Program offers novel route to secondary school success

Kevin Heslop knows his story is all too familiar. In fact, he calls it a “classic” tale.

Attending high school in London, while coping with his parents’ divorce and a brother’s struggles with mental health at home, Heslop’s attendance and grades simultaneously started to slip. His attention turned to music, at times marijuana, and soon he found himself off track. He needed one credit to graduate from high school, but he felt less-than-suited for either the traditional classroom or adult learning centre.

For his subsequent educational success, the now 21-year-old first-year English student at Western credits a program that brings together the university and the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), offering high school students an innovative route to finish their studies, at the same time taking a university course for credit.

The School Within a University Program (SWAU), modeled after one that started at Mohawk College a few years ago, is in its second year at Western. Housed within Huron University College, the school operates as a partnership between the university and TVDSB.

SWAU targets high school students who face major challenges in their lives, giving them the opportunity to earn their last credits in a university environment while taking a course of their own choosing on campus, with an emphasis on self-directed learning and a flexible schedule.

Though Heslop needed only one credit to get his secondary school diploma, he took five in the program last year. He wanted to get his average up, he said.

“My year was great. I’d be on campus if I wasn’t in class. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the program, no question,” he said, noting the first-year English course he took while finishing his diploma had him hooked.

“It can be that nook where you go and read, and hang out on campus. If there are troubles at home, you can get away for a while and focus, and study, and read, and indulge in whatever interests you. … To have that place to think and explore outside the home was very important for my interests and education.”

Heslop credits the program as well as Rob Bell, his TVDSB instructor on campus, for his success.

“The start of a similar program at Fansahwe (College) was the impetus for Western,” Bell explained. He noted Julie McMullin, Western’s vice-provost (international), approached the board with an interest in bringing SWAU to campus.

“All my students have some kind of challenge in their life that has adversely affected their grades – from mental health issues to trauma. Because of that, they may not have done as well in high school as people would have expected them to do,” said Bell, who teaches all of the SWAU courses on campus.

The program gives students a year to get their marks where they should be. As a bit of a carrot, Western pays for one full-credit course where they are integrated within a university class. The program accepts applications from students up to the age of 21.

What’s great, Bell said, is Western students cannot tell SWAU students from one of their own. This gives them freedom and a space to learn where no one knows about their previous challenges, eliminating the stigma and judgment accompanying a less-than-ideal high school experience.

Bell taught roughly 20 students last year – 11 were accepted to a university program and four went into college programs.

“That’s a pretty good success rate, considering most of them wouldn’t have graduated high school,” Bell said.

“The way it works is, we have mandatory class a couple days and other days were flexible. A number of them have jobs they’re working, supporting themselves, paying for their own apartments and, in the meantime, they’re coming in with me to finish courses,” he continued.

“I love this job; it’s phenomenal. It’s really rewarding because a lot of the kids need that extra help and I have the flexibility to do what helps them succeed. I’m really proud of the kids from last year.”

Bell, who previously taught high school in London and worked at the board office, said the program is able to accommodate 25 people as it stands, with him as the sole teacher, working with a part-time counselor. He hopes to see the program grow and expand, giving more students the opportunity to continue their education.