Kitchener-Waterloo

New Guelph program keeps 92% of suspended students from getting in trouble again

A new program run by the YMCA for the Wellington Catholic District School Board pairs suspended students with a youth worker who can support their needs and work through behavioural issues.

YMCA supports allows students to 'learn from their mistakes': school board

A child sits on the floor next to his blue backpack. A nationwide program, that provides extra resources to students who have been suspended from school, was expanded to Ontario at the start of the 2021 school year. Of the 18 schools involved 17 are in the Guelph area. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock)

Instead of suspending a student from school for getting in trouble, why not pair them up with a youth worker who can support their needs and work through their behavioural issues?

That's the gist of the YMCA's nationwide alternative suspension program that expanded into Ontario this school year with 17 partner schools in Guelph, Ont., and one in Northumberland County. 

More than 30 students between the ages of 12 and 17 within the Wellington Catholic District School Board have been involved with the program.

"What we're trying to do is turn those suspensions into an opportunity for those young people to grow from the experience," said Andrew Borrelli, director of development for the YMCAs of Quebec and the person running the program across the country.

Done right, Borrelli said, it can be an chance to reset and successfully reintegrate back to school.

Since the program began in the Guelph Catholic school board, 92 per cent of youth did not get suspended again or face discipline when they returned to school. All of them said they enjoyed their experience with the program and are still attending school, YMCA numbers show.

Tailored supports

There are any number of reasons behind why a student might be suspended, said Michelle Fischer, community youth Initiatives supervisor at the YMCA of Three Rivers in Guelph. That includes anger management, time management, substance use, absenteeism or bullying others.

Traditionally, suspended students would be barred from school and required to complete homework assignments under the supervision of their parents or guardians.

But in the YMCA's program, the student meets with a youth worker three to five days a week. Together they work to better understand the student's needs and attend workshops, have dedicated time for school work and can be referred to other community-based activities and services. 

"Those [services] are going to be catered toward the student's needs that they may have been suspended for or if they were sent to the program for the preventative measures," said Fischer. "The youth workers are with them the entire time, walking beside them."

When the suspension period is over, and it's time for the student to return to school, there's a "re-integration meeting," said Fischer.

"That's when the school comes into play, their families come into play. And just really setting that student up for success to be reintegrated back into their school life," said Fischer, adding that the youth worker stays in touch with the student and family to check in on their progress.

Borrelli said there were fewer suspensions during the major waves of the pandemic, and the program itself was paused at some points when students were limited to virtual learning, but now numbers are increasing as students are largely back in class.

'Better choices in the future'

A spokesperson with the Wellington Catholic District School Board told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo that the program has received good reviews from students, families and school administrators.

"It gives students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and receive guidance through the support of YMCA staff," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "We are hearing that it has been a helpful addition to the support already in place for students who may be struggling at school."

The statement also said the program is helping students "avoid similar patterns of behaviour in the future."

A national review of the program between 2014 and 2019 found that students are up to 25 per cent more likely to fare better in academics and attendance compared to students who are suspended.

The program is funded partially through private grants and has received government funding. Its expansion into Ontario in 2021 was because of a $2.15 million investment from Scotiabank for new sites across Canada.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story indicated the YMCA program was funded in part by a $2.5 million investment from Scotiabank. In fact it was a $2.15 million investment.
    May 10, 2022 1:25 PM ET

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