Bridging circumstances

Paul Mayne//Western News

Rob Bell, who leads the School Within A University program at Western, said the initiative focuses on students who have experienced challenges in life that have put them at risk for discontinuing their secondary school education.

By Eric Green and Andrew Costy

By immersing its students in the university community early, one alternative education program is helping high school students discover their potential. The School Within A University (SWAU) program assists students in the completion of their Ontario Secondary School Diploma while transitioning them into postsecondary education.

The program focuses on students who have experienced challenges in life that have put them at risk for discontinuing their secondary school education and, therefore, compromising their options. The program, a collaboration between Western and the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), currently has one class of 25 students on campus.

SWAU started when Julie McMullin, Western’s vice-provost and associate vice-president (international), saw School Within a College (SWAC), a college equivalent program at Fanshawe. She was immediately taken with the idea and wanted to see the same opportunities for students interested in a university career.

“When I went out and visited the SWAC program, and listened to the stories of the students and how well they were doing, that just brought tears to my eyes,” McMullin said.

While no longer directly involved with SWAU, McMullin played an integral role in overcoming several obstacles to get the program started.

“In preliminary discussions with the government, the school board and Western learned the government wasn’t willing to support this SWAU initiative. But the model was so fantastic, we decided to go for it anyway,” McMullin said.

With no funding available, Western and TVDSB decided to cover the costs between them, with the university providing classroom space and courses, free of charge, while the school board provided the teacher.

That teacher is Rob Bell.

McMullin sais she cannot imagine a better fit for the job.

“He is just fantastic. He teaches something like 60 high school courses to these kids because they all need different courses in order to gradate,” she continued. “He has such a rapport and connection with them – he teaches them life skills. He’s an absolutely amazing man. He realizes all of these kids need a challenging and flexible learning environment, so he provides that.”

By establishing a closer relationship with his students, Bell said, he can care for them in a way a normal high school system cannot.

“The one thing the School Within a University has is you have that one-on-one connection with a teacher who sees your whole curriculum; your whole trajectory for a year and they can watch you grow and make little course corrections while the year goes on. In high school, sometimes those people slip through the cracks,” Bell said.

While the program has evolved into a streamlined version today, Bell said it was not always that way. When the program first started three years ago, no definitive framework had been developed. He found himself designing the curriculum from scratch.

“Basically, I was given nothing. We had a room and we didn’t even have paper or pens, it was just like ‘here’s your room and here’s your 20 students, get started,’” Bell said.

Some may have been daunted by the task, but Bell decided to take input from his students to help guide him in structuring the program.

“I would sit down with each of the students and talk about dreams and goals and where they wanted to go. We started planning out, sort of backwards, like ‘OK, so this is what you want to do so what kind of courses do you need to take now,’” he said. “That first year was chaos.”

Despite the hectic beginning, SWAU’s students rose to the challenge. The program is now in its third year and is helping a new group of kids to achieve their postsecondary school goals while eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness – something Bell would like to see other schools working toward.

“Something that schools everywhere can be better at is understanding that circumstances don’t dictate the character of the person. You have to separate those two things in your mind,” Bell said.

Thanks to the hard work of the students, as well as Bell’s continuing dedication, the SWAU recently received a $5-million donation from the Joyce Foundation to put toward scholarships, as well as increasing the programs capacity. Bell says this will increase the number of spots available in the program and provide enough to hire another teacher.

Further, this gift will see SWAU expanding its reach to communities outside of London proper, and Bell hopes to bring in students from areas such as Woodstock, St. Thomas and Ingersoll.

Despite the difficulties faced by Western in getting the SWAU program started on campus, and those faced by Bell in establishing a curriculum and catering to the different needs of his students, he said the program is still personally rewarding – and he has no plans of stopping soon.

“You know, it’s not a hard job – the motivation is there. The kids are great to work with. Yeah, they all have their issues. Individually, one-on-one, they’re the nicest people. You just want to help them,” Bell said. “It’s a fun job to have. It’s a hell of a lot of work, but it’s a fun job to have.”