The Tree of Life mosaic created by students in the Student Alternative Learning program is on display at St. Francis Table, which serves meals to the needy in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. Photo courtesy Msgr. Fraser High School

Program offers ‘a sense of belonging’

  • August 23, 2019

At 18, Joshua Bujold is about to return to high school. It’s been a few years since he’s been surrounded by classmates and he hopes this time things will be different when he attends Toronto’s Msgr. Fraser High School.

Bujold is one of those students who in years gone by would have been called a dropout. Things have changed, however, as these students are now given the opportunity to find themselves as they wind their way through the often difficult teenaged years. Luckily for them, the education system is finding ways to keep them engaged in the learning process through a program like SAL — Student Alternative Learning. It gives young students struggling within the system an opportunity to continue learning outside of the classroom.

For Bujold, who struggles with anxiety and depression, being in a large group just wasn’t conducive to learning.

“Being around groups can sometimes be a hindrance to functioning well,” he admits.

Bujold’s mother Janine says her son wasn’t always that way. He was once a good student, bright and mature beyond his years. But things came crashing down in 2016 when events conspired to change his life. His mother was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer around the same time Bujold was entering into his first relationship that would soon turn abusive. Eventually he was hospitalized after contemplating suicide.

“He wasn’t really functioning at a level that allowed him to be in a normal school environment,” she said.

The trauma he was going through and the fact his ex-girlfriend was at the same school didn’t help matters. That’s where SAL and Giselle Signoroni came into play. Bujold was directed to the program with social worker Signoroni (running this fall at St. Rita’s School). The aim of SAL, she said, is to provide kids aged 14-17 “who don’t feel like they belong with a sense of belonging.” 

“They’re really just finding themselves after not really feeling like they knew who they were,” said Signoroni.

Signoroni’s program is one of two the Toronto Catholic District School Board runs — the other runs out of Scarborough’s Divine Infant School — each with a teacher, a child and youth worker and a social worker. She said the programs allow students to “self-direct” as they figure out their future and helps them re-engage in life and learning.

“This kind of a process is ultimately truly Catholic because you’re taking kids who are out in the desert and you’re bringing them to the table,” she said.

It’s not necessarily regular school work the students are doing. Much of it is building a trust with the student and their family. They can work on getting credits or they can be connected with employment agencies. 

“It’s in getting to know them that we can tailor our program to meet their needs,” said Signoroni. 

For Bujold, who has played the drums since he was 10, the program linked him with professional musician and music teacher John Mavrogiannis. He received hands-on instruction from Mavrogiannis which has already helped him as he works with a new band that hopes to begin playing shows this fall. Bujold said the mentoring opened his eyes to the whole songwriting process.

“Just seeing the process and working through it,” said Bujold. “One thing John really struck with me was to always speak what you’re thinking and voice your opinion because if you don’t then you can’t share it.” 

He was enabled through a project Signoroni commissioned the students to work on, a mosaic worked on collaboratively by the 40 SAL students and teacher Silvia Celluci and led by local artist Cristina Delago. The project, funded by the TCDSB Equity Fund and an Experiential Learning Grant, created a mosaic called The Tree of Life using recycled tiles and stone and was donated to St. Francis Table, where it is now on display. The whole process was captured on a short film accompanied by the song “Find Myself” — that Bujold and others wrote, guided by Mavrogiannis — which sums up the project and the SAL program. 

“Many of the lyrics, even if by accident, referenced the mosaic, and if not the mosaic then what we were feeling in ourselves which is represented in the mosaic,” said Bujold.

Signoroni is expecting about 70 students for this year’s program at St. Rita’s and is happy the board has seen fit to continue funding it. That could change at any time, however, which is why the program is always on the hunt for community grants to keep it alive. 

There will always be kids at risk of falling through the cracks, Signoroni said. “If it didn’t exist they’d still be finding themselves, just without that relational piece which our program is based upon,” she said.

The program has had its share of successes, with some returning to their studies, others finding employment. 

“We have that sense that we’ve opened a door to a conversation and that conversation always leads somewhere,” said Signoroni. 

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