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Alternate learning a hit

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 07, 2008

Fort Smith - A new venture in alternate schooling in Fort Smith is enjoying a highly successful first year.

A storefront school, dubbed Phoenix School by students, opened last fall in the Fort Smith Rec Centre.

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Sarah Matthews holds her two children (four-month-old Hannah and Shawna, 2) while she studies at Phoenix School in Fort Smith. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The school is officially part of - but at arm's length from - Paul William Kaeser (PWK) high school.

Phoenix School teacher Heather Villeneuve said its first year has been fantastic.

"I think it's exceeded our expectations," she said.

Currently, there are 31 active students at Phoenix School, which is basically one room.

Originally, it was thought the school would attract about 10 to 15 students.

Five students are in limbo, meaning they have fallen behind on contributing work.

"You have to be committed to the program," Villeneuve said. "That is the main ingredient for success."

Students can complete their work any way and anywhere they want, and they contribute it to Villeneuve.

Attendance at the school is not a big issue.

"It's all about completing the work," Villeneuve said, explaining the school is progress based.

The school initially targeted teenage students having trouble fitting into the 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. routine of the regular school system.

However, it has grown beyond that and now has students ranging in age from 14 to 24 in Grades 9 to 12.

"To call this a program for at-risk youth is not accurate anymore," Villeneuve said, adding 12 of the students are aged 20 and older.

PWK principal Al Karasiuk said generally the school is for students 21 years of age and younger, and anyone above that would be directed to Aurora College for upgrading.

Six students at Phoenix School are on track to graduate high school this year.

However, Karasiuk said success can't be judged just by graduation, since a student who has upgraded his or her skills to write and pass a trades exam is also a success.

Villeneuve said there have been many success stories.

One of those success stories is Shelly Schaefer, 21, who dropped out of PWK in early 2006.

"I wasn't too motivated," Schaefer recalled. "I thought hanging out with people was more important than schoolwork."

She said she had no specific problem with PWK, but didn't want to return there and be sitting in classrooms with 16 and 17-year-olds.

"I would feel really awkward," she said. "I was a little too old for that."

So in January, she enrolled at Phoenix School, and by June will likely have completed 58 credits, which would normally take about a year and a half.

"I want to get it over and done with," Schaefer said, adding she sometimes works on schoolwork all day and all night.

"It's been an incredible workload," Villeneuve said. "It's amazing."

Schaefer said she has been successful at Phoenix School because she likes to work on her own.

After she gets her high school diploma, Schaefer plans to study business management at college in Alberta. Another student, 15-year-old Blair Mabbitt, is well on his way to becoming a mechanic.

"I was one of the first people here," the Grade 10 student said of Phoenix School.

Mabbitt said he was at PWK last year, but had difficulty getting along with teachers.

"Some teachers I don't get along with, some I do," he said. "Here, it's mostly my peers around me, and just one teacher I can live with."

Mabbitt, who works in the morning at an automotive firm and attends school in the afternoon, said Phoenix School gave him goals of graduating and becoming a journeyman mechanic.

Sarah Matthews, 20, dropped out of PWK when she became pregnant with her first daughter, and returned to Phoenix School this past September.

"It's been good. I like it," she said. "I know my kids are with me and they're safe."

Karasiuk said Phoenix School has been more successful than he imagined it would be.

"It has done some great things for a certain part of the population," he said, adding it has helped those with full-time jobs, single moms and young people hoping to enter the trades.

Upwards of 10 students started at the storefront school and didn't finish, Karasiuk said. "They gave that a shot and it didn't work."

For its first year, including start-up costs, the program cost about $200,000. The Town of Fort Smith provided free space in the Rec Centre, and there were contributions from many other groups and organizations in the community.

Karasiuk said, barring any unforeseen funding cuts, Phoenix School will continue because it is fulfilling a need.

The principal said Phoenix School has had a positive influence on PWK.

At times, some students had trouble fitting into PWK because of discipline problems, but there are no such problems at Phoenix School.

It has also eliminated the problem of some dropouts hanging out across the road from PWK outside Uncle Gabe's Friendship Centre.

RCMP Sgt. Grant Payne said police would get complaints about eight to 12 dropouts just about every day in the fall of 2006.

"It was more of a nuisance than anything else," Payne said. "These kids were bored. They had nothing to do."

Occasionally, there would be complaints of minor property damage and altercations with PWK students, he said, adding the problem disappeared when the winter set in.

The sergeant said the problem was discussed at the Fort Smith Interagency Group and a storefront school was suggested as a solution.

Payne said the problem did not return last fall with the opening of Phoenix School.

"It was amazing," he said. "It was a non-issue."