Education in Care

Many a Mountain to Climb

Educating youth in care

by Gabrielle Barkany

“There are some misperceptions that our kids are bad and unmotivated and that we have crazy classrooms with chairs flying and kids swearing at teachers,” says Jodi Dobbie.

“It’s not like that at all. These kids are the greatest in the world.

They are very motivated and hard working.”

On a bright cold Friday afternoon in Burlington, eight high school students are sitting at a round table in Jodi Dobbie’s colourful classroom. They are part of Halton DSB’s Mountaineer Program, a day-treatment program located in Nelson High School. This is a goal-focused program for students between 12 and 17 whose social and emotional struggles have made learning in community classrooms difficult.

Dobbie has been a teacher for nine years, eight of them with this program. She loves the individual contact she has with her students, which she says allows her to teach “from the inside out – getting to know and value them for who they are and teaching them as they are.”

Dobbie feels she can be much more creative in her teaching approach in this program. This is a theme that crops up for many teachers who work in facilities that are funded under Section 23, Educational Programs – for pupils in government-approved care or treatment or custody.

Denis Desjardins, who began teaching at Toronto’s l’école élémentaire catholique Sainte-Madeleine this year, agrees that the smaller classes and child-centred program provide a positive learning experience for him as well as the students.

“I have learned a great deal from the social workers here,” says Desjardins, pointing out “little things” that make a big difference and would be useful in any classroom.

There is the usual system of rewards (like computer time or an activity that a student particularly likes), but Desjardins also offers lots of visual cues and incentives, such as little pictures on the corners of students’ desks, stars or coloured dots in their workbooks and charts or diagrams on the walls.

“You must be patient, creative and firm.”

Denis Desjardins teaches at L’école élémentaire catholique Sainte-Madeleine in Toronto.

“You must be patient, creative and firm,” says Desjardins. “And you must have compassion for these students.” The program at Sainte-Madeleine serves children from six to 12 years old with affective, social or behavioural problems.

At both the elementary and secondary school levels, students are in treatment or care because of social and emotional challenges, often coupled with learning disabilities. Many have missed a lot of school. If they are to meet academic goals, their mental-health issues must often be addressed first. Teachers work with teams of other professionals to help students learn how to manage their stress and anxiety, develop coping skills, become responsible and independent, and strengthen ties with their families and friends.

Many students at Cecil Facer Secondary School in Sudbury have quit or been expelled from other schools in the Rainbow DSB.

“They are discouraged. They can’t imagine success in their lives or in the job market. This is often their last chance,” says Daniel Vaillancourt, a teacher and counsellor at the school. Cecil Facer serves the Aboriginal as well as the English- and French-speaking communities, allowing them to acquire credits necessary for enrolment in college or apprenticeship programs in construction, welding or hotel trades.

“These young people need opportunities to succeed and to become productive citizens,” says Vaillancourt.

Learning success

In Dobbie’s classroom, the walls are covered with representations of her students’ achievements, struggles and goals, including photos of school camping trips, drawings and test scores. Dobbie uses proactive and reflective processes and many symbols from nature to help students learn and measure their progress. Student-sculpted geese hang in front of a window, a reminder that those who have a common direction and a sense of community can get where they are going more easily because they are travelling on the thrust of one another. A large mountain – constructed from crumpled paper and chicken wire and painted in shades of grey – sits on a table as a tangible symbol of progress toward long- and short-term academic and personal goals. A rope for each student hangs from the summit.

Students collect beads that represent each of the five values of the class: hope, humour, heroes, head and heart. Every Friday, they honour each other by exchanging beads – symbols of support and achievement.

GianFranco, a quiet young man who hopes one day to work as a cook, was surprised and pleased to receive a bead of hope for attending class. One day, after he had missed a couple of classes, students all sat down with him. They told him that they felt let down when he didn’t come, that they valued him, missed him and depended on him.

“In my old class, nobody would really care if I was coming,” he says. “Here, they said they actually missed me and found my company enjoyable. Yeah. So when I wake up in the morning and don’t feel like coming to school, I think twice.” He smiles shyly.

Sixteen-year-old Teresa, who suffers from anxiety and found the pressure of her previous classroom unbearable, gave her fellow student Alyson a bead of heart “because you called me at home yesterday evening.”

Students are encouraged to honour, respect and inspire each other, step forward into leadership roles and find success using passion, integrity, determination and courage.

“It allows me to teach from the inside out – getting to know and value them for who they are and teaching them as they are.”

Jodi Dobbie teaches the Mountaineer Program in Halton DSB.

“We help them build the skills they need to be successful,” says Dobbie, who works in partnership with a child and youth worker, Nicole Crawford. “It’s important to provide them with opportunities for success as often as we can because most of them have not been successful in the past.

“Once they experience success, it motivates them to take more risks, try new things and push their comfort zones.”

The small class size helps students to concentrate. And Dobbie employs a range of teaching methods. She encourages students to work individually, as a group and with partners. She tries to appeal to the multiple intelligences of her students – linguistic, musical and interpersonal – as identified by Howard Gardner, and she uses various pedagogical methods including reflective journal writing, experiential and co-operative work, and kinesthetic-based learning.

“In English, for example, we do a lot of reflective journalling and that starts the writing process,” she explains.

Once a week she provides an inspirational quote and free writing time during which students record their thoughts on the quote. Then students are asked to share their ideas and talk about how the quote connects to something they are working on or to an experience they’ve had.

The students have just returned from a three-day camping trip where they tried out various activities, engaged in team work and gained social and planning skills. Pictures of the outing – showing them cooking, learning high and low rope-climbing skills, enjoying a campfire – hang on the classroom wall. In all the photos, every student has a smile.


Section 23 students have often had prior negative education experiences, resulting in low self-confidence and negative attitudes that, in some case, have contributed to illiteracy and undereducation. To be effective in reversing these problems, programs need to improve students’ experience and shift their attitudes. Teachers need to inspire trust.

“A lot of our kids have not had positive relationships with teachers,” explains Dobbie. “We provide them with opportunities to connect with and trust teachers so they will see teachers as helpful and respectful people.”

One goal is the reintegration of students into community classrooms, to improve contact between the average and struggling students while still providing personalized coaching for the latter. But the transition is not always easy.

“We noticed that long-term placements of one, two or three years weren’t necessarily beneficial,” explains Claude Pierre-Louis, a teacher and behaviour consultant at école élémentaire publique Séraphin-Marion in the Conseil de district des écoles publiques de langue française no 59. “We’ve seen that students sometimes plateau, so we’re now reassessing our practices.”

“These young people need opportunities to succeed and to become productive citizens.”

Daniel Vaillancourt is teacher and counsellor at Cecil Facer SS in Sudbury.

“We’ve observed that certain behaviour problems, such as physical and verbal aggression, may recur following the transfer of students from a Section 23 class to the larger classes in their community school,” says Natalie Cheff, an elementary school teacher at École catholique Saint-Vincent in North Bay, part of the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Franco-Nord.

Students who require extra attention receive help from a team of educators and therapists, but when they return to the community classes the difficulties can start up all over again.

They benefit from special weekly 30-to-60-minute sessions during which they work on acquiring social skills, like maintaining friendships and self-control. They also receive the support of teachers who adapt the way the curriculum is taught to meet their needs.

The therapeutic value of the programs can and does spill over into students’ lives beyond the classroom.

For one student it has meant gaining respect from her parents.

“I used to be forbidden to enter certain rooms in my home. The doors would be locked,” Teresa explains. “Now I am allowed. They trust me more.”

Education in Care

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