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Building a Strong Future for Edmonton's Youth

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers

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Although construction has not yet begun on the new Inner City High School, the foundations for the project were laid down almost 20 years ago by Dr. Joe Cloutier, Director of the Inner City Youth Development Association.

“The school really got started out of our drama groups. We worked with youth in this area, doing drama – a form of drama called popular theatre. We worked with five different groups in the inner city area and the content was pieces of their lives,” said Cloutier.

“We started working with children 6 to 12 years old and then started working with older students up to 22 years old. They wanted to take their stories out to the greater community. In popular theatre, there’s no magical solution, it just ends wherever the group wants it to end. Because it’s popular theatre we always have a discussion at the end between the actors and the audience.”

The students performed at education conferences, the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre, education conferences and drug and alcohol treatment centres among other places. That was the beginning.

“We were homeless too; we were working out of a large Buick – that was our office. So we rented a large house in the inner city area here and put our office in one room and put youth in many of the rooms that were in the house,” Cloutier continued.

Once housed, the students were placed back in the Edmonton school system but after a month many had already dropped out again. Cloutier was approached to start up a school that would cater more to the unique needs of these students. Using his initial idea with the drama groups as a launching point, the Inner City High School was born.

“My background is in education and (Director of Inner City Drama) Alexina Dalgetty’s background is in theatre and we brought them both together to do the work. We approached the community league and started Inner City High School,” he said. “We started with seven members of our drama group and two of their friends – nine – and that was in 1993. This year we have a little over 100 on our list. You can find about 60 present at any one time.”

There’s no other school like it in the Edmonton area.

“We’re an independent school accredited by Alberta education. We do Senior High School courses. We literally bring people right from the street, into our introductory program, through the school and off to any post-secondary institution.”

However, there are still plenty of challenges that await the students on their way to making it through the high school programs. Not the least of which is finding a place to live. The new Inner City High School project, funding by the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF) goes a long way to resolving plenty of these issues.

“The shelter component is critical,” said Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation Executive Director Darryl Lindenbach. “For the kids going home and living in a car or living in the park, Joe will tell you they’ll have kids leave and they don’t know if they’re coming back the next day. The residence is critical, not only from the point of view of them being able to carry on schooling but also to help their transition into the real world.”

The current building was originally built as a Bingo Hall and is having difficulty matching the growing needs of the students and faculty.

“Everything we have in here is makeshift and hand-me-down,” said Cloutier. “It will be nice to be able to walk into a nice building and begin to work on programs up to standards.”

With the assistance of Edmonton-based architects, Cohos Evamy and lead-architect Donna Clare, the EOCF is working to create a new facility that will accommodate 150 students – a 125% increase over the current building.  It will provide a top-quality educational environment, including counseling and healthcare rooms, an Elder’s room, childcare facilities and a residence capable of accommodating a significant portion of the student population.

“(EOCF Chairman) Doug Goss came around and we were talking about what we needed to help us do our work,” Cloutier said of the initial idea of the project. “We said that the key thing we needed was renovations to this building. The heating’s a problem, ventilation’s an issue, the systems are starting to break down and we’re growing at the same time.”

Instead of renovations, having an entirely new building that will cost between $20-$30 million dollars, and encompass approximately 7,000 square meters is a dream come true.

“We’re just amazed at the potential. Housing is a big, big issue for the youth. Imagine, trying to come to school and make something positive out of your life and you don’t have a safe place to live. The housing component of the development will be real important.”

Inner City High School, as it stands today, helps dozens of students live a better life every year. One of those students is 20-year-old Crystal Hennigar.

“They helped me accomplish a lot,” she said. “When I first started coming here I was really badly into drugs and Lance (Marty) and Joe helped me get off the drugs and now I’m almost graduated.”

Lance Marty is another success story who now helps students of the school.

“A lot of our older students are more mentors to the younger ones. Lance helps a lot with that. If we have a problem – like when I was on drugs – or even a problem with another student, they help us,” Hennigar said.

It’s been a five year long process for her but not only has the school helped her curb a drug addiction, she is to the point where now she is ready to move on to Grant MacEwan College to further her education.

“When you first get to the school you have to go through an orientation where you learn about the school and how it works – like our circles so that our students have as much say as our staff do. We call our staff on a first-name basis so it makes it more personal and not as much professional,” she said.

As an older student, she also helps set an example for those younger than her.

“You slowly have to integrate yourself in. For myself, I’m almost 21 years old and going to school with 16 and 17 year old kids. It makes it easier for them to see someone my age doing it now and it gives them that extra motivation: ‘if this person can do it, I can do it, too’,” she remarked. 

Although she won’t be around for the new school, as a long-time student and success story, Hennigar is excited to talk about the project.

“I think it’s amazing. I was thinking along the lines of renovations and not a whole new building. It just shocked me a lot to hear they were going to build us a new building.”

Lindenbach feels the project combines everything the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation works to achieve in the community.

“We were looking for something that combined education, youth and health and wellness. Those were the three parameters and Inner City High fits that really well,” he said. “Once you get there and understand this is really a school that’s the passion and brainchild of one man who decided this was a good thing. He brought the community together and has been doing this for over a decade now with very little.”

It makes education a little easier for a group of the population where almost everything in day-to-day life is a challenge.

“This is an opportunity to give them a chance to figure out where they want to go in life and give them the tools for that. This isn’t about them all getting a Grade 12 education, it’s not even about them getting their G.E.D.,” he said. “If two or three percent of the kids ever went on to post-secondary that would be a huge accomplishment. This is about them not being on the streets and having a job. Feeling comfortable with themselves and having the skills to go on and be part of society. “

In terms of the long-term outlook for the city of Edmonton, everybody benefits from the project whether directly or indirectly.

“What we don’t want to be doing is turning around and providing funding, like we do, to adult treatment programs or shelters for these same kids,” Lindenbach stated.

The development of the new Inner City High School project will be supported in part through funds raised by the new Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation Cash Is King Lottery. The lottery is a chance for Northern Albertans to do their share to help projects like the Inner City High School.

“We’re able to give back a million dollars a year because of our fans,” said Lindenbach. “They give us the money and they say we trust you to do the right thing with it. We’re almost a semi United Way model where people give and they know that the organization will do the right thing with the funds.

“We’re certainly looking forward in the coming years to that being an even greater part of where our funding comes from – being able to reach our stakeholder base better and more and have them view us as that vehicle.

“Many already do, but we would love to be able to be that vehicle for them to spread that money across Oil Country as best we can.”
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