Calgary's Catholic school system opened a new outreach school last week for students in severe need of extra help.
St. Gemma Outreach High School, based in a rented storefront near Sunridge Mall in the city's northeast, has 30 students, some of whom are transitioning out of the criminal justice system.
Many have had traumatic life experiences that prevented them from being successful in a traditional high school, according to the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD).
"We have some students in our board who are homeless and are living on the streets," said CCSD chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas.
"I know that's a real eye-opener, but it's real, and it's happening here in Calgary."
Other students facing addictions, severe mental health challenges, or are taking care of young children will also be enrolled at the school, said Szumlas.
The high school offers programming for grades 10 through 12 for students between the ages of 16 and 20.
Greater demand for extra help
In prior years, students in the district who needed supplementary help were supported by St. Anne Academic Centre near downtown Calgary, which continues to offer self-paced learning and course upgrading.
But the school district was struggling to meet the growing demand with just one building.
"We noticed that within that student population ... more and more students were needing more individualized support," said Szumlas.
St. Gemma Outreach High School is based in a rented commercial space and does not have any classrooms or lockers like traditional school buildings. (Submitted by the Calgary Catholic School District)
Unlike a traditional school building, St. Gemma High School has no classrooms or lockers.
"When the kids come in, they think they're coming to a traditional school," said principal Gord MacDonald. "We are as far from that traditional setting as we probably can get."
MacDonald said the open floor plan allows the school's three teachers to provide more one-on-one instruction.
Instead of following the district's standard curriculum and calendar, students are put on a flexible learning plan and schedule.
They also have access to a psychologist, employed part-time, a social worker, and services provided by outside outreach agencies.
MacDonald admitted some students are a "little bit suspicious" of school staff, perhaps because the setting is unexpected. He expects it will take time to connect with students and create a sense of community at the school.
Superintendent Szumlas believes students who wouldn't otherwise graduate will complete their high school diplomas because of the school's pointed approach.
"Our ultimate goal is to work with students and to try to reintegrate them into regular education," he said.
The Catholic School District spent more than $1 million to set up and open the school.