Walking through the bustling hallways of Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS), Brett Hancock smiles at, and fist bumps, every student he passes. Smiles form on their faces as they greet him back. “I learned a lot from traveling, but I sure as hell didn’t learn much in high school,” he says. “The goal with these programs is to let students learn valuable things—like the acceptance of others, empathy, and respect.”

Brett’s wearing pointy leather shoes with an intricate gold design, a stylish blazer over a t-shirt, and various ear piercings that make him look more like a rock star than a high school teacher. He oversees the alternative schooling programs of Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District 68, known as “Tier 3,” which NDSS hosts alongside its mainstream classes for students with debilitating challenges in their lives, such as poverty, addiction, or mental health issues.

He comes to the first doorway of the Tier 3 wing, the OWL room. OWL stands for Outreach and Wellness Learning; it’s a short-term program intended to help students with major mental health difficulties, from serious anxiety to anger management issues. Inside, one student is gesturing to a bite mark on his cheek and talking about his run-in with a cocaine addict the other night. “Did it break the skin?” Hancock asks. Yes, it did.

In its third year, the OWL program teaches personal strategies such as mindfulness, anxiety reduction, and anger management. Its main purpose, however, is to provide a supportive place for students with serious mental health difficulties who might otherwise not be able to attend school. It’s a joint venture with the school district, Vancouver Island Health, Discovery Youth and Family Services, Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre, Nanaimo and Area Resource Services for Families (NARSF), and Nanaimo Family Life. Like all of the Tier 3 programs, students come to OWL from schools all over Nanaimo, after a screening by a committee that ensures the program is suitable for the student.

“OWL is short term, ideally on a part-time basis, and they come in with the intent to remain connected to their original schools because that’s where they would go back to school,” says Tom Boston, the primary teacher for OWL. “Some students in OWL take classes at NDSS part-time as well.”

Hancock thinks being on-site at NDSS is key to OWL’s effectiveness. “They’ve had a ton of success; they have students transitioning to other Tier 3 programs and taking mainstream classes at NDSS. Some are involved with the fine arts, which is huge to see. They wouldn’t have that opportunity off-site. I think some of the other programs might benefit from being off-site, but not this one.”

Back out in the hall, several boys in muscle shirts and shorts are heading to the gym with a staff member.

“Gunna get a nice big swell on?” Brett teases.

“You know it,” they call back.

The boys are from the AbOut program, which stands for Aboriginal Outreach, or Adventure Based Outdoor Learning. In its fourth year, AbOut is geared toward vulnerable grade nine to 12 students and helps them complete their graduation requirements in unique ways. Being Aboriginal is not a requirement to enroll, and a few students are not, but Aboriginal culture is a large focus.

Students learn about career options and participate in experiential learning in the community, such as construction, farming, landscaping, maintenance, and carving. These non-traditional classes help engage the students, and inspire them to take on their own projects. “One student made a Dragon’s Den-type proposal for a logo for the AbOut program,” Hancock says. “It was a raven, which is known as a wise trickster, to symbolize the kids. It blew me away, the way that student sold his idea.”

The family-like element is what keeps the program together, says teacher Kathi Clapoff, who is known as the mother-figure of AbOut. “We have some older students who are really strong and act as Elders and leaders,” Clapoff says. Relationships and culture drive the program, which has built strong relationships with the Snuneymuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nations, Tillicum Lelum Friendship Centre, and the Young Professionals of Nanaimo for support, which helps grow their self-esteem and goal-setting skills.

“The Circle of Courage is also a big focus,” Hancock says. The Circle of Courage is a metaphor used in education that says students must have a feeling of belonging in order to have a chance to become independent and the ability to show generosity. Without belonging, independence and generosity can’t happen. “And humour is a very important part of teaching. They learn to be able to laugh at themselves.”

Clapoff agrees that AbOut provides a sort of sanctuary to students. “There are kids that come in some days under the influence, but they come right into the AbOut room. AbOut is like home. It gives them a sense of belonging, a safe place, and lets them focus on where they want to be.”

Across the hall is the room for the Ravens’ Lelum Teen Parenting Centre, a program for young parents to fulfill academic goals. In its third year, the Raven program was created as an extension of AbOut when enrollment numbers grew too big.

“It’s kind of like the dads are in AbOut and the moms are in Raven,” Hancock says. “At first we wanted them together to focus on joint parenting skills, but the kids seemed to need a break from each other sometimes.”

That, and the fact that having several babies in the room at once can make for quite a crowded space; this way, the mothers are able to bring their kids to school and interact with them.

Raven and AbOut graduation rates are up 20 per cent over the last six years, and more Aboriginal students have graduated from the program than at any other school in SD68, says Hancock.

Next door is the VAST room. VAST is designed for youth who struggle with behavioural, social, emotional, and/or addiction issues. It was previously located off-site but moved to NDSS in 2014.

Seventeen-year-old Anna Rios is a VAST student set to graduate in June. After a couple of years alternating between the AbOut program and mainstream classes at two different high schools, she made the transition to the VAST program last semester.

“There’s a lot of support here,” Anna says. “Brett has helped me hand out resumés, and if you ask a teacher for help, they help you, even on weekends. Sometimes the boys are too loud, but I like to see my brothers actually getting stuff done.”

Anna has known since age 12 what she has wanted to do when she graduates. “I want to get a Bachelor’s in Criminology and then go to law school to be a prosecutor,” she says. “I’ve applied to universities in Alberta, Toronto, Vancouver, and Seattle—and VIU.”

It has not been all smooth sailing for the Tier 3 programs, of course. VAST Social Studies and English teacher, Chuck Young, sees the move to NDSS as a hindrance to student success.

“It was a big mistake moving us on campus,” Chuck says. “There are too many distractions, so it’s difficult to build a solid, positive culture, because there is a very wide variety of students, which makes the curriculum much harder to organize.”

Hancock explains that some students finish their high school classes while starting in the trades programs at VIU. This is done through the Career and Technical Centre (CTC), another innovative district program. Other students that may not have completed all the courses that are required for the program they want to attend at VIU will connect with Adult Basic Education. “Many Tier 3 students take a number of tours to see all that VIU offers, and we try to connect them to staff at VIU that can be a positive support,” Hancock says. “And some of our students have gone straight to VIU degree programs with great success.”

Back at the main office, Vice-Principal and District Transitions Advisor Bob Brooks explains that he wants to build a new model for alternate learning that will maximize student success.

“I want to create better systems to track interventions and make it consistent for all students. Then the student can truly be able to say, ‘This is my portrait; this is where I’ve had difficulties and successes; this is how I learn best,” he says. “We would be able to apply much more accurate data on how students are learning, and if we did that, we would be able to revolutionize how we approach the supports for students.”

Bob explains that the system has been plateauing; while there are spikes of success, often times the students are waiting for the bar to be raised so they can go onto something else. “It takes a special kind of teacher. It also takes that next step,” he says. “When we have these students come to us, we need to identify what we need to work on and communicate that back to the schools they come from and provide the supports we need, because would it not be our goal to get them back to a level where we can support them to be even more successful?”

“The people that we have working in our alternate programs are unbelievable,” he continues. “I get a tear in my eye every time I talk to them. Not because of the bad situations, but because of the hope, energy, will, and skill that our staff has. There’s something really amazing about alternate education, and this site is ground zero for significant change.”