Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres's Feature Review excerpts disclose its unique character. Based on discussions with the school's alumni, parents, students, and administrators, they reveal the school’s distinctive culture, community, and identity.
What we know
- Whytecliff offers a highly student-centred environment that has a proven record of promoting student success.
- It provides belonging within an inclusive, supportive environment, which is seen as the first step to student success.
- It welcomes students with a diverse range of learning needs.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres provide a safe, comfortable, and welcoming learning environment for students in Grade 8 through 12 who, for a variety of reasons, struggle to thrive in the conventional school system. These include youth who find themselves at the margins of the school system, due to their specialized learning needs or socio-emotional issues, because they’ve been bullied or ostracized, are experiencing anxiety or depression, or because they feel lost, unwanted, or unsafe in a large impersonal school system that caters to the norm. Despite struggling in other schools, attendance here soars, and course completion increases four to eight times. 95% of students entering Grade 12 graduate, and later self-report as 9.3 out of 10 for being on a solid life path.
While students achieve remarkable academic success, perhaps the real successes of the school, though, are personal. For many students, Whytecliff is the first truly positive, inclusive community they’ve been a part of. Speak with anyone about Whytecliff and you hear charming stories of disbelief at their good fortune for finding the school. As one parent said: “We have been over the moon happy with the way our child and the rest of our family have been treated with such sensitivity and respect. This is the first school our child has attended that truly understands the situation and needs of the child. We feel extremely grateful and lucky that this school exists!”
Whytecliff is unique. Founded in 1993, its two campuses in Langley and Burnaby, B.C. are dedicated to meeting the needs of youth with diverse learning, personal, and/or life challenges (who qualify to work from IEPs). Whytecliff’s two sites stand apart as being the only independent schools in British Columbia also accredited as Positive Youth Development Programs by CARF. In practice, this means that Whytecliff takes a strength-based approach with each and every student, focusing on their abilities, passions, and talents, rather than on their perceived deficits, challenges, or diagnosis.
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
As one enters the two-storey, seafoam coloured building located on a prominent corner in the heart of the Langley business district, one is struck by how unlike a typical school Whytecliff looks. Each location is painted in the colours of gold, blue, and green to evoke hope, calm, and growth. A few pieces of art dot the walls, reflecting themes of hope, courage, serenity, and teamwork. Soft incandescent lighting is used throughout, and cozy chairs and couches are grouped to provide areas of reflection or conversation. Classrooms are small and include both individual workspaces and roundtables for group discussions. Both sites also have open, family-style kitchens that serve as natural gathering places.
Students describe the school as a place where they feel comfortable and welcome. They commented on the small class size, the casual atmosphere, the use of first names, and that they did interesting activities outside the classroom. Says one student, “When I walk in, I breathe a sigh of relief. Often breakfast is waiting. I feel safe and ready to learn.” Students talked extensively about feeling safe at the school— physically as well as emotionally. Safe to ask for help, safe to take chances, and safe to share their inner thoughts in creative writing and other forms of expression. One student said he felt safe enough to make a mistake and to admit his lack of knowledge: “It makes me more comfortable, the environment.”
The philosophy of wellness and individualized services is threaded throughout the organization. It’s a more flexible and social learning environment, one in which students feel free to move around and to ask questions of each other or of any of the educators. There are smaller classrooms for more directed instruction, though even there, the pace is very much set by the students themselves.
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
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 Shelley Donald, principal of WhytecliffLangley. “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.” Most students usually enroll at Whytecliff after an experience in the public school system, and most students typically arrive with either a Ministry designation or diagnosis that qualifies them to work from IEPs (one of the eligibility criteria for attending the school). The school welcomes students with a range of diverse learning needs, including ADHD, FASD, dyslexia, high functioning autism, Asperger’s, language processing disorders, depression, anxiety, troublesome behaviour, gifted children, children with chronic health needs, and other challenges.
Most students require more emotional, practical, and tailored learning supports than mainstream and other schools provide.
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
Using the provincial curriculum, students work toward completing their Evergreen or Dogwood 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. Students work at their own pace—either on their own, in pairs, or in small groups— and teachers provide materials, support, and guidance as needed. “We’re kind of a cross between a teacher and a counsellor, a motivator, a mentor, a leader, all at the same time,” says an instructor. We are “a listener and a caregiver in a sense in dealing with social issues and life skills—as opposed to the educator that is separated from the students’ lives. . . . We take on a more personal role.”
