In the basement of St. George’s Anglican Church in Kamloops, B.C., Theresa Walker, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Cathedral, is studying math. As she looks over the exercise sheet in front of her, she explains that she’s working toward her high school diploma.
“I’d like to get my Grade 12, if I can do the math,” she says, smiling. “So far it’s been okay, but we’ll see.”
In a lot of ways, Walker is like the others who gather in the basement of St. George’s throughout the week to attend Street School, a nine-year-old program designed to help adults finish high school or upgrade their skills. But there is one way in which she is quite different: she will soon be celebrating her 85th birthday.
“The most important thing to me is the opportunity to learn,” says Walker, who left school as a child and spent most of her life running a bed and breakfast on a ranch in the B.C. interior and raising four children. “I was sitting in the apartment, and there didn’t seem to be much purpose in life, and to be able to come here and all of a sudden you’re learning? It’s just incredible.”
The program, started by teacher and literacy activist Pete Grinberg, has been renting space from St. George’s since 2007, although the church is not directly involved in running the program. From nine students and one graduate in its first year, Street School has grown to involve close to 450 students a year, with around 50 graduating.
Erika Dabner has been teaching at Street School for five years, and says she much prefers it to traditional high school teaching. “In a high school setting, students don’t always want to be there,” she says. “Here we have the luxury of people who are coming to us because they need courses, they need to graduate—whatever their need is, we’re in a position where we can hopefully help.”
One of the things that makes Street School unique among adult education programs, Dabner adds, is its employment of a full-time outreach worker, Tonia Gillespie, who “supports our students in any way that they ask that will then help them to come to school.”
While Walker returned to school late in life out of a desire to learn, many of the students are at Street School because they were unable to succeed in the mainstream education system.
Gillespie, who has been in the role for eight years, stresses that academic success hinges on a number of factors. “There’s usually a lot more coming in the door with them, and reasons why they haven’t finished school in the first place,” she says. “[We’re] looking at all of those different types of barriers and how we can support them in learning and increasing their literary skills.”
That morning, for example, Gillespie had been working with a student who was recently released from Kamloops Regional Corrections Centre and had just found out that his teenage girlfriend was pregnant. Gillespie was trying to connect him and his girlfriend to community services that would help support both of them as they prepare for their child’s arrival.
Other students deal with mobility issues, or are kept from regular attendance by work, or are out on probation and in need of food and shelter.
Because of Gillespie’s work, Street School has become a haven for students like these—young women and men for whom education is just one part of building a stable and happy life.
“In high school, the classes are crowded, there’s no one-on-one. I see the young people here, and it makes a difference that you come in, the teachers sit with them, they can have a meal, they can have a cup of coffee or tea, which helps them relax,” she says. “It’s like a home.”