‘They’re invisible’: Group aims to launch youth campus for NOTL high schoolers

·5 min read

Caroline Polgrabia has been working for eight years to bring some form of secondary school education back to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

And, finally, things are looking up.

Polgrabia and a group of dedicated parents are hoping to launch the Niagara-on-the-Lake Youth Campus this fall.

“I really do believe that school and community are closely knit,” Polgrabia said in an interview Tuesday.

“And when you have a space for children to network and create communities, that’s where the magic really happens and they can start creating a community.”

The lack of community space for NOTL’s teens means they can easily be forgotten.

“Right now, they’re invisible. There’s no space for them. We want to create space so they have a centre point and then we go from there,” Polgrabia said.

The most recent census shows nearly 3,000 kids in NOTL age 19 and under, and two-thirds of them are under 15.

“It’s not an insignificant number. There’s a lot of youth and it’s growing.”

Polgrabia, a lifelong resident of NOTL, graduated from Parliament Oak Public School and Niagara District Secondary School. The closing of both hit her personally.

“My son was just heading into junior kindergarten. It was the last year of Parliament Oak,” she recalled, saying the community joined the fight to save the school too late.

“I said, ‘No matter what happens, Jayden will still go to Parliament Oak. I will still walk him into my kindergarten class and we will still get to have that experience together.’ ”

“So, we did and during that year I vowed that I would work with the government and that by the time Jayden was heading into Grade 9 there would be a high school option for him.”

Polgrabia wasn’t quite able to achieve those lofty ambitions and a brick and mortar high school is still a far off idea for NOTL.

In discussions with officials she was told that would most likely not happen within 15 years.

Polgrabia, who works in provincial government, said she knows better than most how slow-moving governments can be, so she set out to start the work early.

And her eight years of toil have not been in vain. She has nearly succeeded in bringing a new high school-oriented community centre back to town.

“I’ve been looking for locations just to create dedicated space for children. I found a partner and we haven’t inked a deal yet so I can’t say where it is but it is very central to town.”

“In September, all things going in the right direction, we’ll be able to launch what we’re calling the Niagara-on-the-Lake Youth Campus.”

The campus would be a secondary school-focused community centre and study area for NOTL students to gather in their hometown.

Things are still in the works but Polgrabia said she and a group of hard-working parents are trying to provide social services at the building along with an army of volunteers and mentors drawn from the community.

Starting a secondary school-focused space in NOTL is the first step in what she hopes will be the long-term process of bringing a full bricks-and-mortar high school back to town.

“That is the ultimate goal,” Polgrabia said.

She reiterated though that, after discussions with the directors of education for both regional boards, the likelihood of a full building in NOTL within 15 years is low.

“But you never know, right? And they said, ‘But let’s keep talking,’ ” Polgrabia said.

“So, is the end goal a bricks-and-mortar high school? I think yes. If the community group wants that they should keep having that conversation and keep pushing that message.”

“But I’m still dedicated to creating space where (high school kids) can be a community, a community of that age group and feel like they have a place to call their own.”

She said there are many talented and intelligent NOTL residents who have already offered their time to be mentors and volunteers with the project.

But there is much to figure out before the youth campus hopefully launches in the fall.

Things like: “What the governance is going to look like and how we are going to work together in a partnership,” she said.

“So, I can’t say for sure it is happening but I’m 99 per cent sure we have it.”

Once launched, Polgrabia said the next steps would be exploring some form of hybrid learning for high school-aged NOTL students. That could be in the form of remote learning where kids can attend class from the youth campus or immersive learning in which hands-on examples of subjects are given.

Polgrabia highlighted the ease of implementing immersive learning in a town such as NOTL, whose smaller population leads to closer ties among residents, industries and bureaucrats.

She said she has been discussing the project with Lord Mayor Betty Disero and the Lord Mayor’s Youth Council, and hopes to have a more definitive statement on the future of the campus later this summer.

It is important that NOTL’s teenagers have a space they can congregate at beyond the outlet mall or St. Catharines’ Pen Centre, she said.

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report

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