Regina school takes 'backpacks to briefcase' approach

From the outside, Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina looks like any other school. But inside, it’s very different.

Mother Teresa Middle School aims to break trend of low aboriginal graduation rates

A staff member coaches students in wrestling on a blue mat in a gym.
Student Drayden Cyr wrestles with graduate support worker Ron Gonzales at Mother Teresa Middle School. (CBC)

About 30 kids look on as their classmate, Drayden Cyr, locks arms with Ron Gonzales.

Ron is the graduate support worker at Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina’s inner city. He is also a former university wrestler and coach.

Each is trying to take out the other's legs — without slipping out of the wrestling circle — to pin their opponent. In what seems like a split second, Ron pins Drayden on the mat.

Three years ago, you wouldn't have found Drayden Cyr in a wrestling class or taking part in any school sports. In fact, Drayden was only attending his local school about two or three days a week.

His mother, Bridgette, worked early mornings so she couldn't be there to make her son go to school. 

“I saw that Drayden’s attendance was very poor when he was going to school at Albert School,” remembered Bridgett.

“He was [only] attending sometimes two or three days a week and he was getting honours. He was bored. He has great potential to learn. All the children do. But they need the opportunity and somebody there to really nurture them.”

The school of change

But inside, it’s very different.From the outside, Mother Teresa Middle School looks like any other school. The red brick building has a large cross and the name just above the door, and big blue metal doors lead inside.

It’s modelled after a network of schools called NativityMiguel. These inner-city schools, started in New York, turned around school dropout rates drastically in one case, changing an 85 per cent dropout rate into an 80 per cent graduation rate.

We've got a pain in the province. We have to be a painkiller, not a vitamin.- Principal Curtis Kleisinger

Regina businessman Paul Hill is the man behind the idea that turned into Mother Teresa Middle School. It was his way of honouring the work of Mother Teresa, to create the same kind of changes she did abroad in his own hometown.

The idea is to remove all the barriers to education — things like lack of food, clothing, and health issues — so all that's left for students is to focus on their education. 

Mother Teresa Middle School has 55 students this year, Grades 6 to 8, and targets inner city Regina kids. The school provides breakfast, lunch and two snacks, as well as school uniforms. If the students need glasses or dental work, the school arranges it. The school buses all the kids from their homes to the school and back every day.

Programming is also tailored to fit students’ needs. Assignments and classes can be altered to fit students' strengths.

The school year stretches past the usual academic year and includes summer programming, and there are after-school programs every day.

Mother Teresa Middle School buses all the kids from their homes to the school and back every day. (Mother Teresa Middle School)

Mother Teresa is an independent school in Saskatchewan, so it does receive provincial money. However, that only accounts for about 20 per cent of the costs to educate each student here. The rest is made up with grants and donations.

Mentors from all different careers also work with students. And when the students graduate, Ron Gonzales, the graduate support worker, follows each one through high school and post-secondary training to ensure they are transitioning.

“Our number one goal is to increase graduation rates,” said principal Curtis Kleisinger.

“We've got a pain in the province. We have to be a painkiller, not a vitamin,” Kleisinger continued.

“We have to find a different way to educate our First Nations youth. We have to do a better job than a 30 to 35 per cent graduation rate.”

Providing this kind of education does come at a price. And Kleisinger said he’s lucky because his staff does not count hours. 

Breaking the trend: The case of Drayden Cyr

Kleisinger said Drayden Cyr is a prime example of how a school like this can help a kid going down the wrong path before he loses his chance to graduate. 

“Dray didn't go to school a whole lot. I asked him and he said, 'I got all As what did I need to go for?'" Kleisinger recalled.

Drayden Cyr is one of 17 Grade 8 students who will graduate from Mother Teresa this year. He says he knows that his education is a gift, and he's ready to pay it forward. (Mother Teresa Middle School)

“He's a sharp young man. The problem is you can only do that so long. If you're not coming in Grade 5, you’ll come less every year after. You'll just quit. You'll start getting behind because you don't have good work habits."

Drayden's mom Bridgette recalled telling her son, “If you're not committed to it, if it’s not something you think you can do because the hours are longer, then don’t do it.“

"He said, 'No, no. I'm going here.' And he really did commit himself to it, and I saw a change.”

These days, Drayden doesn’t miss a day of school. He said this school is different not just because there is more programming, but because of staff members like Kleisinger and Gonzales.

“They’re nice and they care and they push us to do our greatest,” Drayden said. “It’s like a family. It’s like having my other family.”

Bridgette's youngest son, Blue, also started at Mother Teresa this year, and she sees the same improvements in Blue that she sees in Drayden.

They’re nice and they care and they push us to do our greatest...It’s like a family.- Student Drayden Cyr

She sees this school making the difference between her sons getting ahead and falling behind for good.

“Not everybody has the opportunity financially to get their kids where they want to be … this school has taken 55, 60 kids and has given them that opportunity,” said Bridgette.

“I think all these kids have potential and they want to go somewhere in life, and this is going to take them there.”

Signs of success

Kleisinger said seeing his students succeed is more than just rewarding. It's proof that if you change the game, these kids really can win.

“He's already becoming a leader,” Kleisinger said of Drayden Cyr.

“Dray knows he's got a responsibility to pay it forward. He has perfect attendance. He comes ready to go to work. He’s focused on what he needs to do in the future. He's a lot healthier and has become an athlete in track and football, has hopes and dreams for the future. He’s among our best leaders, people follow him, he shows good judgment and is mature beyond his years.”

“I think Drayden's ready [for graduation from middle school]," says Drayden's mother. "I remember at his first interview he couldn't talk; he was crying. Very reserved, very scared. And right away, his self-confidence just increased."

Kleisinger said every day, he sees changes like this in his students. He sees their reading levels improve drastically.

'If they won’t quit on you, you can't quit on them,'says principal Curtis Kleisinger. (CBC) (CBC)

Kids that used to move a lot, and therefore transfer schools a lot, finally find a place that feels like home. Even though this is a school that targets inner-city youth, if they move out of the area, the bus will still come pick them up every day.

"Sometimes you’re feeling tired, run down, and sometimes you think, 'Geez, what am I doing here?' Some of my students have every reason in the world to throw in the towel and they don’t," said Kleisinger.

"They're tired and they're hurting and they keep coming back. If they won’t quit on you, you can't quit on them.”

Back in the gym, Drayden is once again demonstrating wrestling moves with Ron Gonzales. It's good practice, since he wants to be a math teacher and a coach.

Drayden is one of 17 Grade 8 students who will graduate from Mother Teresa this year. A support worker from the school will follow them through high school, post-secondary education, and their launch into the workforce.

Drayden said he knows that this education is a gift, and he is ready to pay it forward.

“I can pass on to others my knowledge of things,” he said.  “[Help them] be better members in the community and help them strive for greatness.”


Merelda Fiddler

CBC producer

Merelda Fiddler has been a producer and journalist with CBC Radio for almost 15 years. Throughout, she has covered many of the stories of Saskatchewan's missing and murdered indigenous women, and has had the honour of meeting their families and telling their stories.


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