Last spring, 16-year-old student Jake White realized he had made a huge mistake.
The Grade 10 student had stopped attending classes at Southwood Secondary School three months earlier after he found it difficult to stay motivated and to keep up with his work. After dropping out, however, he recognized he couldn’t go very far in life without an education.
“I realized I needed my high school (diploma) and my vice principal told me about U-Turn,” he said.
U-Turn is an educational program that provides an alternative for students aged 15-18 who don’t fit within the traditional educational system for any number of reasons, including truancy, low self-esteem, a lack of motivation, poor work habits, anti-social behaviour, and stress or anxiety.
“We have kids that are in the suspension program, kids that have been expelled, kids with mental health issues and kids that just need a smaller learning environment to find success,” said Mary Adamson, vice principal of the Continuing and Alternative Education program, which runs U-Turn.
As Jake puts it: “I found that being in a classroom was really difficult for me. I’d get to school, go to my locker, grab my books and just say ‘meh’ and end up going home.”
U-Turn runs a modified school day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and has smaller class sizes to give instructors more one-on-one time with students in what are mostly elective classes such as cooking and nutrition, music, art, outdoor education and more.
Much of it is rooted in building a bond between students and teachers, said Adamson, who started with the WRDSB back in 1985.
“The most important thing for all of us is building a relationship of mutual respect and trust, and once you build that relationship they thrive.”
The program also invites drug councillors, sexual health nurses and mental health professionals to speak to the students about challenges they might be facing in their lives. Students can earn one high school credit in four to five weeks, and the smaller class sizes max out at about 15 students.
Students also receive breakfast and lunch through fundraising and the Nutrition for Learning program – one of the many community partnerships designed to support students. The board also provides Chromebook laptops to each student.
U-Turn has two locations, one in Cambridge and one in Waterloo, but students are required to have a referral from their school and must come in for an interview before they can be accepted.
White said it’s helped him turn his life around. He spent a month in U-Turn last May and June, and is now participating in U-Turn Works, a program that gives students the opportunity to not only collect high school credits, but find co-op work placements as well.
White works at a local Holiday Inn and does plumbing, electrical work and general maintenance.
“Now that I’m here I come to school every day, I don’t have attendance problems anymore because this is the kind of place where you want to be everyday. You don’t want to stay home, you want to go to school,” he said.
Students must complete about 110 hours of work and in-class time per credit and White said he’s considering a career in the trades thanks to U-Turn Works.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone into co-op, I’d have just gotten my credits and gotten out without doing anything extra,” he said.
Adamson said it’s all about taking a holistic approach to raising not just good students, but good members of society.
“When I graduated from teacher’s college I knew I didn’t want to work with just mainstream, I wanted to work with populations that didn’t fit the mould and needed a more alternative mindset.”