The reason it exists is Robert Kissner. 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, Simon Fraser University, Trinity Western University, University of the Fraser Valley, 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 B.C. Association of Social Workers. He was also the B.C. provincial representative to the Canadian Association of Social Workers.
But, more than that, it’s both his approach and how he speaks about his approach.
“We take every kind of special education problem that there is,” says Kissner. “And 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.”
He created the school to address the needs of the most at-risk students within the population, and his sense of hope—as well as the successes the school has had over the years—is remarkable. In part, it’s simply because Kissner simply sees improvement and growth as inevitable. You simply have to want to put in the time and know it will work. “You can really change people very easily.” When he says things like that, it’s impossible not to believe it.
Speaking with Kissner is a unique experience. You, truly, have never met anyone like him. “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.” Indeed, Kissner feels that empiricism and evidence-based practice should form the basis for any interaction with students.
All of that experience and insight came together in the Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres. The school began operations in 1993, though is an expression of a larger program of activity that dates back to 1975 with the creation of the Focus Foundation, a non-profit intending to provide social and educational support for youth aged 13 to 19. Since the beginning, the force of the programs was in working with assets, rather than deficits: finding talents and passions, and using those as the means of developing skills and engagement. All while addressing the needs of the most at-risk students.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and that’s demonstrated through high rates of attendance, course and degree completion, and social development. 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; Whytecliff, for most if not all, is the first truly positive, inclusive learning community they’ve been a part of. “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.”
Here, they do, and that reinforcement forms the basis of the work of the school, as does a faculty that brings a wealth of professional and therapeutic accreditation and professional and personal experience. (What does he look for when hiring instructors? “I’m looking for you to have some intention for growth, and some intention to make good choices and have rich experiences in your life.”) Whytecliff is equal parts a school and a youth development program school, and the program began with allowing students to feel safe and to grant them a sense of home.
Kissner says that “if environments can drive people crazy, they can make them well,” and indeed that’s a cornerstone of the Whytecliff program. “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,” says Kissner. “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.”