There is a school in Terrace that is always full to the brim, with a waiting list of students.
And, interestingly enough, this school isn’t private, religious or in a ‘better area of town,’ Parkside Secondary was created for students unable to succeed in mainstream education.
Parkside principal Louise Ormerod says she gets about 8 – 10 queries a month from interested students and much of the time, there’s no room for them.
“We’re always maxed, and with a waiting list,” Ormerod explained.
Parkside, located where the pavement ends on Eby St. leading toward the foot of the bench, houses 120 students in Grades 8-12. Ninety students are on a self-paced learning plan to Grade 12 graduation in a section of the school called Lakelse High, and 30 are in the teen learning centre, where they are taught life skills and achieve a learner completion certificate.
On the wall in the school there is a poster, which reads: “Can you name one or more adults in this building who you feel care about you?”
Ormerod gestures to that poster as the reason why the learning systems behind Parkside work, saying it’s all about relating to the students.
“That is why we are successful with our students, they feel connected with the teacher,” she explained.
Dave Bartley is the Coast Mountains School District’s principal for learner support, and the person in charge of which students are transferred to Parkside. He does this with the help of Ormerod, a school psychologist and the principal of the school where the student is currently attending.
As a result of high demand, Bartley must make sure students using the alternate program are the ones who need it most.
In an interesting development, word-of-mouth among students is driving a lot of the interest in the school.
“It used to be that kids were referred to Parkside because the school wasn’t able to deal with them. Now increasingly we are seeing this self-referral,” Bartley said, noting that parents are asking too.
And so it seems as though a school that was once thought of as a last resort is now becoming a first choice for many students, clearly answering a need in the Terrace and Thornhill communities.
However, Bartley says when it comes down to it, Parkside remains the size it is because there isn’t enough money for it to take on more students.
“We only have funding for so many spots, so that’s an issue,” he explained.
Special needs money is tight and spread across every school. Parkside is especially costly because of support workers and a higher ratio of teachers to students.
Typically a secondary level classroom shouldn’t have more than 30 students per teachers, making allowances for classes such as band, when a larger number might be acceptable.
At Parkside, classes are capped at 18 students in Lakelse High, and 15 in the teen learning centre, plus each classroom is staffed with a support worker.
So the ratio of adults to students breaks down to at least nine to one.
“What we are able to offer with that staffing is an incredible atmosphere,” Bartley said.
He notes the success in the school in developing behavioural support while putting strength behind academics and graduating learners.
The latter is new to Parkside as in the past, students who wanted to graduate had to return to Caledonia Senior Secondary.
The concept of intensified time with students is in place at Skeena Junior Secondary and, for the first time this year, at Caledonia.
Bartley says this as a part of the district’s effort to support students who need help in the schools they are already attending.
But should a student transfer to Parkside, an extensive meeting is held with the student, their parent or guardian and their teacher.
This meeting will cover everything from an academic profile, counselling requirements and additional concerns, such as home issues or substance abuse.
At that meeting, a tailor-made learning plan called a contract is written and agreed to by all three parties. With the contracts come accountability – a student is allowed three strikes per month to keep their contract. A strike can include anything from poor behaviour to skipping class, and strikes are publicly displayed on a bulletin board at the school.
In a try, try and then try again system, if a student breaks a contract, a new meeting is called and another contract is drawn up with different, and perhaps more manageable, commitments.
At the end of each day, students at Parkside are evaluated by their teachers who record behavioural concerns and touch base with each other on how every student is progressing.
The school also has contacts in the community, keeping in contact with youth mentors, social workers, doctors and drug and alcohol counsellors to better support students.
Every day, Parkside feeds all 120 of its students breakfast and lunch. Some of this is financed through a food course students take, but some of it comes from outside sources such as Save on Foods or the Breakfast Club of Canada, which is sponsored by Walmart.
The school also hosts noon and after school sports opportunities, offering free activities for students.
Both Rayelena Lacroix and Joey Collier say they came to Parkside to escape peer bullying.
And their opinions of Parkside seem to carry one solid theme – our teachers care about us.
“Teachers here have taken students in,” Lacroix said as an example of how far teachers have gone for their students.
Lacroix explains that some students suffer in poverty, and often miss school for circumstances out of their control – like staying home to care for younger siblings.
She points out the difference in Parkside from mainstream schools is that if you miss a class, your teacher will find you to make sure everything is OK.
“They don’t punish you for missing school,” Lacroix explained, noting that in her case she often needs time off to care for her year-and-a-half-old son.
Collier, suffers from alopecia, a disorder that causes hair to fall out, often from stress, and says he left school in Grade 8 to get away from the bullying.
After a year off, he looked into going back to school and was advised to go to Parkside.
“I like this school so much I don’t want to leave,” Collier says of his time at the school. Due to graduate next year, he is firm that without the option of Parkside he wouldn’t have returned.
“I would be selling weed right now,” said Collier, who plans to continue his education in carpentry, mechanics or electrical training at Northwest Community College.
Tammy Bulleid has been a rehab/youth worker for 20 years at the school and has worked with literally hundreds of students in Terrace.
“If the program wasn’t here, so many kids would have nowhere to go,” she said, explaining there are many youth in this community at risk of failing to graduate or getting deeper into trouble because of their circumstances.
Bulleid describes Parkside as a beacon or a lighthouse for youths. She said by focussing on students’ feelings of self-worth first, they blossom, which readies them to take on academics.
“They want to better their lives, they want it so bad,” Bulleid said. “And for the door not to open because there is no space, to me is unfair.”