Nfld. & Labrador

'This big, diverse, eclectic thing is happening': St. John's school opens to students Friday nights

You might think the last thing students would want to do after a long week in the classroom is go back to school on a Friday night, but that is exactly what's happening at Beaconsfield Junior High in the west end of St. John's.

Beaconsfield Junior High is building a sense of togetherness, belonging

Students attending the Friday night gathering at Beaconsfield Junior High play games and musical instruments, draw or just hang out. (Greg O'Leary)

You might think the last thing students would want to do after a long week in the classroom is go back to school on a Friday night, but that is exactly what's happening at Beaconsfield Junior High in the west end of St. John's. 

'What I've seen is a real momentum, a real spirit, a real sense of togetherness...' - Greg O'Leary, principal

Since the end of September, the school — which has around 530 students from four different elementary schools in the area  — has been opening up the gymnasium for a couple of hours on Friday nights.

"I thought 'Why don't we do something to build a feeling of togetherness and belonging?' So I decided to open the gym," said Principal Greg O'Leary. 

"But the idea was just to open the ball room so students could play four different sports in four different parts of the gym."

Before every Friday night session, the students gather for a motivational pep talk from O'Leary about respect, having fun together and making sure everyone is included. (Rosalita Durdle)

O'Leary was expecting about a dozen students to show up for the first session, but more than 80 kids turned up, and not all of them were interested in sports. 

Some brought sketch books or iPads, others gathered to chat on the stage or hang out on mats in the back of the gym.

O'Leary said what's been happening has exceeded his wildest expectations.

O'Leary says teachers are getting as much out of the experience as the students. (Greg O'Leary)

"They just wanted to be around each other ... so it started to turn into something different," he said.

"So now we have artists, we have gamers, we have weightlifters, and then the music teacher started to come and now we have musical instruments going and it's become this big, diverse, eclectic thing happening at the school."

Mixing and mentoring

O'Leary said he's now seeing kids hanging out with kids with different interests, and older students taking a leadership role with younger children.

He even has more teachers than he needs volunteering to take part on Friday nights, and parents are showing up as well.

Principal Greg O'Leary started at the school in September, and says he wanted to come up with a way for students to get to know him, their teachers and each other. (Colleen Doyle-Brown)

"We think in society that everything is competitive, students don't want to be in school, and this thing has turned everything on its head," O'Leary told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"I think it says a lot about what young people want, they want connection. And in society right now, I think a lot of people — including adults — feel very disconnected."  

More than 80 kids showed up the first Friday night gathering. Now, more than 100 students regularly participate. (Greg O'Leary)

O'Leary said the bonding happening between students, and between students and staff, is being noticed in the classroom as well.

"What I've seen is a real momentum, a real spirit, a real sense of togetherness that has really transformed every aspect of the school — academically as well as socially," said O'Leary.

The plan is to keep the sessions, called the Friday Night Community Building Initiative, running throughout the school year.

"As a principal it's pretty exciting to be a part of this," O'Leary said.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show