Whytecliff Agile Learning Centre - Interview with School Leadership
It’s true that no two schools are the same, something particularly evident in the world of private education. Each institution is a different age, formed for a different reason, and meant to appeal to a specific set of learners. Each has its own history and its own challenges. Because of that, no school is the right one for all learners, or for that matter for all teachers. But it’s also true that, for every learner, there is a best school.
All of that is absolutely the case with Whytecliff, if strikingly more so. Here, more than anywhere else, is a school that is unlike any other. The name hints at that: The Whytecliff Agile Learning Centre. It’s not a college or an academy, a high school or a collegiate. And it’s right to have the name it does because it correctly raises some important questions. What is agile learning? Is it a school? Why a “centre” when there are in fact two locations, each operating largely independently from the other? That last sounds like a set up for a joke, though the question is valid, just as are all the others. The answers are, too.
It’s telling, too, that Whytecliff is largely unknown even to those who would seem to be closest to it. When I spoke with Wes Richardson, a youth worker at the Langley location, he noted that he first came across the school after having completed his teacher training, responding to a job notice. On the morning of his interview, he keyed the address into his GPS and was surprised to find that it was, literally, in his own neighbourhood. “It was literally 800 meters down the road,” Richardson says. “A place that I never knew existed and it was literally 800 meters from where I lived.” (Shelley Donald, another instructor, tells a similar story—she had never heard of Whytecliff, despite having worked for a time as a teacher within the public school system, and was similarly delighted to find the centre.) He admits that he drove over not knowing quite what to expect. What he found—he sounds as surprised at this as he was about never having heard about the school—was exactly what he needed, namely a place where he could make the most of his talents and interests in the service of helping young people make the most of theirs. “This sounds maybe very cliché, but if you’ve ever seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, [and the scene] where he’s asked all these questions that he just happens to know because of his life circumstances. It kind of felt like that. They wanted someone with a science background. That was me. They wanted someone who had a music background. That was me. They wanted someone ideally who could take on a bit of the film program, and my brother and I had previously had a video production company.”
Speak with anyone about Whytecliff and you hear stories much like that. A charming sense of disbelief at their good fortune for finding the school. Says a participant, “When I walk in I breathe a sigh of relief. Often breakfast is waiting. I feel safe and ready to learn.” Says another, “It’s like a rehab facility for your soul. You are here to do school, but you just find out so much about yourself and what you’re actually capable of. It really just lets you discover who you are.” There’s a sense of muted delight, on the part of both participants and teacher/mentors, that there could be such a perfect place to become who you want to be, and to bring yourself into the service of others. But there is. Says a student, “If I didn’t have this school I definitely would not be graduating. They gave me so many opportunities and chances that I would not have had at a regular school.” As in life, that’s perhaps not true in every moment of every day. Learning is hard, as is teaching, in any setting. But the goal of Whytecliff, as founder Robert Kissner will say, is to change lives.
If your vision of a private or independent school is one with ivy-covered walls and an academic program intending to deliver students to the university of their choice, then Whytecliff isn’t that. It’s small, community-based, and while some students will go on to post-secondary studies, the goal is help participants—that’s the preferred term here, which is kind of nice—in the smaller arcs of time that they are living though. To first help them get through a day, then a week, and to integrate them, now, within a community of peers with similar challenges and similar goals.
And they do.
Whytecliff was founded in 1993 for the best reason there is, namely to meet a need that wasn’t being met. It’s been achieving that in innovative, exceptional ways for more than 25 years. The program is less about addressing a specific issue—say, creating a program for kids with anxiety—than it was to address learners who, for whatever reason, were falling through the cracks of the education system. They were underserved, at least in professional terminology, though more accurately they were not well matched to traditional learning environments and requirements. Students arrive with a range of challenges, though also with a shared experience of finding themselves on the periphery of their communities and social circles. In that sense, while they may be different from each other, here they are different in the same way. “Most of the students haven’t heard themselves spoken about in a compassionate way before,” comments a parent of the program, “or in a way that told them that they had gifts, or that they had anything special.”
