It’s Tuesday, and I have not posted anything for a few days. I am still committed to those 30 posts, but I realize that a post a day is probably an overly ambitious schedule, even for me!
Today, I want to share a wonderful story about a teacher who is committed to making a difference. I was chatting with an old friend over the weekend, and touching on educational issues in our chat, when I realized that Debbie is a FANTASTIC subject for this series of blogs. Debbie is a dedicated teacher who works with some of the most challenging students. I can remember many years ago Debbie sharing stories that reminded me of her deep and abiding commitment to making things BETTER for the students she works with. In recent years, Debbie’s work has taken her outside of a conventional classroom, and into a specialized program for troubled youth with a variety of learning challenges called Foundations. Debbie’s role as “teacher” has led her to spend hours in court advocating for students in the Foundations program. I put “teacher” in quotes, because I think her role is more than teacher, she is a mentor, confidante, counsellor, advocate, and so much more. I salute Debbie in her role as a dedicated educator, but I also salute the Surrey School Board for supporting this program. This is an incredibly worthwhile opportunity to truly make a difference with students who are marginalized within our school system, our court system, and in the working world, many without positive family supports. This is truly the opportunity to change the course of some of these student’s lives for BETTER. So many different individuals and organizations are working together, around the youth in the Foundations program, to really try and make a difference. Their commitment and professionalism is exemplary.
And because people like Debbie have such a deep sense of dedication, she tells me she has just written a book for people who work in the helping professions (social workers and others, like Debbie, who work in "care-taking" roles) to help them prevent and recover from burn out. Debbie I am proud to know you, and proud to tell others about you as an educator, mentor and leader. The Surrey School Board, and your students, are very lucky to have you!
Here is a news article that was published about Debbie and the Foundations program last year:
Challenged. Vulnerable. Not without hope.
Surrey forum searches for a 'better way' to deal with developmentally disabled youth in trouble with the law...
Photo and Story By Amy Reid, Surrey Now May 3, 2012 10:15 AM
This Friday, a room full of police officers, politicians, probation officers and others will meet in Surrey to discuss the involvement of developmentally disabled youth in the criminal justice system.
The forum, hosted by the City of Surrey, aims to come up with ways to help these children and the challenges they face in the court system.
The idea was first conceived last September, when Coun. Barinder Rasode met with members of the Surrey school district's Foundations program, a special education program that addresses the needs of at-risk youth, aged 16 to 19, with learning and behavioural challenges.
"What became really apparent is that these are children who have either fetal alcohol syndrome, other genetic problems or horrid life situations," Rasode said.
"What's been happening, because they're so vulnerable, they were either being recruited or getting involved in petty theft. And once they got into the court system, there was no way to identify them. An officer, for example, would go to arrest one of these young people, and the officer wouldn't have any way of doing an assessment."
The result, Rasode said, is these kids end up behind bars, where they will likely get more wrapped up in undesirable activities.
"There's got to be a better way that we can work with the criminal justice system to identify these kids immediately. And I don't support labelling, but in this situation it just makes such a significant difference," Rasode said.
HOW FOUNDATIONS HELPS YOUTH
Debbie Holmes, head teacher at the Foundations program, said during the past four years, the class has had 75 students. Of those 75, half of them have had involvement in the criminal justice system.
Trevor (not his real name) has been enrolled in the Foundations program for the last two years.
Trevor has been to court about 20 times and has faced nearly 10 charges, he said.
When he was enrolled in a Surrey high school, he often skipped classes. But at Foundations, he attends regularly and has turned his life around.
Last summer, Trevor held a warehousing job and said he liked the people he worked with. He is taking a painting course through the Finishing Trades Institute with a few of his classmates.
Holmes said Trevor was quiet when he started in Foundations.
"He didn't seem to trust anyone that his life could get better. Once he was given better ways to express himself and positive activities to do in the community, things seemed to turn around."
Holmes said gaining employment was motivating for Trevor.
"He saw other students in the program had jobs and he wanted that for himself.
"Trevor has worked hard to change his life."
Holmes said many students in the Foundations program have hidden disabilities.
"For example, they look as normal as you and I, but their thinking is different.
Their thinking may be slower, or they don't understand social cues. They often don't have that spidey sense, as I call it.
For example, we know not to walk down a dark alley because it's dangerous.
They don't get that."
Holmes said the issues begin when these kids end up in trouble with the law.
"We have no way of flagging them. The ones that we have flagged are just because we've told the parents we can help if they give us permission to go to court, write a letter, talk about their issues and bring it up to the court system."
Holmes and others with the Foundations program spend hours upon hours in court advocating for their students.
"This is a huge problem and Surrey is not running away from it," Holmes said. "This is a societal problem. It's something that's here.
There's no one person to blame for this. It's not parents' fault, it's not the city's fault, there's no one to blame.
"It's just a problem that we need to look at."
And she said the problem is getting bigger.
"I don't know if it's that we're better at diagnosing, I don't know how it's becoming bigger, but it is. Maybe it was always there and we didn't see it - maybe our prisons are full of people with disabilities."
Holmes said she wants the children held accountable for their actions, but said there has to be a better way.
"By the time they get found guilty in court and you get to sentencing, that's when the courts find out about their challenges, and then no one wants to send them to jail."
Because the kids often don't know right from wrong, Holmes said, it;s easy for others to manipulate them into committing crimes.
"They don't understand half the time that what they did was wrong. Somebody says, 'Go take that cellphone,' so they take it, not realizing they're stealing it. They cognitively can't understand that."
Holmes is hopeful some solutions and ideas will come out of the City of Surrey's forum.
The forum, called Developmentally Disabled Youth: Helping to Reduce Involvement in the Criminal Justice System, takes place Friday. Participation is by invitation only.