News / Vancouver

Life and learning: An alternative education success story

Sunshine Dickinson casts a heartfelt glance across to teacher Sandy Dowling as the 17-year-old attempted to put their relationship into words.

The answer makes Dowling melt, the tearful mentor extending her hand out and clasping the teen’s in a genuine moment of love.

“It’s amazing to have a connection like that,” says Dickinson, a petite young woman whose inquisitive big, brown eyes convey a wisdom and patience beyond her years. “I can talk to her about my academic issues, but I can also talk to her about my personal issues. And she’s helped me through many this year. She’s like an aunt.”

In one year at east Vancouver’s Kiwassa Education Program, the two women have helped push each other across the finish line.

For Dowling, that means retirement – however bittersweet – at the end of a challenging but incredibly rewarding teaching career.

For Dickinson, it’s graduating high school – with honours and a scholarship from the STAND Foundation – against odds as unfair as the “at-risk youth” label thrust upon her and the dozens of other students that frequent the tiny classroom nestled away on the second floor of Kiwassa Neighbourhood House.

Graduation seemed like an impossibility.

Education took a backseat to depression, anxiety, eating disorder, lengthy hospitalizations and the need to work-full time in order to support her epileptic single mother.

“I kept most of these issues to myself,” she said.

That changed with a suicide attempt in Grade 9 that landed her in hospital for several months.

“When I got back [to school] it was hard to communicate with my peers because everything was out in the open, there were no secrets anymore.”

She bounced around schools and programs as stresses – parents separating, a death in the family, eating disorders, her mother’s illness – continually built up before she dropped out.

“In the middle of dealing with my personal issues, school was secondary,” Dickinson said.

Dangerous weight loss landed Dickinson in the hospital again, and a place in the day treatment program.

That last visit, followed by a transformative trip to Salt Spring Island, spurred a new outlook.

“I decided being in the hospital was really not helping me. I decided I did want to have a future,” Dickinson, self-described as stubborn and fiercely independent, recalled.

She ended up at Dowling’s door, a prime “at risk” candidate for Kiwassa’s self-directed alternative education program.

The low-barrier program lets students earn a high-school diploma at their own pace, allowing them to drop in and out as life demands while encouraging them to pursue their own academic interests and passions within the curriculum.

The program let Dickinson work full-time to pay rent and support her mother through illness without having to worry about failing a course.

“In a mainstream school, a student would be penalized for something like that,” said Dowling, the program’s sole full-time teacher for 13 years. “If I know Sunshine has to work, I know she’ll hand in a paper when she’s ready to. I’ve got students who need a flexible schedule because they’re teenage parents, or people who suffer from high anxiety or depression and they’re just unable to meet the requirements of a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday schedule.

“These kind of situations happen in every neighbhourhood, everyone knows the stories of why kids leave school and the challenges that they face. We’re the safety net.”

It didn’t take much to get Dickinson engaged.

Allowed to freely explore issues that were important to her, it wasn’t long before she was bringing philosophy literature from Oxford into the classroom, studying Maya Angelou and writing research papers on women’s issues at a post-secondary level.

“I found it very encouraging,” said Dickinson. “I could go wherever I wanted with the topic as long as it was a well-structured essay. It got me very excited to continue with my education.”

Now armed with a scholarship, she plans to continue pursing her interest in philosophy and the humanities.

“Sunshine is obviously a beautiful person and has transformed her life so tremendously,” said Dowling, pride in her voice. “And every year I’ve got kids who come from difficult circumstances … who come out with not only a high school diploma but a sense of who that student is as a person. I’m the witness to that.”

Dickinson’s and Dowling’s journeys at Kiwassa may be over but the lessons – and that undeniable bond – will endure well into the next phase of their lives.

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