Whytecliff was first begun in consort with existing educational programs and settings, though quickly found a place of its own, opening the Langley campus in 1994. A second campus in Burnaby was added in 2000. Both are therapeutic environments, perhaps—certainly they are intended to be regenerative and inspiring—though the approach is both broad and intuitive, in spaces that are personal and anything but institutional.
The program has a number of key professional accreditations. It’s the only program in Canada, as far as we know, that is accredited both by the provincial Ministry of Education and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF). It is equal parts school and youth development program, and the program began with allowing students to feel safe, and grant them a sense of home. Students graduate having earned the BC Certificate of Graduation or Dogwood and Evergreen diploma.
Whytecliff was created and continues to be administered by the Focus Foundation, a non-profit begun in 1975 to provide social and educational programs for children ages 13-19. It reflects the core of their reason for being, as noted in the foundation mandate: “In contrast to approaches that focus on deficits and problems, we seek to build a tailored program based on each child’s strengths to inspire hope and promote engagement in their capacity for positive growth.” The school, pretty much to a T, meets that objective. The programs promote emotional and behavioural self-regulation, healthy interconnections and relationships, and personal competence.
Also essential to its creation—this is an understatement—was Robert Kissner, who began it and who continues to run it today. His professional perspective, as well as his personal philosophy, are so entwined with the offering that it is hard to imagine it could exist without him. Kissner is its DNA, and his constellation of attributes is as impressive as it is unique. He’s got a PhD, and is a registered social worker. He’s taught at the University of Chicago, SFU, Trinity Western University, UCFV, and Douglas College, in topics ranging from social work to education to criminology. He’s a specialist in stress and trauma, with an interest in facilitating resilience and emotional recovery. He is a former member of the Simon Fraser University Senate and Board of Governors, and has served as President of the BC Association of Social workers and was BC provincial representative to CASW.
He’s also a character in all the best possible ways. Speaking with him for the first time can admittedly be disarming in all positive and delightful ways. “The joke is that Bob kind of tries to Sherlock Holmes you a little bit,” admits Richardson, meaning that he tells you about yourself from how you appear, how you breathe, how you interact with others. “But the more you talk to him, the more you realize that there's reasons for everything he’s saying, there's a lot of intent behind what he’s saying.”
Kissner feels that empiricism, and evidence-based practice, should form the basis for any interaction with students. He cites the thinking of Bruno Bettelheim as a foundation for the work of the school, specifically his belief that learning should never be punitive or forced, that curriculum and teaching methods are ineffectual “unless the child himself is convinced he ought to learn for his own good.” That can sound medicinal, though in practice, it really isn’t. Students learn best when they’re a driver for their own learning, and the best institutions are those that work, first, to allow them to feel the weight of that role. But again, that doesn’t need to become onerous. Bettelheim believed that “children's play should be regarded as their most serious actions.” Fun is a distinct aspect of the Whytecliff experience, as you see walking through the learning spaces. Not every minute, perhaps, but on the whole. It’s intentionally woven into the students' experience. Three days a week there is offsite programming, some of it delightfully oddball, which is precisely the point. They’re as likely to go to a farm as a mattress factory, to play indoor volleyball or have a day at the beach. “Around Christmas break we do things like go karting, go get a Christmas tree,” says Richardson. “We go to a lot of places and try to load up as many kids as we can into our 15-passenger vans. We have three of those.” Each trip is an adventure.
Bettelheim also wrote that sensory experience is the foundation of learning. In Kissner’s formulation, “If environments can drive people crazy, they can make them well.” The design of the Whytecliff interiors has been conducted with that concept foremost in mind. Spaces are bright, open, and flexible, with lots of natural light. The interior of the Langley location is designed much like the interior of the Vancouver airport, which is more than coincidence—the airport was designed by Clive Grout, and his wife played a role in the design of Whytecliff. In both locations, there is a prominent use of wood, natural surfaces, textured wallpaper, aquariums, and organic shapes that reflect the cultural and physical environment of the region. The colour scheme—yellow for hope, blue for calm, green for growth—is also shared between the two. Lighting is used to enhance a sense of intimacy, and every room very intentionally feels like a little campfire. It’s subtle—nothing here is going to jump forward as particularly daring or ground-breaking—which of course is the point. But it’s also not just because. To their credit, the administration has put thought into every element of the learning environment, constructed to reflect what the participants need, present from the second they walk in the door.
