Posted on May 15, 2020
UCP BUDGET CUTS FORCE CLOSURE OF CALGARY OUTREACH SITE FOR VULNERABLE YOUTH
CALGARY - Premier Jason Kenney and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange must stop attacking education. Alberta’s most vulnerable youth are paying the price with cuts to educational assistants and now with programming including the planned closure of Discovering Choices Start Outreach Bowness.
Staff were informed May 6 that Bowness START Outreach location will be closing effective June 30. There was no opportunity for community consultation prior to closure and no transition plan has been communicated to the 186 students, 14 staff and 12 Nexus students.
“Many of the students who attend have experienced trauma, struggle with physical disabilities or mental health challenges and are at risk of falling through the cracks. Programs like these change lives and have a proven track record of success,” said Sarah Hoffman, NDP Official Opposition Education Critic. “The UCP is cutting funding for students who take longer to finish high school by 50-75 per cent. Students who are committed to finishing their studies deserve to be supported.”
According to the Calgary Board of Education, due to budget reductions for the 2020-21 school year, they will not be able to operate at all four locations for the coming school year. Bowness houses one of two Nexus programs for youth with the highest levels of vulnerability, such as extremely complex learning profiles, and high risk behaviours.
The Bowness site has been serving the community and neighbouring areas for 16 years, is the only location that serves in the northwest part of the city and houses the program’s only woodworking and drumming classes. They also offer wrap-around services, such as psychologists, social workers, housing supports, student finance, food, gift cards and library cards.
Talen Zacharias, who transferred into the program when she was 15 years old due to challenges with mental health and family issues said she wouldn’t have been able to graduate without the Bowness site.
“I started in the Marlborough site but didn’t end up continuing there, it was crowded, intimidating and overwhelming for me and I had so much social anxiety. It’s why I dropped out in the first place. If I lived in the northwest part of the city and the closest site was an hour away, I wouldn’t have gone to school.”
Another recent graduate Samantha Pigeau, who has depression and anxiety said she was bullied in high school so she rarely showed up for her classes. Because of a lack of support, she ended up not being able to graduate on time. She said her biggest regret was she only had a year in the program and had she known it existed before then she would’ve transferred sooner.
“At Bowness I have never gotten so much support in my life during one of the hardest times of my life, I became involved and even joined the student council,” said Pigeau. “When I learned they were voting to close the Bowness location, it broke my heart because for me, and I think a lot of students, it's a place we call home. This place made me feel I could be myself and I could take on the world."
Toni Selders, who works for a landscaping business, transferred to Bowness DC in Grade 12 due to challenges related to her brain injury and was also facing family issues so she was working in order to move out into a different setting.
“I think it was more than what average high school students go through,” Selders said. “After the switch it made a big difference. My grades improved, they helped me with counselling and fed me on days I was working and then coming to school. They gave me resources with things outside of school that helped me focus on my education. I wouldn’t have been able to graduate and I seriously don’t know where my life would be without them.”
Lucy Smith, another graduate of the program, developed a chronic pain condition in Grade 10 which led them to drop out of high school and enrol in online learning but said it was challenging to stay motivated.
“When I found out about the Bowness location, which was only a few mins away from my house, it worked out perfectly. I ended up going back to DC and really flourished there,” Smith said. “The staff are amazing and it was a great environment with breakout rooms for people who needed space. This program is a last resort for a lot of students, most have failed at school several times or had bad experiences which hurts their motivation so it’s important that we remove any barriers to getting them there.”
Sylvia Galica-Casuncad, Outreach Coordinator for Youth Central said since 2009, Discovering Choices has had a strong partnership with Youth Central's Outreach program in running a Youth Council at all four Discovering Choices sites.
“Youth Council gives students an opportunity to be leaders in their school and community and it gives these youth a voice to make positive change,” Galica-Casuncad said. “Over the last 10 years, all the sites have contributed over 10,000 volunteer hours to the Calgary community. By keeping Bowness Discovering Choices open, these youth can continue making a difference. One Bowness student quotes, ‘Youth Council has built my confidence a lot as well as it gives me the opportunity to participate and make decisions within my school community. I think other students deserve to have the experience I had.’”