Leadership interview with Ilona Davidson, Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres
Ilona Davidson loves an underdog. She loves working with kids who struggle, and seeing them succeed. She is the Principal of Whytecliff Agile Learning Centres. The school’s approach is unconventional. That’s because conventional schools are where their students struggled in the first place. Brain-based research is a big part of the school’s approach. It’s led them to focus on being flexible, being out in the community, and having hands-on learning. They make a point of having fun because they know it works.
Highlights from the interview
What I love about my job is working with kids who struggle. I’ve always been a lover of the underdog. I just like kids who have to work harder than everybody else, and for whom things don’t come easily. I like working with them, and to watch them be successful is amazing.
We have a lot of fun here. We’re not bound by a lot of the same rules and structures that some schools are. So we’re able to, dare I say, get away with a little bit more. We’re able to have a lot of fun, so it’s a great place to work.
A lot of other schools, by necessity, have to have rules and structure, such as times when you have to be in the classroom. But we are able to say, for example, ‘You know what? People are really stressed today, let’s just get out of here. Let’s get everybody in the vans and let’s go for a picnic. Or, it’s a decent day outside, let’s go kick a ball around, or let’s go get some ice cream. Those things can turn a day on its head. It can shift the mood, and create a state of mind that is just amazing.
We’re able to get out and have fun: even if we’re in the middle of a science class, we’re able to do experiments outside. Some other schools don’t have that luxury. So we’re able to do stuff that’s kind of crazy and fun and very spontaneous.
We’re a very small school. Our Langley location is the bigger one, but the maximum is only 60 kids, and we have about 38 at the Burnaby site. So when you’re blessed to have a small school, it allows you to make decisions that bigger schools simply can’t. We can take ten people away and go do something different, that wasn’t on the agenda.
Our mandate is not to be like conventional schools. We really try to do things differently and to reach kids on an emotional level. That often means we can’t play by the same rules as their previous schools did, because we know under those rules they weren’t having success. We deliberately set out to be different and spontaneous and accommodating. It’s in our vision, it’s in our mandate, and it’s what we believe works best with high-risk kids.
Once students arrive and settle in, we have two or three hours where kids do academic work. The hope is that kids will get some work done, and it’s very much a one-on-one thing. So teachers are circulating around the rooms at that time, touching base with all the kids. ‘How are you doing? Can we help you? Do you need a new resource? Do you hate this assignment, do you need to throw it out and start something new?’
We usually try to build ‘programming’ into our afternoons. That’s generally off-site, if possible, and that’s when we fill their day with fun, meaningful activities. For example, twice a week we do Phys Ed, we do health and fitness, and we go to local gyms, pools, or we go rock climbing or go-carting, we do a vast array of fun things in the afternoons for health and fitness. Another day of the week we go down to Granville Island, to this amazing local arts and crafts agency. They do art and photography and digital media. There’s also a music program that we involve our kids with. And we try to have one day a week reserved for full-day programming, and that’s when we do our larger field trips.
A lot of what we do is based on what we understand about the brain and how kids learn. We do sound like a really fun program, and we are, but everything we do is very deliberate and very much based on what the most current research says about how kids learn, how schools are effective, and particularly how we work with vulnerable learners. We use brain-based research, which says you have to look at things like the state of mind of kids. Particularly for high-risk kids, state of mind is immensely important. If they can’t feel safe, if they don’t feel like they’re having fun, if humour and emotion aren’t being incorporated into their learning experiences, then they’re unlikely to learn.
A lot of what we do is based on triggering those happy feelings, those feelings of safety, those feelings of being involved in their community, which makes them feel connected. Tapping into students’ emotions, because that’s when people learn. That’s when people remember and retain information. So that’s very much a deliberate, brain-based rationale for why we do so much fun and so much in-the-field activities.
We also know that kids who are not conventional learners tend to be kinesthetic learners. So that means they need to be ‘doing’. They need to be learning through doing, by touching, by being actively engaged in what they’re doing. So that means field trips. That means being out in the community and connecting what they’re learning in textbooks to their real life. Another part of brain-based research says you have to make meaning for kids, especially kids who struggle. And meaning is not found in textbooks and darkened classrooms. It’s found in connecting emotionally to a subject.
We have enough research now on how young people learn to know that sitting in classrooms for up to six hours a day does not work for about 60% of the population. Most of us make it through high school but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will look back and say ‘I got through, it was fine’. But for vulnerable kids, we lose them. We lose them in huge numbers because we’re not teaching the way people actually learn, and particularly vulnerable people. So our approach is very deliberate. We’re not just trying to have fun: we’re trying to have fun because we know it works.
We have a broad spectrum of students who come to us, but we can generally say that all our kids have struggled in conventional school systems. They are largely kids who we would consider to be high-risk for a variety of reasons. Many of them come with learning disabilities: difficulties with reading, difficulties with writing. Many come with fears of math. Some come to us with dyslexia, or have various processing and auditory disorders. There are all kinds of learning challenges that we support students with. But we also have kids who struggle with pretty significant social-emotional problems.
Many of our youth have been bullied in previous schools, making it difficult for them to make friendships. Maybe they’ve chosen poor peer groups and need to be removed from that. A lot of our other kids struggle with anxiety and depression, which are at epidemic levels in many high schools. We also have a lot of kids on the autism spectrum, which has been an area where we’ve seen a really amazing shift in the program in the last few years.
Overall, our students are kids who have found that other schools are just not meeting their needs, because they may not have the resources, the time, or the actual know-how of how to work with really high-need, special kids.
