Principal Angelo Morelli describes his North Surrey school as both fortress and sanctuary for the 606 children assigned to his care.
The fortress consists of the locked exterior doors, the morning sweeps of the grounds to remove discarded needles and other unwelcome detritus and the vigilance by staff to ensure a feeling of safety.
Sanctuary, though, speaks of providing relief for both body and soul and that requires far more than just locked doors.
“In a trauma sensitive school we must provide a calm and stable environment,” says Morelli.
It’s trauma sensitive because many of the students attending Ecole K.B. Woodward on 106th and 132nd St. are living in poverty and poverty is nothing if not traumatic.
Signs of it are visible in the neighbourhood.
There is addiction – hence those needles on the playground — homeless is apparent from those piled up grocery carts people are pushing, and so is street prostitution.
When Morelli views all this he does so with the eyes of a philosopher. It’s noteworthy that for his work in this school — possibly the most needy in the Surrey school district — he was named one of Canada’s Exceptional Educators on a national list of 40 outstanding principals.
“We have children who come from homes where there isn’t just economic disadvantage but depression and all of the pressures that go with poverty.
“If you had an adult exposed to what these children are exposed to on a daily basis would you expect them to come to their employment and function effectively and to have cool, level head?
“These children are exposed to all kinds of experiences and we expect them to be in attendance. We tell them ‘don’t miss school, be on time, finish your assignments.’ That’s a lot to ask of a child.
“if I have to give back to the community a better product that I am receiving then I have to stabilize the children and make them productive members of society.”
And that is difficult if a child consistently misses classes.
Any child who misses 10 per cent or more of school from kindergarten to Grade Three is more likely to leave school without graduating, said Morelli.
Which is why the school district’s Attendance Matters program has such significance for Morelli and for principals of other Surrey schools where the effects of poverty are posing a threat to children receiving the full benefits of an education.
Key to Attendance Matters, said Morelli, is the daily breakfast program that brings hungry children through the door who might otherwise not come to school.
He said many families struggle on minimum wage jobs and often have to decide between paying rent or eating.
“These are hard working parents trying to get by but it is difficult when rent is so high,” he says.
The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign is again being asked for $100,000 to feed breakfast to about 800 children in 20 Surrey schools including Morelli’s.
Surrey school district official Liane Ricou said data collected by the district shows an overall increase in attendance in schools where Attendance Matters is in operation.
“It’s an extremely important program,” says Ricou.
It is barely light outside when the first group of children arrive for breakfast in K.B. Woodward.
“They start coming in at about 7:45 a.m. and they are all hungry,” says Morelli. “They get a nutritious breakfast — it’s the highlight of their day.”
Not being able to feed them doesn’t bear thinking about, he said.
But if the outside world is grim the atmosphere during breakfast is nothing short of joyful.
The children are smiling, talking, and today day eating their way through plates of scrambled eggs, toast, milk, cereal, fruit and yogurt.
“We have 65 to 60 children a day. Breakfast for them is a huge exciting community event. The kids connect with their friends and adults and they see the school is a warm and welcoming space.”
“You see they are happy and appreciative and when you see their little hands reaching out for toast or a banana it just touches your heart.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)