The following article about Changing Course: A Catholic project for city schools appeared in the summer/fall edition of Salt + Light's Lampstand newsletter. The DVD can now be pre-ordered for delivery beginning August 24th. Click here to learn more and view the trailer!
“The students took off as soon as we got there,” squawked a walkie-talkie on the principal’s desk. The voice on the other end was updating Mark Cassar about a group of youth from another school who were lingering on Holy Cross property. It wasn’t the first time a teacher had to chase away a band of outside students whose only extracurricular interest, it seemed, was intimidating younger kids.
Although classes ended half an hour ago, the young principal won’t be leaving the school until his students have safely returned home. Doubtless, he’ll stay long after that to prepare for the next day. His vigilance is justified. Holy Cross, located in Malton, a neighbourhood within Mississauga, Ontario, has developed a notorious reputation after several gang-related murders in recent years.
Cassar is quick to defend the reputation of his school’s neighbourhood. “Despite some negative media attention,” he acknowledges, “Malton is a very vibrant and healthy community, full of wonderful people.”
These countless, concerned citizens, not lacking in civic pride, are central to Cassar’s plan to protect his students. In 2007, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, representing Mississauga and Brampton-area schools, received $120,000 from the provincial government’s Bullying and Violence Prevention Special Circumstances Fund. The funds were directed towards six regional schools where gang and bullying problems were either occurring or were at risk of developing. Most of the newly-funded programs were facilitated by community organizations that were already working in the neighbourhoods.
For one year, Salt + Light followed students who partook in the many initiatives at these schools. The result is Changing Course
, S+L’s latest documentary, which premiered in March and will be available for purchase on August 24th.
One of the partner organizations featured in the half-hour production is the Knights of Columbus, whose local members committed to arriving at Holy Cross daily at 7:00am to facilitate a breakfast program.
“It isn’t just about feeding kids,” Cassar explained. “It addresses a lot of bigger issues like attendance, lates and hunger in general, which lead to academic performance and behaviour issues.” Though offered to all students at Holy Cross, Breakfast for Kids was primarily created for parents who have difficulty affording a healthy meal. Thanks to the Catholic fraternal organization’s tireless, joyful presence, the students now see the Knights as part of the Holy Cross community.
During lunch hours, selected students are chosen to participate in programs designed to combat racism in what might be the most multicultural neighbourhood in Canada. Ending the day are after-school activities like a homework club that, to the surprise of organizers, have overwhelmed the allotted classroom space. Even for those less keen about academics, the after-school sessions are a better option than an empty home or the local mall, a hangout that even S+L’s film crew was cautioned to avoid.
Another key element in the initiatives is one-on-one mentoring that pairs high school and elementary students. Though relatively few students were chosen for the program, coordinated by Youth Assisting Youth, it nonetheless demonstrates the Catholic school system’s individual-focussed ethos.
“Once kids are seen as just a number, they fall through the cracks,” cautions Cassar, “and then we wonder why they weren’t helped when something goes wrong. So we’ve tried to take a personal interest in every child to help them realize their positive self-worth and potential—meaning, the gifts of God that they have to bring out to the open. By forming a bond with their teachers, they can call the Holy Cross staff part of their family. And when things do go wrong, we’re here to help them.”
Two years since the safe school initiatives began, the principals continue to see the transformation of their hallways. Cassar enthusiastically tells of students who, previously infamous for behavioural problems, are now productive members of the school community. Suspension rates have plummeted. Parents, who sometimes had adversarial relationships with teachers, now trust the school and are taking more active roles in their children’s education.
Most of the DPCDSB’s programs can be adopted by other schools in the province. Still, the board’s leadership in gang and violence prevention reveals a uniquely Catholic philosophy that refuses to allow fear to overwhelm hope, even for students who appear irreversibly headed in the wrong direction.
Cassar concludes, “Our hope is that, at the end of a child’s stay with us, we help to produce a Christ-like person who is able to give back to society.”