Typically, when you ask someone what their role is within any institution, they answer with a title. At most schools you’ll hear that: “head of guidance,” “curriculum lead,” “science teacher.” When I ask Shelley Donald what her role at Whytecliff is, she answers in the way that, to varying degrees, all of the faculty here do: “Okay, that’s going to take a bit.” She then takes a deep breath and dives in. “Officially I’m the principal, but being principal at Whytecliff is not anything like being principal in another school.” For one, she teaches, which would be unusual for principals in other settings. And she teaches a lot. Math, physics, electronics, robotics, woodworking, coding, and Earth science. She doesn’t interact with others in the way that other principals might, which is appropriate to the setting. To say the leadership is flat is to understate it; there is a dedication to a community of learning, one in which everyone is a participant, and teachers, administrators, and staff all comport themselves with that in mind.
That reveals itself in all sorts of affective and charming ways, one of them being that faculty often drive students to school. That’s partially due to the size of the school—there aren’t enough students to require a bussing program—but also partially due to the ethos of the school, and a desire to work on today, first. Says Richardson, “Being the best person I can be in their lives, and helping them on a day-to-day basis, rather than looking at their progress in a grandiose, larger picture. Because a lot of the kids—and this is something I’m very aware of—are making positive changes, they’re going to have setbacks.”
Across the faculty there is clearly a keen desire to do whatever is required, and no one is particularly fussed with staying within the exact boundaries of their role descriptions. Dana Reaume, program teacher, says that “my day starts with [meeting] youth wherever they may be and getting them to really debrief ,talk about how their day went. To talk about how their night went, talk about any issues that they're going to have when coming into school.” There is a breakfast program that helps facilitate that period of debriefing at the beginning of each school day. “We get all the kids fed and we get them comfy. We make sure they have warm clothes and sweaters and if they need anything like that and sort of getting them motivated to start their day.” The space is like a sanctuary—students are made to feel comfortable within it, and with the people that they share it with—which is an aspect of the program’s success.
Again, the organizational structure may seem hierarchical on paper—there is a principal, teachers—but in practice it’s strikingly flat. Richardson tellingly speaks of everyone as if they are part of a team, and certainly they all seem to absolutely view themselves in the same way.
Students work through the provincial curriculum, toward completing their graduation diploma, just as they would in any other private or public school. The academic delivery, however, is unique to Whytecliff and, were you to visit, the differences would be readily apparent. For one, the students aren’t separated out by grade as they would be in a more typical learning environment. A Grade 9 student might be studying science next to a Grade 10 student working through biology material, the teacher helping each, though also keen to find areas of overlap, sparking discussions between students and across curricular areas. “Rachel’s great at that,” says Richardson speaking of teacher Rachel Sorsabal. “You know, if one student is working through ionic bonding, she’ll use that as an opportunity to walk them all through that at the same time.” Were there a need to define it, the approach might be thought of as tutorial-plus—teachers are docents, guiding students through the material, either working with them individually or in small groups of shared, overlapping interest. Teachers are adept at seeing and accepting opportunities as they arise, and the variety helps keep interest and engagement high.
Instruction is student-directed, though it’s not laissez faire. It’s more that every student is on their own mission. In the art room, there may be five to ten students working on a range of projects, from sculpture to animation. “A line that we always, always say at Whytecliff,” says Richardson, “is that there’s no day that is the same as the one before.” That adds a sense of possibility, which is also an element of the success of the school. Academic instruction follows the theme. Says Kissner, “We take every kind of special education problem that there is. If a kid comes in with dysgraphia, you know what we do? We put him in art. He does his whole curriculum in art. Because when you’re drawing, what are you doing? You’re expressing. Where somebody else is going to give them remedial calligraphy or whatever it is.”
