On behalf of OneThorold, Rev. Ken McQuarrie of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church welcomed Principal Karen Ferguson and Jen Barker from Thorold Secondary School to share concerns among their student population.
Barker is a Student Success teacher, whose role is to “support struggling students,” she explained, helping them access computers, rides to medical appointments, or reach their graduation goals. Some are hindered at home by a lack of parenting skills.
“Lots of kids don’t have access to medical cards,” said Ferguson, adding that many students use the school’s breakfast club and “Grab and go” lunch program. “Single parents need senior students to help out at home, and attendance starts to fall sporadically. Best case scenario is that they let us know, and we come up with a plan. We have a new social worker, who’s not meant to be a primary counsellor, but who helps parents access and navigate wait lists and agencies.”
A Niagara Regional Health nurse visits the school once a week, and TSS partners with various agencies to secure funding for students’ dental work, eye glasses, and even clothing, when needed.
“We have a wellbeing committee of students and teachers supporting students in their mental health,” said Ferguson. “It’s been in the curriculum and last week was Wellbeing Week. Safe Talk is a program we deliver to students across the board so they get help right away if they talk about hurting themselves.”
“We’re doing a community parent night April 20 at 6:30,” the principal added, featuring self-regulation around Internet usage; “limiting their access to video games” and late-night usage, which prevents them from attending school. “Resource officers support students around addictions and the NRP will speak” at the event and answer questions.
Barker said one parent “couldn’t come to parent night because they don’t drive. Our area is big geographically,” and TSS has a diverse student population that comes from Allanburg, Port Robinson, and Merritton.
Partnering with all Thorold agencies, OneThorold is a volunteer group formed last fall to break barriers such as poverty and discrimination, and assist marginalized citizens, including youth and seniors. Founding member Hilda VanderKlippe asked TSS staff, “How can our community support the school?”
Barker suggested hosting workshops or drop-in centres “where kids can go to feel comfortable talking about mental health; a safe place to play a sport,” since “at-risk kids can’t afford travel sports and other opportunities. We will subsidize them on school teams but they’re not the kids that normally try out for teams. Some lack the social confidence to try out. They may have an art talent or something.”
Ferguson added, “The business community accepting co-op students is a big help” in teaching valuable life and employment skills and boosting self-confidence.
Trinity United minister Jim McKnight said that “Diminishing trust in institutions; the provincial government saying teachers aren’t important—those are insidious messages, and very hard to overcome.” He posed the question: “Do the students think they’re not worthy?”
Ferguson replied, “From grade 9 on, we hope that they will have a caring adult. If not, we try to find a teacher who can help, if they have an interest in that subject. We work at establishing relationships with them and then we’re more likely to get their cooperation. Research showed many students felt they didn’t fit in.”
She continued, “Students now have to be in school until age 18, and that’s when the student success teachers come in. They support students all day; however they’re needed, and some students, beyond age 18. We have a hard time engaging students in some programs, like those offered at Niagara College, which provides transport to and from, through the DSBN and the Niagara Catholic School Boards. But it’s too unfamiliar” for students to attend.
Students who do attend can receive “two credits for free,” continued Barker; “an amazing opportunity, but they’re reluctant to go. We have the second highest self-identified Indigenous population” in Niagara high schools (second to Fort Erie), “and additional supports are available to those students as well.”
Ferguson told ThoroldNews, “Indigenous students have to self-identify, and the way they approach education is different. They place a lot of value on listening to elders. We’ve got to get away from the idea that this is how everyone learns.”
Mayor Terry Ugulini said Brock University and Niagara College both host programs operated by students, who are “closer to TSS students’ age,” and might make them more likely to attend.
Ferguson said the school does participate in Brock’s “amazing scavenger hunt and pizza event, and the varsity athletes mentor our students.”
Coun. Fred Neale urged TSS staff to advise city staff of students’ needs so they can be incorporated into the city’s transportation master plan study that’s currently underway.
“The TCAG puts on programs the students could access,” he added, within walking distance to Thorold.
Tony Vandermaas, chair of the Thorold Public Library Board, suggested they contact Thorold Library staff regarding free computer student access.
“I would love to hear more about co-op opportunities,” said Niagara Centre Board of Trade and Commerce (NCBOTAC) board member Mark Kawabe. As owner of the Niagara Guide, he offered to “contribute to their education in some way.”
Jean D’Amelio Swyer suggested “organizing a job fair with emerging new jobs in grade 10 to help inspire them reach their own goals,” since many students don’t know which school/career path to follow.
Thanking TSS staff for their presentation, McQuarrie said, “This has really helped our understanding, and we will send this out and see how we can help.”
As chair of Thorold’s Age-Friendly committee, D’Amelio Swyer followed with an overview of seniors’ challenges, explaining that youth and older people share many; like a lack of transportation, due to poverty or not having a driver’s license, as well as social isolation. Isolation, she said, “has risks as great as smoking cigarettes, and other factors.”
The Thorold Seniors Centre offers weekly bingo nights, she said, which help combat isolation, and computer access, which helps them with computer literacy.
“Some seniors are living on social assistance and accessing the food banks,” she added. “Retirement sucks if you don’t have money. Active living is important for seniors, and there are credible exercises you can do in a chair. You don’t have to go to a gym.”
“Housing is important, both from a cost perspective and varied housing options. Dorm facilities for students do work for some older adults, with a common living space that helps with social isolation, but they still have their own bedroom. Inter-generational programs work with getting seniors and young people from high school together to inspire students, teaming them up to teach skills because older adults have time to spend with them.”
“Maybe some of the solutions are linked,” suggested McQuarrie.
“There is no long-term care facility in Thorold,” D’Amelio Swyer noted. “We have some families who want to go to TSS but there are no housing opportunities here.”
Ugulini said he suggested shared living space at a housing forum two years ago, “and they thought I was crazy,” but it’s been proven successful in Europe, “and it helps everyone,” said the mayor. “We are working on that.”