New Calgary ‘outreach’ school levels the playing field

  • September 27, 2023

The Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) has opened St. Gemma Outreach School for students in vital need of extra support.

St. Gemma is starting with a student body of 30 young people (ages 16-20), all of whom are experiencing poverty, severe addictions or a transition out of the criminal justice system.

Leanne Timko, the director of learning services for CCSD, told The Catholic Register that the traumas experienced by these teenagers and young adults is an impediment to them successfully acclimatizing to a traditional high school environment.

“We thought an outreach school with a therapeutic model attached to it would help the students heal and provide a totally unique learning environment that would help some of our kids,” said Timko.

A space for St. Gemma, not attached to any pre-existing high school or educational building, has been established near the Sunridge Mall in the city’s northeast quadrant.

Though the bell for class rings at 9 a.m., Timko said many students are showing up to the school early because they appreciate what St. Gemma offers. Beyond academic instruction, the pupils are provided wraparound services that include daily meals, counselling and referrals to non-profits that assist in housing placements or specialize in trauma-informed care. 

“Our goal is creating a learning environment where students are safe enough to learn and brave enough to try,” said Timko.

Data collected by the CCSD indicated that it was time to introduce an innovative program like St. Gemma. From 2020 to 2023, the district has seen requests for behavioural consultants ascend from 691 to 859, for special-needs consultants from 283 to 459, and for the mental-health and wellness team from 185 to 312.

So many more students in the existing 117 schools have needed these supports following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gord MacDonald, principal of St. Gemma, told The Calgary Herald how these resources have been pushed to the limit.

“The number of students needing these types of supports is increasing so much that we are really stretching our resources,” said MacDonald. “And when you stretch resources, you’re stretching the quality of them as well. So, we’re looking to how we can support these kids better.”

CCSD behavioural consultants were instrumental in choosing the 30 students who would benefit the most from St. Gemma. Though the experiences of these young people has made navigating a typical high school too onerous a prospect at present, Timko replied “yes, absolutely” when asked if re-transitioning into a traditional learning environment is an achievable outcome.

“The philosophy of our Calgary Catholic School District, particularly for the learning services department, is ‘the least intrusive intervention always,’ ” said Timko. “We never want to force a student into a different situation when a less intrusive one would be there. Having an alternative outreach high school would be considered a fairly substantial move away from a traditional high school experience. We want our students to be able to have a traditional experience, but for some they are just not able.

“If we get that student at St. Gemma who is going to work inside our therapeutic model, get themselves settled and stabilize some of the situations in their personal life, a transition back to a typical high school would always be available.”

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