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Program eases high school transition for isolated students

June 9, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Grade 5 Susa Creek student Rhythm Hallock (left) works on a craft project with Beth Noble, a Grade 6 student from Summitview School in Grande Cache. The two were getting acquainted as part of a new program aimed at introducing students who will eventually attend high school together.

Imagine leaving your small rural school at the end of Grade 8 and being thrown into a much larger high school where you know no one.

Historically, that’s been the scenario experienced by graduates of Susa Creek School, located in a small aboriginal community 10 kilometres outside of Grande Cache.

With just 50 students, Susa Creek produces no more than a handful of Grade 8s in any given year — some years there is only one. For these students, the transition to high school involves riding a bus into town to attend Grande Cache Community High School, where the vast majority of Grade 9s come from a junior high school in the town. Since most students from Susa Creek have little or no natural interaction with youth who live in Grande Cache, going to high school means being suddenly surrounded by strangers.

“In Grade 9 they’re thrown in with all the kids in town and a lot of them really were struggling,” said Joanne D’Lugos, Susa Creek’s Grade 5 to 8 teacher.

In an effort to better bridge that gap, D’Lugos partnered with a community group to start a project that introduces students from the two feeder schools so they get to know each other before becoming Grade 9 classmates. What began two years ago as a pen pal program that matched students from the two schools and encouraged them to write to each other has since morphed into a web forum that allows the students to interact online. There are also organized face-to-face gatherings.

“There’s been a lot more interaction. When we have group get-togethers, sometimes they mingle a lot and sometimes they still hold back a little bit, but at the very least they all know each other by name and recognize people,” D’Lugos said.

The next school year will be the first in which the students start attending school together in Grande Cache. D’Lugos can already tell that the program has made a difference with that transition.

“Usually by this time of the school year the Grade 8s are getting nervous about going to high school. This year they are already talking about kids that they know and kids in town and the anxiety level seems to be way down,” she said.

Students from the two schools have visited each other and done various activities together, such as swimming, drumming, teepee building and cooking bannock.

“The kids were so scared of each other at the beginning. Now they mingle really well and they interact. Some of them are literally paired at the hip,” said Trish St. Aubin of the Hinton Friendship Centre, which is one of the program partners.

Students from both schools say they’re glad to be part of the program.

“I think if we didn’t have the pen pal program, I wouldn’t get to know the people in here and they’re actually pretty cool,” said Madison Williams, a Grade 6 Summitview student.

“We share artwork with pen pals and what we learn in class,” said Jade Desmarais, a Grade 8 Susa Creek student. “It’s a fun experience.” ❚

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