Saskatchewan

'Nobody believed in me': Former Saskatoon alternative school student decries Cornwall cut

Kara-Lee Arcand was already addicted to cocaine and ecstasy by age 13. In high school she knew more about gangs and drugs than she did about math.

“Nobody believed in me you know everyone just assumed that I was gonna be in jail, be dead, or on drugs.”

Kara-Lee Arcand began attending Community Learners High School 17. She graduated from the program three years later with her Adult 12. She is now a certified Social Worker. (Submitted by Kara-lee Arcand )

Kara-Lee Arcand was already addicted to cocaine and ecstasy by age 13. In high school she knew more about gangs and drugs than she did about math.

"Nobody believed in me," Arcand, now 25, said. "Everyone just assumed that I was gonna be in jail, be dead, or on drugs."

She says she wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for Community Learners High School and Keith Jorgenson, the school's founder.

The street lifestyle was normal for her. She has over a dozen brothers and sisters, some of whom dealt drugs and were gang members.

Kara-Lee was addicted to drugs at age 13, she found support from the Community Learners High School, the school helped her get her Adult 1. (Submitted by Kara-lee Arcand )

Arcand said she fell into the same negative lifestyle she witnessed around her.

"I was basically kicked out of every school. So I really had no other options and I didn't think I was going to be able to continue my schooling."

Owner Keith Jorgenson employed at-risk youth at Pleasant Hill Bakery. (Cory Pratt)

Arcand was introduced to the Community Learners High School, an independent school run out of the back of a bakery on 20th Street, by one of her older brothers when she was 17.

She was already a young mother by that time. She decided she had to try to complete her Adult 12.

"It was kind of like a last resort for people, like most of the people that went to that school were people who either had kids, had given up, or were living the drug lifestyle or gang life," said Arcand.

"It was a whole bunch of kids who didn't fit into regular school that were allowed to actually be in school again."

Arcand's younger brother also attended the school. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and on medication. Arcand said that during that time Jorgenson, the school's founder, made sure her brother took his medication and helped him attend all mental health appointments.

"Whenever things got to be too much for my little brother. They always helped get us back on track," Arcand said.

Recently her brother took his own life.

"He would have been 25. His birthday was just on Wednesday."

Community Learners High School

Jorgenson worked for years with at risk youth in Saskatoon, helping them integrate back into a school setting through Community Learners and providing them with employment opportunities through the attached bakery.

"As a teacher the best way for me to be able to help young people was to give them a job and have them go to school at the same time," Jorgenson said.

Keith Jorgenson was the founder and principal at the Community Learners High School in Saskatoon. (James Hopkin/CBC)

The school graduated one to four students each school year. Jorgenson said that while that may be a low number compared to an average high school, it was an accomplishment for his students because of the background many of them came from.

"You have to remember that most of these students come from a pretty substantial negative starting points," he said.

Jorgenson closed Community Learners High School in 2016 after the funding was cut by the Ministry of Education, which cited a low graduation rate in its decision.

Jorgenson and his wife decided to keep the bakery going. He said many of the youth didn't have any other chance at earning an honest dollar.

The couple also owns Nestor's Bakery several blocks down the same street. Jorgenson said they will continue to offer the youth of the community employment opportunities there.

"Keith saved a lot of lives," said Arcand. "He did so much for us. When we said we had no money or no food or something he's offer us food, he'd give us and he provided meals. He would give us jobs so that we could go home and bring money home to our families."

Arcand says that when students wouldn't come to school, Jorgenson would do everything he could to support them.

"The teachers would just work with us. I don't know how many times I ran off and Keith would chase me down and convince me to come back to school and not give up," Arcand said.

"I never had anyone bat for me like that."

After years of living in Saskatoon and seeing the rise in drug use, Arcand decided to move her children away from Saskatoon to Kamloops, B.C, where she attained her certification in Social Work from WorkBC.

"I am one of the first people in my family who actually graduated."

Closing Cornwall

The provincial government announced last week that they would no longer continue to fund the Cornwall Alternative School, an alternative school that offers holistic and traditional learning for at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Regina, for the 2019-2020 school year.

A rally was held at Cornwall Alternative School on Monday, March 25. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

News of the Cornwall cut drew complaints from political opponents and the general public. Rallies were held in favour of the school.

Education Minister Gordon Wyant said Tuesday that the province would revisit the Cornwall decision in the near future.

Arcand said she was furious when she heard about the cut. She said it reminded her of the anger she felt when Jorgenson had to close the school in Saskatoon.

"We need these people who care about the youth," said Arcand

"There is a saying that says the kids who act the worst are usually the one who need love the most and I fully believe that is true."

About the Author

Penny Smoke

Journalist

Penny Smoke Cree/Saulteaux born and raised in Saskatchewan. She currently works with CBC Indigenous and has spent time with the CBC Storytelling Project, CBC Saskatchewan as a reporter and assisted as an Associate Producer with CBC's The Afternoon Edition.