Kitsilano program works to lower barriers to access to education

Kitsilano program works to lower barriers to access to education

The Vinery Alternative program is asking for $10,500 in funding.

Kitsilano, with its narrow, leafy streets of quaint, multi-million-dollar homes, is synonymous with many things, but poverty is not one of them.

But even in the midst of one of the most desirable of Vancouver neighbourhoods there is need and privation.

Jessica Reid and other teachers running the Vinery Alternative program at Kitsilano Secondary School face it every morning.

“We see them come in hungry, having not eaten,” says Reid of some of her students. “Often they come from chaotic homes that can’t provide appropriate clothing, or they wear the same clothes every day. If it’s raining, they don’t have an umbrella, they don’t have a coat.”

Alternative school programs such as Vinery are designed to educate students who face serious or insurmountable impediments to traditional learning.

Students could be suffering from anxiety, depression, have a potential for self-harm, have significant mental health problems, suffer from attention deficit disorders — excessive fidgeting, lack of concentration — and drug use.

Some students in Reid’s program have been absent from school for years, and a number are from families stricken by poverty.

It makes regular classroom learning virtually impossible, and given the impediments they face is hardly surprising they need enhanced resources.

“Paying attention is really challenging for most of our kids, so I don’t stand up and just teach math with everyone listening at the same time. We have to design a separate program for each kid and tailor it to what their skills, abilities and interests are.”

But if the students have barriers on their journey to a proper education, so, too, have their teachers in attempting to get them there.

The first is hunger.

Reid and the two other teachers in the program want to feed their students when they arrive at school as they often come in famished.

They are provided with lunch from the cafeteria — paid for by the school district — which Reid said was fantastic.

But lunch is too long a wait for hungry teenagers and she needs funds to provide them breakfast so they won’t be distracted during morning classes.

She also wants to be able to buy clothes and footwear to get some of them through the winter, or to replace worn-out garments.

And while Vinery is located in the most modern secondary school in Vancouver — after its recent extensive rebuild — her students can’t always access the out-of-classroom programs available to regular students.

“That’s because all the resources in the school are used for full-sized classes,” she said.

Often her school-within-a-school has just 11 students attending on any given day, although she has 22 registered in the program.

“We’re an alternative program and don’t have 30 kids in a class, so we get less access to those spaces.”

This affects access to the gym, the art room, woodworking shop, graphics, computer lab — all the activities that break up the week and offer students respite from spending all day in a classroom.

“Our kids are not the kind who can sit and just work on a science textbook all day. Many are hands-on learners. We want to give them opportunities to try things they’ve never tried before and expose them to different things.

“But we can’t offer them woodworking or graphics or computers or cooking classes — although last year one teacher offered us the food room a few times during her prep block and we got the kids in there cooking and it was amazing.”

The answer is either to bring those activities into the class or take the class out into the community to find them. But it costs money, which Vinery doesn’t have.

“We’d like to purchase art supplies and sports equipment to use in-house and give yoga lessons and have an artist-in-residence program,” she said.

For other activities, she will need to go into the community.

She would like to take her students to a pottery studio, or for martial arts instruction. If she had the money, she would take them bowling or to Playland — activities that poverty has prevented them from experiencing.

“We want to give our kids opportunities to do things they have never tried. We need to get them out into the world and to expose them to different things,” she says.

She also wants to reduce the learning barriers by doubling the number of computers available to her class. But she doesn’t have the money to do it.

Vinery has been provided with five laptops.

“We have two students who haven’t attended school since Grade 5 and they are fresh into Grade 8. They have learning disabilities and now they have really significant gaps in their education to the point that they can’t keep up with the other kids,” she says.

Reid has access to online math and literacy programs that would help these students catch up.

But there is a problem.

“In order for these kids to be accepted into these programs, they have to be able to spend 30 minutes a day on each subject, and it requires a device they can work on at home.

“Also, once we set it up, the device can’t be shared with other kids in the class. We want to engage them in learning. They are in Grade 8 working on Grade 3 math and it’s more private if they can do it online. It won’t seem like they are doing baby work.”

But the dilemma is obvious. With only five computers for a class with at least 11 students can she afford to take any out of circulation?

She needs at least six more.

To provide breakfast, give her students access to activities and programs, increase technology capacity, she will need $10,500 and is asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for help.

“The more we can support students and engage them, the more they will come to school,” she says. “Of course, there will always be barriers. But the more we can do to lower them, the better.”



By Gerry Bellett (

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