Engaging in inner city schools

One evening in 2002 I was reclining in my soaker tub reflecting on my day at the Learning Exchange storefront. I thought about the stories I was hearing from patrons who came to the drop-in. Many people’s lives had unraveled as a result of an episode of mental or physical illness, or a financial setback, or marital break-up, or some other event that set off a cascading series of losses. Substance abuse often became a coping strategy, which only compounded the problem.

Once people had fallen out of step with the mainstream, it was incredibly difficult for them to find their way back. Even when people recovered their health, their circumstances were not the same. Some people had holes in their resumes of several years duration that they did not know how to explain to a prospective employer. Some had become so disheartened by what they had learned about the fragile and illusory nature of “success” that they had little motivation to try to regain what they had lost. Others were trying hard to find a new niche for themselves in the Downtown Eastside or elsewhere, but their marginalized status made it difficult (e.g., resumes with a Downtown Eastside address tend to be screened out by employers; it is hard to impress a mainstream employer if you can’t afford a haircut or decent clothes).

Preventing people from falling through the cracks

As I reflected on the major challenges people face and the enormous amounts of money that are spent trying to support people who have “fallen through the cracks,” I thought, “It will be much better for the individuals involved and for society as a whole if we can prevent people from falling through the cracks in the first place.” This led to the next thought, “We should get more UBC students tutoring and mentoring kids in the schools.” This seemed logical because we were starting to see important outcomes in the two elementary schools in the Downtown Eastside where Trek students were volunteering. Teachers were reporting that reading skills were improving, social skills were improving, and kids seemed more motivated to learn and stay in school.

The next day I phoned Tom Grant, who was then the Associate Superintendent for the area of Vancouver that included Eastside schools. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Learning Exchange. I explained what I was thinking and asked if he thought schools other than the ones in the Downtown Eastside might be interested in having UBC student volunteers. He said, “I would think so. Let’s find out.” He invited me to the next meeting of his principals. The meeting agenda was packed so I only had five minutes to explain what UBC students could do and what the impacts might be. At the coffee break, eleven principals gave me their business cards and said, “Let’s talk.”

Over the next few weeks, Shayne Tryon and I met with all the principals. As a result, in 2002-2003, the Trek Program’s involvement in schools expanded dramatically. Instead of having students only in the two elementary schools located in the Downtown Eastside, we suddenly had students involved in eight elementary schools located in several East Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Reading, science, sports, and more

Over the next few years, we added more schools to our list of partners, including some high schools. UBC students began doing 1:1 literacy tutoring, helping teachers with group activities in classrooms, helping students with their homework assignments after school, and organizing “passion clubs”—weekly workshops where UBC students shared their passions with kids, e.g., dancing, ethnic cooking, board games, or science.

T-birds in schoolsIn addition, because we had seen that sports were an effective bridge between kids and UBC students and because some schools wanted to get kids more physically active, we initiated programs in partnership with UBC Athletics and Recreation. We organized after-school sports activities and brought busloads of elementary children to the UBC campus. There, kids took part in a skills coaching session led by varsity athletes and coaches, heard the athletes tell stories about how their interest in sports had helped them get into university, took a tour of the campus, ate pizza, and then cheered on the varsity athletes as they competed in their sport (e.g., basketball or volleyball). Some varsity athletes also volunteered individually as reading tutors in the schools, providing powerful role models to kids.

By 2005, the Learning Exchange and the Vancouver School Board had a thriving partnership. In the 2004-2005 academic year, we brought about 400 UBC students into 17 schools in East Vancouver. Hundreds of UBC students were acting as tutors and role models on a weekly basis. Thirteen Community Service Learning (CSL) projects were done in schools during Reading Week. We entered into a partnership with Let’s Talk Science, a national volunteer effort by Science graduate students designed to increase science literacy. UBC science graduate and undergraduate students did hands-on science labs in schools, leading sessions on topics such as water quality testing and DNA analysis. In addition, four hundred children from eight elementary schools attended sports clinics and varsity games at the UBC campus that year. We also brought 50 UBC staff volunteers into schools where they either helped with the Christmas dinner that one school hosted for families in their area or helped with a school and community spring clean-up day.

From my point of view, our work in the schools was the most important thing the Learning Exchange was doing. Even though I knew it would be difficult if not impossible to empirically prove the value of the work, I believed the hundreds of UBC students that were learning and playing with kids across Vancouver’s Eastside would inevitably influence at least some kids for the better. I was convinced we were engaged in work that would result in long-term benefits.

In 2005, we prepared a report for the Vancouver School Board to showcase what UBC students were doing in Vancouver schools. Click here to read the report.

As the Learning Exchange grew, we continued to make our engagement with Vancouver schools a priority. In 2010 we prepared another report, whose strategic purpose was to inform the new superintendent about the scope and impact of the partnership between the Learning Exchange and the Vancouver School Board. Click here to read this report.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Unleashing students’ creativity.