Students are challenged, yet not overwhelmed, and find their successes in their own work rather than through comparison with the goals and successes of others. There also isn’t a sense of ‘we need to get through this’ or ‘this is going to be on the test,’ but rather instructors place their efforts in peaking interests, sparking curiosities, and then capitalizing on them as entry points. The spaces have been crafted to allow that kind of instructional fluidity. On the second floor at the Burnaby location, for example, there is a main classroom area where students, as in the art area, will be working on their own or in small groups. That’s the room where it’s okay to talk a bit—this isn’t a library, and there aren’t stalls. It’s a more social learning environment, one in which students feel free to ask questions of each other or of any of the educators that circle through. There are smaller classrooms for more directed instruction, though even there, the pace is very much set by the students themselves. There are also four small classrooms that serve one-on-one instruction or for students who would like to work quietly on their own without distraction.
There is music therapy two days each week, and while there isn’t a band, the opportunities to explore music is the guiding principle. In the arts, perhaps especially, this is an environment in which the right answer is seemingly always “yes,” and instructors are keen to capitalize on any interest as an entry point to the curriculum. One member of the faculty told us about a student who wanted to learn saxophone, so the instructor went out and rented two saxophones—one for him, one for her—and they learned the instrument together.
The success of the school (which, it needs be said, is strikingly impressive, but more on that below) is based in creating the right environment. One that isn’t punitive, or that promotes anxiety in students who are prone to feeling it’s effect. There’s a sense of calm and a remarkable level of patience. True to his belief in empiricism, Kissner feels that a sense of peace and academic progress aren’t only linked psychologically, but physiologically as well. “When you’re happy and you're grateful the carbon dioxide in your body is the highest and that increases cerebral blood flow and your whole physiology changes,” he says. “So all we’re really doing is taking kids and giving them the best time of their lives. We help kids have the most fun they’ve ever had. And when you do that, guess what? They want to go to school. And when you go to school you begin to have friends and then you become part of a community. And then all the kids begin to teach each other.”
It can risk sounding overly simplistic, though that’s in part because Kissner is being modest. The fact is the program has been proving itself for almost 50 years, meeting the needs of students who fall outside the guardrails of traditional learning environments, and doing so in ways that can be difficult to fathom. Donald recalls a student who enrolled in 2017 who had been told that, for him, the highest bar of achievement would be the Evergreen Certificate, a school completion certificate. He’s now in computer engineering at UBC principally, says Donald, “because we believed in him and his ability.”
That can sound cliché, and perhaps that’s a fault of expressing it so plainly. But, unpacking it a bit, there are a range of layers. First, the faculty at Whytecliff are predisposed to find talents rather than deficits. Second, they are familiar with the behaviours and attitudes that would have led other educators to come to certain conclusions, and to see them for what they were. “We’ve got a kid in our program right now who came in afraid to try anything because he was afraid to fail. He was afraid to get an answer wrong, because he felt that defined him as a failure.” His lack of achievement wasn’t a lack of ability, but rather symptomatic of how he’d come to understand his relationship to learning and to the learning environment. Before diving in to course content, the job was to redefine his sense of himself as a learner and to correct that relationship. And, so, says Donald, that’s what they did.
When considering admissions, Kissner says that he’s looking for students who are committed to the project. “I’m looking for you to have some intention for growth,” he says, “and some intention to make good choices and have rich experiences in your life. And if you have that element” namely, the desire for growth, “you can really change people very easily.”
