Education

Haven of learning

A unique school gives native kids a second chance

JAKE MacDONALD September 29 1997
Education

Haven of learning

A unique school gives native kids a second chance

JAKE MacDONALD September 29 1997

Haven of learning

Education

A unique school gives native kids a second chance

JAKE MacDONALD

Ross Avenue, in Win nipeg's north end, runs smack through the mid dle of one of Canada's toughest neighborhoods. Gang graffiti disfigures the boardedup faces of abandoned houses. At night, police sirens whoop in the distance. Nearby, freight yards echo with sounds that might be boxcars coupling-but are sometimes gunfire. In one two-square-block area, there were six murders and 100 kniferelated incidents last yearcrimes in which the perpetra tors, and the victims, were often native Canadians. Such num bers are hardly surprising: in just two decades, Winnipeg's aboriginal population has grown to 66,000 from 3,000, swelled by an influx from reservations throughout the province. While the majority have built a better life in the city, many have not. And often, it is children who are the biggest losers. "You have to look both ways for street gangs when you go out at night," says 12-year-old Darlene Spence. "They take your jacket, your shoes, your money. Last Sun day, they beat me up and put a dent in my side."

For youngsters like Spence, one of the few safe havens in her troubled neighborhood is Rossbrook House, a dropin centre, popular teenage hangout—and home to Eagles’ Circle School. Founded in 1976, Rossbrook was the brainchild of Geraldine MacNamara, a nun-turnedlawyer and a determined advocate for north-end kids. Soon after opening the centre, the firebrand activist realized she needed to provide local kids, many of whom were dropouts, with more than just respite from the streets. Going to bat with the local school board, she secured funding for a full-time teacher in 1977. Since then, Eagles’ Circle has become a hub of learning in a troubled neighborhood. “We’re never really off duty,” says Barb Jones, one of two teachers now at the school, which has 25 students in grades 7,

8 and 9. “We become very much involved in the personal lives of our students.”

They are, more often than not, lives that have been fraught with difficulty. Warren Goulet first came into contact with Rossbrook in 1978 as a 15-year-old dropout, lured there by the chance to play free pool. Now a staff supervisor, he works with kids who, he says, have faced many of the same problems that he did: low self-esteem, a history of family violence and daily harassment by city gangs. ‘These kids have had a rough time, bounced from one home to another,” says Goulet. “But they’re very strong. If you give them a chance, they do well.”

To maximize those chances, teachers start every new student off with a scholastic evaluation to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Students are then required to

make a verbal commitment to attend school—and do their work. They are also expected to take part in charting their own monthly evaluations. Says teacher Sister Maria Vigna: ‘We think it’s important that they start exerting their own authority.”

The vast majority of students appear to thrive under that tough-love regime. Annual records show that average attendance is roughly 90 per cent. And there are currently more than 30 children on the waiting list. breaks

cause many applicants tell us if they can’t get into Eagles’ Circle, they won’t go to school at all,” says Vigna. “But if we grew any larger, we would lose our ability to address each student’s individual needs.” For other schools, Eagles’ Circle’s success has also been a godsend. “It’s unfortunate, but large schools can be very alienating,” says George Heshka, principal of the city’s Sisler High School. “Eagles’ Circle does a marvellous job of providing a personalized, supportive school environment."

For one of Eagles’ Circle’s newest students, who spent the past summer at the Manitoba Youth Centre, a jail for young offenders in Winnipeg, that kind of care and attention has been a catalyst for change. “Barb Jones was the only person who visited me all summer,” says the boy, 15, who under the rules of the Young Offenders Act cannot be identified. “My shoes didn’t fit, so she brought me socks and new shoes. When they let me go, she came and picked me up.” Now, the boy has a month of Grade 9 under his belt and Jones notes that he has had perfeet attendance: “Every morning, he is here at 8, an hour before classes start.”

Part of the school’s appeal clearly lies in its informal atmosphere. Most classwork takes place around three large tables surrounded by kitchen chairs and battered couches. Visitors, including many parents, drift in and out. And when school adjourns for the day, Rossbrook returns to its roots. Flooded with kids, the former church thunders with music and the sound of pool games drifting up from the basement. “It will be like this now until late into the night,” says Goulet, who notes that Rossbrook is open 24 hours on weekends, holidays and throughout the summer, for any child who needs shelter. “If they are feeling lonely or afraid,” says Goulet, “they know our lights are on.” In a neighborhood where young lives are often filled with darkness, that is a message many kids are happy to hear. □