Technology opens the school door — both real and virtual — for vulnerable students

Technology opens the school door — both real and virtual — for vulnerable students

The shy young man doesn’t speak or show his face. All I see during a video call is a hand holding up sophisticated sketches that might some day be turned into animation.

The silent student is into anime — the distinctive Japanese animation style — and he’s also working on a graphic novel. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.

His classmate Shalom is more outgoing. She shows me a colourful, graffiti-style treatment of her name that hits the mood of the times. It’s shaped like a face mask.

Pen, pencil and paper is all that Shalom and other students currently have access to. But Shalom and the others are keen to experiment with other media and other styles including graffiti and animation, which is a $4.1-billion-a-year business in Vancouver.

Shalom also talked excitedly about their recent discussion about the value and purpose of public art that focused on Gisele Amantea’s controversial aluminum poodle in the school’s neighbourhood at Main Street and 18th Avenue.

“Definitely art is in my future,” said Shalom. “Definitely as a hobby, but I want to learn to do graphics so that maybe I can go into design. I definitely want to do that in college.”

For another classmate, Azorius, art is more therapy than passion.

“Drawing helps keep me calm. … When I get anxious, drawing gets me really chill,” said the 16-year-old. His interest is more in science and animals than art.

All three are students at Tupper Nova, an alternative program for Grades 10 to 12. Each year, a maximum of 25 students are accepted. What unites them is that they’ve all been out of school for anywhere from six months to two years.

The reasons are myriad — anxiety, depression, poverty, family breakup and so on.

“Of course, they can be frustrating to people around them,” teacher Matthew Friesen said of his students. “But they’re so interesting, so different and so amazing. … The things and distress they are able to tolerate and still make it to school, it’s is incredible how resilient and strong they are. And they don’t even realize it.”

Originally, the program was a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver school board aimed at addressing the needs of students with mental health issues. Paradoxically, it was abandoned because of poor attendance. Although the program was aimed at alleviating anxiety and depression, many of the kids still couldn’t bear to get through the school door.

Now with two teachers and two youth and family workers, the focus is on re-engaging students in learning so that they can use Tupper Nova as a stepping stone to other educational programs.

“We want to use every weapon we can to get kids to come to school,” said Friesen.

Art gets them there. If they’re anxious, it calms them down and provides an outlet for their passions. Pen, pencil and sketchbooks are good. But these kids want to animate and create digitally and learn more about graphic novels.

“Our hope is to use technology as an incentive because these are things that they’re passionate about and really good at using,” said Friesen.

“It’s freeing for this demographic to be able to work in a (digital) realm that they know and love,” said fellow teacher Jesse Caswell. “A lot of mainstream schools have giant tech labs. But this is an alternate school and we scratch and claw every year to keep up our technology standard.”

These kids are digital natives who have always known smartphones and they were popping with ideas when asked what they need to do their kind of art.

That’s how Friesen and Caswell came up with a request for $6,850 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School program.

It would pay for eight tablets, a desktop computer for editing illustrations and photos, five DSLR cameras for photography and stop-motion animation and $350 to start a library of graphic novels.

For a decade, The Vancouver Sun Adopt-a-School program’s primary focus has been to help ensure kids don’t go to school hungry or without proper clothes and that they have learning experiences that enable them to fulfil their potential.

During the pandemic, needs are greater than ever. Jobs have disappeared and more families struggle to put food on the table. More children and youth are suffering with anxiety and depression with calls to the Kids Help Phone up 70 per cent.

And, if schools are forced to close again, how many families won’t have what their children need to Zoom to class or do their homework? Of the nearly $1 million in requests for help this year, nearly $70,000 is for technology.

Last spring, when schools were shuttered, Vancouver Technical Secondary raided its computer lab and lent laptops to 90 families. But vice-principal Sonja Rondestvedt said there are still 80 students who don’t have one. She’s asked Adopt-a-School for $25,000 to buy 30 laptops.

At King George Secondary in Vancouver’s West End, principal Geoff Taylor has a similar problem. He’s asked for $20,000 to buy 16 laptops and a charging cart.

I’m proud to say that my newspaper — this newspaper [The Vancouver Sun] — and its readers recognized and responded to the pressing needs of children and youth.

Since 2011, our readers have recognized how hard it is to learn when you’re hungry and have donated nearly $6 million.

But learning is harder still if you can’t get through the school door.

By Daphne Bramham (

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