Normandeau School student Aliyah Bisson enjoys harvest garden soup, made of vegetables planted in the schoolyard last spring. The garden plot is part of the school’s nutrition education program (Advocate file photo.)

Red Deer’s school districts join forces to foster community safety by keeping kids in the classroom

Pilot project is at St. Teresa of Avila and Normandeau schools

Children who miss a lot of elementary school classes often turn into adults who are in and out of jail.

Studies have found a strong correlation between these two demographics, so Red Deer’s public and Catholic schools districts are taking pro-active steps to try and foster a stronger interest in school, thereby promoting community safety over the longer term.

The Integrated School Support Project is underway in Normandeau School and St. Teresa of Avila School. The goal of the pilot program is to give students, including many from lower-income families, more support in wherever they need it most — including with nutrition, literacy or mental health.

“We’re after a quick win” with measurable results, said Stu Henry, superintendent of Red Deer Public Schools. “We feel if students are learning and are successful, happy and well fed … they will stay in school and have a higher degree of success in life.”

This is key to creating safer communities, said Dave Khatib, associate superintendent of inclusive learning for Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division. “We wanted to see how can we co-ordinate our resources so we can work smarter.”

The project’s success hinges on a measurable goal — to see a reduction in absenteeism from elementary school classes by next June.

The co-ordinated project came about because the two school districts are part of the Red Deer’s Community Safety Strategy’s Leadership Team. It’s also made up of representatives from the city, police, justice, aboriginal community, social agencies, corrections board and health services.

Team members discussed what many experts have found — that kids who start skipping elementary classes will often have run-ins with the law as adults.

“We had these discussions and objectives, but we needed to do something tangible,” said Paul Goranson, protective services director for the City of Red Deer.

Henry recalled a study undertaken by a school division in Long Beach, Calif., in which wide-reaching community strides were made to help kids stay in school. The student absentee rate was improved through co-ordinated efforts by schools, police, mental health and social services.

Henry recalls even town merchants were keeping an eye out for youths who were loitering when they should be in class.

It seemed worth Red Deer’s effort to adopt this integrated approach, said Goranson. “We thought (it) could create a positive change in our community and better address public safety issues” over the long term.

The local school district pulled together a total of $500,000 toward increasing supports at two schools, which have a higher number of students who face socio-economic and other challenges.

At St. Teresa, a breakfast and lunch program was enhanced to give more nutritional benefits to kids, said Khatib. As well, the school’s students have greater access to more counselling resources — the kind families usually have to find outside the school environment, he added.

Khatib said teachers ask questions about a student’s absenteeism. It can result from sickness or abuse, but other times, parent might feel overwhelmed and unable to think of ways to get a child to class when they don’t want to go.

Since elementary-aged kids generally like school, this indicates other issues need resolving, he added.

Normandeau School also offers a nutrition programs, and now has a full-time phys-ed teacher to help kids stay active. Henry said extra supports are provided with literacy, and the school is in the process of hiring a mental health counsellor.

Meanwhile, two RCMP officers are making connections with Normandeau’s young students.

“The kids get to know them by name and they talk about community safety,” Henry added.

Both school divisions are hoping to continue the program next fall.

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