By the time Sarah Birge was 16, she had attended 12 different schools in eight years.
She moved around a lot in her childhood which she felt made it difficult for her to fit in. While in Grade 9 at a Vancouver Island high school, an incident occurred, something she still feels uncomfortable talking about, despite it happening more than five years ago.
“I was at Francis Kelsey for half a year and had a really awful experience there […] it became important for me to leave,” Birge explained. “It was very public and it affected me.”
Birge was also have personal problems. She wasn’t living with her parents and she was getting into “a little trouble” during that time. Not wanting to completely quit school, she heard about an alternate school program in Cowichan and decided to look into it with her dad.
“I was in a very delicate time in my life,” Birge said. “The staff there really welcomed me. They were like a family. It changed my life.”
Cowichan Valley Open Learning Cooperative (CVOLC) is a collection of different programs for students to earn their secondary school diploma. The programs include an alternate school known as Cowichan Valley Alternate School (CVAS), a distributed learning program, which allows students to work at home or take extra courses while in high school; adult learning, and dual credit courses, giving students academic credit at either Vancouver Island University or Camosun for taking career programs such as mechanics, hairdressing and welding.
Each Cowichan Valley secondary school has an open learning centre, with a full time teacher and a student support worker, allowing students an easier integration between CVOLC and a regular school. CVOLC also has a physical school located in Duncan, where about 1,300 students are enrolled in the various CVOLC programs, explained principal Larry Mattin.
“We are located in a beautiful, hundred year old school” Mattin said. “It was actually the first school built in the Cowichan Valley.”
The type of students CVOLC attracts is diverse. They include the standard students from troubled homes, young mothers, kids with high anxiety, victims of bullying and teens who have been out of the school system and want to transition back. But there are also current high school students wanting to take extra courses, students wanting to go at a faster or slower pace than the regular schools and those interested in the career programs.
“We get students from both private and regular schools,” Mattin said. “We are not just a school for kids who get kicked out of regular schools.”
Start time for regular classroom courses also varies, allowing students to have classes in the morning, afternoon or evening. This kind of diversity allowed one student Mattin had to complete her high school education by the age of 16 and go straight into nursing school.
“The one thing we can offer that traditional schools can’t is flexibility,” Mattin said. “If a student lives on their own, or if mom was laid off and the student has to work part-time to help support the family and can only come to school two times a week, we can accommodate them. In a traditional high school, if you miss three days a week, you will fall behind.”
Mattin is proud that CVOLC has everything a regular school offers along with a few extras, minus the large classrooms, bullying and cliques that can be seen at a regular school. CVOLC has various sports teams, a music program, a gym for physical education, a second gym that was converted to house the carpentry program, numerous career programs, a robotics program and daycare provided by the Ministry of Children and Family Development for teenage mothers. Students are also allowed tremendous flexibility in completing their education.
“We encourage kids to follow their passion,” Mattin said. “If they need to take a break from English and want to focus on carpentry, we tell them ‘of course you can. You can go back when you’re ready.’”
Mattin started his teaching career being a teacher-on-call for elementary schools. About 12 years ago, he was tasked with leading an outdoor education program at CVOLC, where he ended up staying.
“I was taking kids camping and snowboarding, but it was challenging at times,” Mattin said. “One time after a three-day kayak trip, two of my students were arrested for stabbing a cab driver.”
Despite that incident, Mattin has seen more success stories than negative ones. He eventually became principal when his predecessor retired, and he and his staff have worked hard at making CVOLC a successful, standalone school. Last year, CVOLC had 63 high school graduates. Twelve years ago, there were none.
“We are a fantastic high school,” Mattin said. “It’s the most rewarding job I’ve had.”
One thing Mattin continues to work hard on is changing the stigma attached to alternative education. Birge agreed that stigma is the only “downside” about graduating from CVOLC, despite graduating early and being a valedictorian.
“In order to get an opportunity to attend a school like this, you almost have to be troubled in some way,” Birge said. “Alternate schools have a bad reputation, like we’re all hoodlums or something, but it’s not true.
“The standardized education system doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t cater to children’s needs. We are expected to conform but there are many different minds and different ways of thinking,” she added.
The teachers and the alternate program made such a huge impact on Birge that it inspired her to strive to become a teacher and teach at an alternate school. After graduating high school in 2012, she went to Camosun College and then University of Victoria, where she is two semesters away from her B.A. in English literature.
“Learning can be so beautiful when done in a proper setting,” Birge said
“Students would really learn the joy of learning if given the opportunity to do it their own way.”
Author: Christopher Sun, Writer, BCSTA