Teachers say that their wider role encourages the growth of positive and responsive relationships essential to facilitating students’ healthy development. The most important difference between this school and others is “the relationships that teachers and staff are encouraged to have with the kids. The number one thing is the relationships.”
Because of the unique needs and strengths of each student, the teacher/ student ratio is low at Whytecliff, usually around 1:5. The teaching staff is also supported by youth development workers, who engage the students in off-campus and community-based activities which support and add value to the curriculum. This community focus is integral to the design of the program, since strengthening students’ connections with the community and building long-term life skills is a primary goal. Through these experiences, children reach a fuller understanding of themselves and acquire a sense of direction for their future vocation and life beyond school. Community-based activities include numerous field trips, sports (including a winter hockey program), music, engaging with creative projects, mentorships in the trades, outdoor education activities, doing volunteer work, or (for Indigenous youth) participating in a smudging ceremony or other cultural practices.
Whytecliff enacts a progressive perspective that does not view youth according to their designated special needs label or their particular emotional or life challenge. Rather than focusing on treating students’ deficits that need fixing, they focus instead on students’ assets—their gifts, talents, strengths, relationships, and personal resources—and where the youth are seen as agents of their own growth and change. They look beyond the labels and seek the bigger picture of each student’s unique strengths. As one parent notes: “I just love the program. At the typical assembly-line school, my daughter fell between the cracks. Here they gave her self-respect and dignity and fostered her talents and abilities.”
In practice this means that each student is placed at the centre of their educational experience through “self-paced” and “self-directed” learning. 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. While students have their projects and lesson plans to complete, they can work at their own pace with support from teachers and youth support workers. Instruction is student-directed, though it’s not laissez faire. It’s more that every student is on their own mission.
The teachers build on students’ natural curiosity and passions and adapt the curriculum content to tie into students’ personal interests. This is particularly important for students who have had negative experiences in school and are turned off traditional ways of learning. Many of the learning activities end up being cross-curricular, multimodal, and reflective of different learning styles. One student describes the school’s focus in their words: “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.”
In addition to supporting each student’s individual path towards achieving success in their courses, the teachers believe in the importance of developing community among the students. Many of the students who come to the school have experienced isolation, loneliness, or rejection and need to feel like they belong and are part of a group. So, as students become ready, they are introduced to activities that engage with others and involve teamwork; these experiences build a sense of belonging, acceptance, and a positive sense of personal identity. As the principal of the Burnaby site, Ilona Davidson says: “... So many of our kids come to us with negative school experiences, and they really need, initially, one-on-one time... the helping hand of a teacher ... but we really notice the magic when kids begin to work in groups.”
ON SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
Essential to the creation and running of the school is its director, Dr. Robert Kissner. It was his vision to begin the school back in 1993, to design an integrated, life-affirming program for youth who tended to fall between the cracks of the school system and society. Like progressive educational philosopher John Dewey, Kissner views education as holistic—integrating the mind, body, and emotions, interconnected with the community, and practical in its orientation. With his doctorate from the University of Chicago and background as a specialist in stress and trauma, Dr. Kissner brings his knowledge and experience of children’s developmental growth, resilience, and recovery, to his leadership at the school.
The teachers and youth development workers on staff also bring academic excellence to their work (many have master’s degrees), but perhaps more importantly they are integrated, self-reflective human beings who are compassionate, empathetic, and non-judgmental.
Staff embody a culture of care and understanding with students and are also expected to model and practice the caring ethic with fellow staff. This culture of care is a powerful teacher for youth who may not have felt cared for before or seen care in action. As one student said: “[the teachers are] more personal, straight up, interactive. They care about my health. They care about my well-being, you know. They care about how I’m doing and stuff like that…They’re in it for us.”
Whytecliff was founded for perhaps 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 is to address vulnerable learners who, for whatever reason, were falling through the cracks of the education system. 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. There’s a sense of muted delight, on the part of both students and educators, 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. Whytecliff, in so many ways, is a hidden gem.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres
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