Students Ian Liebelt, 19, and Claire Little, 18, are among the first to graduate from Tsawalk Learning Centre. A graduation ceremony was held Wednesday. TAMARA CUNNINGHAM/News Bulletin

Tsawalk Learning Centre celebrates first high school graduates

The alternative education centre opened in Nanaimo in 2016

Eighteen-year-old Claire Little wore a full-length red gown that sparkled with a neckline of sequins during Tsawalk Learning Centre’s graduation ceremony Wednesday, as she became not only the first in her family to graduate high school, but among the first to graduate from the alternative education program.

“It really shocked me because I didn’t know that I would graduate on time,” said Little, about the moment. “I thought it would have been like around December maybe, I didn’t know that I was really close to finishing my courses.”

The learning centre opened in 2016 as a partnership between Vancouver Island West School District, Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, Mid-Island Métis Nation and the Boys and Girls Club of Central Vancouver Island, to help students who aren’t finding success in traditional high schools to reconnect with education.

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Many of the children haven’t been regularly attending high school, or have been completely out of school, for six months to three years, according to principal James Lemmon. He said the centre tries to meet students where they are, create an individualized plan that meets their needs and goals, work with them to support academic progress and connect them to the community.

The centre also helps to support students in other areas of life, such as connecting them with a counsellor if they’re experiencing trauma of losing a family member.

This week, Tsawalk staff and their community partners marked the graduation of the centre’s first four students with a limo ride to lunch and a graduation ceremony.

A smiling Lemmon said that day he was overwhelmed with joy.

“When I took this job I didn’t know where it would go and how we would do, we thought we might have 12 kids to start and we’re now at 67 and to watch these kids overcome all the possible hurdles and obstacles that life has thrown at them, and they do it with such a [vibrancy] and willingness to engage, it just makes me feel lucky,” he said.

Little had fallen behind after missing five months of school in Port Hardy and decided she didn’t want to go to a regular high school. Her brother was attending Tsawalk and when she went to check it out, she said she liked how friendly it was and how much support was given.

She’s graduating with an adult dogwood, and while she’s not sure what she wants to do for a living, she’s registered for First Nations studies at Vancouver Island University with plans on going into indigenous law at the University of Victoria.

Nineteen-year-old Ian Liebelt, who dropped out of school in Grade 10, said graduation means so much. He’s already taking horticulture at VIU and said the centre helped him get into post-secondary and understand an assessment test. He wants to become an entrepreneur in arboriculture and aquaponics.

“I think connections are really what start things for young people – people who actually give you that mile when nobody else will and when you get it, you feel very good and you keep on going,” he said.

Lemmon said the future is bright for all four graduates and he’s excited to see what the next five years looks like for them.

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