School’s not for everybody.
For some of the students who end up in SD8 teacher Travis Sherstobitoff’s classroom, it’s just not an option to sit still amidst 25 fellow students for an entire period. Some have been bullied, others are experiencing issues at home, and many of them have run out of allies to turn to.
But none of that matters once they walk in the door of the REACH alternate program.
“The school system, as hard as it tries, can’t cater to everyone and their learning styles,” head teacher Sherstobitoff told the Star.
“We’re basically dealing with students every day 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. who have lives outside of this that aren’t that great, and your life outside this building severely impacts how comfortable you can be in a building.”
His first priority is creating a safe space — his classroom is situated in Central School, by the playground — where the students feel like they have the tools and support needed to succeed. According to him, he doesn’t judge them on the thick files that land on his desk.
“I look at the file and I say, ‘I know what brought you here, but I don’t care because now you get to prove to me what you’re capable of, and you can start over.’ These kids, they appreciate honesty and having somewhere they feel like they belong.”
‘I see myself as someone they can count on’
This isn’t the first time Sherstobitoff has worked at an alternate program. Having been in the district since 1999, he worked for a program called Sequoia in the Slocan Valley before spending some time as a special education teacher at Trafalgar.
“This program went through a rough couple of years with a bunch of different teachers coming through, but I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere. I chose to be here, and I wanted to be in this room,” he said.
“Because everyone deserves a chance.”
He may be passionate about reaching the kids that come through the doors, but he has no illusions about how emotionally taxing it can be.
“You have to have a really specific mindset in this role. You have to be able to set boundaries for yourself. I’ve worked with amazing instructors who are givers, but if you give too much in a situation like this it can really take it out of you,” he said.
“All it takes is somebody to come through the doors in crisis, and that may trigger the other kids, and all of a sudden I have a room full of amped up kids who can’t complete the academic portion of what we do here. So we have to be flexible, we have to be able to meet them wherever they are,” he said.
“I see myself as someone they can count on.”
‘It’s a room full of potential’
Sherstobitoff is building on the work that’s been done by child, youth and family worker Karee-Ann Stuart, who has been a constant presence in the REACH program — she’s been doing alternate education in the district for 15 years.
A big priority for them is reaching aboriginal students in the district who haven’t been served well by the current system and curriculum. That means working hand-in-hand with L.V. Rogers’ aboriginal education teacher Toni Appleby, who comes in once a week.
“We have eight ab ed students out of our 17 total, which is just about half. I think the system’s changing, it’s changing slowly but it’s changing to support those students. They do struggle, inordinately, and it’s because the system doesn’t help.”
He said the aboriginal education students come in with “extra baggage”.
“All the students that come in here, they come in feeling like they haven’t been heard — but it’s even more so with the aboriginal kids. They all have potential, it’s a room full of potential, whether they’re ab ed or native Nelsonites or from New Zealand. I always tell them you’re a person first and let’s see who that person is.”
Aiming for 100 per cent graduation rate
Sherstobitoff doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a 100 per cent graduation rate from his Grade 12 students, whether they’re earning a Dogwood, an Evergreen, or an adult graduation. And when they finish, they get a hoodie with a wolf paw on the back — signalling to the community that they’re part of the “wolf pack.”
“In this program, you’ll find people who love the program so much they never want to leave because it’s the most solid thing in their lives. Others are like, ‘give me my work, I want to graduate as soon as humanly possible’ which in our program is as fast as you want to work,” he said.
The students have worked on some collaborative projects, including a mural piece they’re aiming to install on the side of Central School in the coming months. Sherstobitoff said for some students their connection to the program continues even after they’ve left.
“Just this week we had a bunch of students coming in to say hi to Karee-Ann, just because they wanted to spill how their lives were going and say hi.”
A vast network of support
When new superintendent Christine Perkins came to visit REACH, Sherstobitoff broke down for her their vast network of supporting agencies, including Freedom Quest, the Ministry of Children and Families, the Women’s Centre and ANKORS.
“We do well. We offer far above what’s expected because we feel it’s important, and the outside agency support we have is spectacular,” he said.
However, there’s still more they could do.
Both Stuart and Sherstobitoff would like to see a junior alternate program introduced to the district, because they’ve sometimes taken kids as young as Grade 8 who have different needs than the older ones.
Stuart would also like to see more outdoor education, as she thinks the students would benefit from the exercise and from engaging with nature.
“It’s the little things, like we’d love to be able to get these kids a punch pass at the complex so they could go swimming or have a shower. Maybe we could get connected with a local laundromat.”
He said, “very few of these kids go home to a Mom and a Dad.”
“For a lot of them, we become surrogate family. At Sequoia I guarantee I could have kept it open 365 days a year and they’d be there every single day, including Christmas.”