That said, it’s acknowledged that students arrive at Whytecliff not by choice—this isn’t a school students aspire to—but rather because they aren’t achieving elsewhere. Often, that is exacerbated by behavioural and social challenges. “Sometimes they are difficult out of self-defence,” says Donald. “Because they have been made to feel worthless all their lives, and so they live up to that expectation or down to it. They think, ‘oh, they think I’m worthless, so I’m just going to be worthless.’” Many kids arrive believing—in some cases because they’ve been told—that they have objective intellectual limits, and that they’ll never get past a certain level of academic attainment. Because of that, their achievement has been attenuated, their aspirations prematurely limited. Instructors and youth workers at Whytecliff see that as one of the first challenges to be faced, namely to open up each child’s sense of their abilities and their opportunities.
The student body remains intentionally small. “Kids in public school tend to disappear into an ocean of faces, and a lot of issues then go unnoticed,” says Donald. “At Whytecliff, because there are so few students, we can take the time to build stronger relationships. … We know more about their families, and their family situations. We get to meet their siblings. We go to their homes. And just participate in their interests.” There is more outreach. In evenings, for example, they may take students to a concert or a movie or a sporting event. “It makes the kids feel cared for, that people are taking the time to be with them. And that they are special because of who they are. You know, I’m not doing this for you because you got a good grade on a chemistry test. I’m doing this for you because you’re an amazing individual.”
By any measure, this is not easy work. When I ask Donald what keeps her going, she says “It’s so rewarding to see the kids change. To see them finally feel like they are worth something, that they’re worth the effort. And they change right before your eyes. That’s worth all the effort that it takes.” Dr. Phil Mann, Whytecliff Principal Emeritus, has said that “you change their inner view of themselves, because if you don’t change their inner view, then it’s just window dressing. It’s not real.”
Applications are made directly to the school, typically first making contact via email. There are typically a few open house events throughout the school year, and attending one of those is highly recommended. Intake occurs in August or early September, for the full school year, though entry during the winter and spring terms can be accommodated as well.
The goal of the school is to keep costs low in order to ensure the program is within reach of all who can benefit from it. Tuition is low relative to other private schools within the local market. Tax deductions are available, this being a function of the therapeutic nature of the program. Tuition at most other schools is not eligible for tax relief. Also unlike other schools, tuition isn’t required to meet the operating budget; it is met through the Focus Foundation of British Columbia, the parent organization, which has been a registered charity in Canada since 1975.
When parents and students tour schools, they ask a lot of questions, to be sure. One of the questions that isn’t asked enough, though, is also one of the most telling: What does success mean to you? We asked Wes Richardson, and he gave, frankly, one of the best answers we’ve ever heard. “I would just hope that they find that there is happiness and enjoyment in life. That there is a purpose in life, that it’s beautiful, and that we can work together to work through stuff that can be really challenging and difficult. That’s what we want for the kids. For them to see the joy and the happiness and the beauty in life.”
Yes, getting good grades, or acceptance into post-graduate programs, can be important goals. That said, they are only important to the extent that they promote satisfaction, which is the first step to happiness, seeing the beauty in life. It’s also true that the students that Whytecliff was formed to help are those for whom the path to satisfaction—an appreciation of oneself, the deployment of one's talents in consort with the talents of others—can be particularly fraught. The fact that Richardson and his colleagues at Whytecliff work with young people who have a range of learning, personal, and social challenges at least doubles the impact of his sentiments. The challenges are many, yet to their credit, the instructors and youth workers choose instead to focus on the goal, rather than the obstacles.
Whytecliff Agile Learning Centre offers the provincial curriculum, small class sizes, and individualized attention. It has a history of meeting students where they are and leading them to academic success, in two settings that promote small group interaction. There’s a sense of community, one that is heightened through co-curricular programs. The faculty brings a wealth of professional and therapeutic accreditation and professional and personal experience, not limited to teaching, which provides the basis for a substantial program of wellness, one integrated throughout every moment of the instructional day and beyond.
The real successes of the school, though, are personal. For many participants, Whytecliff is the first truly positive, inclusive community they’ve been a part of. That reinforcement forms the basis of the work they do here, and prepares them for the steps they’ll take when they leave. It’s an academic setting like no other. Their goal isn’t to deliver students to post-secondary life prepared to thrive there, but rather to change lives and help families. And they have decades of experience doing exactly that.