens. Our school honors dignity, purpose, and options for all.”
Brooks explains that he wants to build a new model for alternate learning that will maximize student success by creating better systems to track interventions and make it consistent for all students. “It takes a special kind of teacher,” he says. “It also takes that next step.” He explains that he would like to create a system where students have portfolios with documents that show how they learn best, in order to apply more accurate data on how they are learning.
“I get a tear in my eye every time I talk to the people we have working here,” he continues. “Not because of the bad situations, but because of the hope, energy, will, and skill that our staff has.” He leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “There’s something really amazing about alternate education, and this site is ground zero for significant change.”