Many of our families, when they find us, are at their wits’ end. We’re often the school that they have come to because they’ve tried many other places and have sadly found little success in those other places. So by the time we see many of our families, they are quite desperate, sometimes worried and skeptical. They’re wondering ‘how can you be any different’? They’re concerned and worried because this may yet be the fourth or fifth school their kids have tried. They’re thinking ‘please let this be the one’.
The key thing is relationships. Everything that we do here, in the end, comes down to relationships. And the program that we’ve created here is a family. That's an overused word, but it’s very much true for us. What we do here is create a warm, caring environment. It’s like a home. It’s actually structured much like a home. We provide a therapeutic environment. The paint colours are soft. The materials that kids work with are high-quality and beautiful. There’s a sense when kids walk in that this is a place that already cares about you.
By being in an environment that’s visually therapeutic, it begins to reduce the anxiety and the sense of combativeness that many kids enter a new school with. By doing that right from the beginning, amazingly, you automatically reduce the number of conflicts you’re going to get. We still get lots of conflicts, but because we’re small in numbers and have a very high staff-to-student ratio, we are able to form great bonds and great friendships with the kids.
When kids see how they are treated by staff, when they see that ethic of care, and how few rules we do have, they don’t feel like they’re always being told what not to do. They begin to realize that they don’t need to do the behaviours that used to cause them trouble. They don’t need to push back. They don’t need to provoke. They don’t need to be defiant. They’re in an environment that seriously believes in them, and when they see that, the problems honestly begin to melt away.
We’re careful with who we hire. Our hiring processes are often long, and they’re thorough. We have two sets of staff here. There’s the teachers and then there’s our youth team. We are a school, but also very much a program. That means we have support, lots of one-on-one support. Our youth workers, they all have degrees. That’s a minimum. They all have to have degrees in youth care and working with children, and hopefully specialties in young adults and older kids. Our teachers all have master’s degrees or specialties in conflict resolution, special needs, and things like that. Beyond that, and honestly more important than that, we’re looking for people who have heart.
We have a dual accreditation. We’re accredited as a school by the Ministry of Education, but we’re also accredited as a youth therapeutic agency, which means that our staff have to go through all kinds of accreditation training. It also means we are monitored by two agencies, and that means that every two or three years we have to go through some pretty rigorous testing and assessment from external bodies to make sure that we are walking the walk and providing the high-quality of therapeutic and educational support that we say we do.
We have highly individualized goals, but like most schools, we want our kids to graduate. We want our kids to have that success, to be able to say ‘I made it through high school’, and we’re fortunate enough to be able to say that 95% of our kids do graduate. Graduation is an obvious goal, but it’s not the only goal. There are some kids who leave us and have not made that goal. For them, what we’re looking for is ‘Did you grow? Are you different from when you started? Are you taking with you skills, mindsets, and beliefs that will serve you well and that give you hope and optimism for your future?’ And as far as we’re concerned, if you’ve got those, but perhaps not that graduation paper, we’re proud of you. We’re really proud. The goals we have for students need to be tailored around personal growth, strength, resilience, and hope.
We make concerted efforts to be able to reach out to our grads five years down the line. Many of our alumni return and become volunteers in the program. Many of them show up at graduation ceremonies in later years, and come back to stand at the front of the room and say, ‘Hi, I was one of you once upon a time’. And sometimes things happen, like a young man we had come back this year, who showed up and wandered in, plunked down $200 on the counter. He had just got his first job, and he said, ‘I want to buy pizza for lunch for everybody in this building, because I want to say thank you for what I got here’. So are alumni, they come back.
We hear amazing things from what our alumni go on to do. Higher education is a big one. Most of our kids eventually do say either they’ve gone on to jobs, or they’ve gone to our local colleges and community universities. Some of our kids end up going overseas. And we have quite a number of First Nations youth, and we’ve had some alumni who’ve gone on to take leadership youth positions within First Nations communities and become support workers for other youths. It’s really gratifying to follow up on our grads.
So many of our kids come to us having had negative school experiences, and initially they really need the one-on-one learning, the helping hand of a teacher or a youth worker. But when we really notice the magic of true learning is when kids are willing to work in groups of three or four. You just get great conversations going. Kids begin to realize that they have great ideas and that other people have great ideas and you just feel a different energy in the room. We work really hard to bring more of that into the program — more group learning, because we know that it works.
I think clearly there’s a real serious need that we’re seeing in our community for programs that work much more with kids on the autism spectrum. We’ve had an enormous amount of good fortune and real success with youth on the high-functioning end of that spectrum, and I see us expanding in that area. I also see us offering more help with emotional support and the therapeutics around that. The epidemic levels of anxiety and depression in regular schools mean that more and more kids can’t be served. I see us going more in that direction as well.
In terms of financial support, we have a really solid relationship with CKNW, which is a local radio station and news media agency, and they have long been partners with us to support some of our needier families. So when families arrive, if financial aid is something they would like to pursue, we can help them to fill out those forms. It’s not a very onerous process. And then we submit those to CKNW and their lovely, lovely people there. They assess the applications and are usually always able to provide some form of tuition relief.
If Whytecliff was a person, they would have to be fun. Resilience would be another personality trait. I’m thinking of someone like J.K. Rowling: someone who could get turned down for her books 12 or 13 times and still bring that magic to the world, and still believe in herself. Somebody who knows they have something to bring and is willing to keep trying to get it out. So I would say resilience, humour, warmth, kindness, compassion, hard work and fun.