At Spruce Avenue School, teachers, support workers, families, and kids work together to create a learning environment that caters to educational, physical, artistic, and emotional needs.
In the reception area, awards are displayed and art adorns the walls. It’s a beautiful old brick school, with spaces for construction classes, a foods lab, a professional-level dance studio, library, art room, and music room.
Instead of an anti-bullying campaign, there’s a kindness tree documenting good acts.
But the staff, support, and students add the real beauty.
Mona Markwart, the principal, explained teachers call parents when their children are doing well. “As a parent, when the phone rings you think, ‘Oh it’s the school, which one of you is in trouble?’ so it’s great to be positive… We only have the kids for part of the day, so parents are a big part of our success.”
The school partners with All In for Youth (AIFY), a collaboration including United Way, E4C (who provides a breakfast program), and Boys & Girls Clubs (who provides student support with a family therapist, nutritionist, and success coach). Out-of-School-Time provides after-school programming.
“Because of the work they do, the teachers can teach and focus on their work,” said Markwart.
The school faces its share of challenges.
“We have a lot of the regular low socioeconomic challenges, but one that is increasing in our young people is mental health and anxiety. AIFY work hard and deserve recognition. What they do is so amazing and they give of themselves daily for the community and our children.”
“I’m able to deal with the trauma that these kids deal with and help with coping strategies,” said Philiana Wong, the school therapist. “Everybody has gone through bad things, but it’s harder for people in the inner city area because they not only face poverty and mental health challenges, but [also] need more support with how to cope with traumatic events from broken families, addictions.”
Wong continued, “We have a huge refugee population dealing with war. Residential schools, being in the system… it’s having someone there to talk to, which doesn’t come easy for teenagers, so you have to earn their trust, be patient, not give up on them, and be present.”
Chantelle Jackson, the nutritional support worker, agreed.
“I always have my kitchen open and the kids can talk to me without shame, there’s no blame and I get it. I just want them to come to school. We want to not just meet their nutritional or food needs, but emotional and mental, too.”
Daniel Saison is the school’s success coach and the basketball coach. He works directly with the youth, getting to know them and providing educational support and mentorship.
“The northeast end of the city has historically been lower income, and lots of kids need help,” he said. “We work together with the school to build support for the child, the family, and branching into the community to create a space where the kids feel safe and comfortable and can learn and get the best education. The people we have in this team are some of the best I’ve ever worked with—there’s no infighting—we give our all to the kids.”
Markwart gives credit to AIFY and the “amazing staff, trusting parents, and the community that wraps around us as well,” she said. “It’s a really good place to be.”
The school needs continued support from the community in the form of adult role models, said Wong. “Come in and talk to the teachers, the principal,” she said. “We need volunteers to do coaching and after school activities. More people to volunteer their time to do guitar clubs, basketball, sports. Come run a club that’s beneficial to the kids or helps build skills.”