September 22, 2016 7:36 pm

At-risk, homeless Calgary teens reconnect with school through unique program

WATCH ABOVE: Going back to school in September means books, structured classes and homework. But all of that can be too much if you're a teenager struggling with homelessness, hunger or abuse. Mia Sosiak has more on a program that's reconnecting at-risk youth with school, and changing their lives.

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A Calgary alternative high school program is giving at-risk and homeless teens the education that many give up on.

Discovering Choices, offered at the Alex Youth Health Centre through a partnership with the Calgary Board of Education, is one of five outreach programs across Calgary.

Books, structured classes and homework can be too much to deal with for a teenager struggling with homelessness, hunger, or abuse.

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In Discovering Choices, classes are flexible, with self-directed work but also lots of teacher support.

That format may work better for at-risk or homeless kids who could be struggling with mental illness, family problems or are having to work to support themselves.

“Part of our role here is to connect those kids with school and sort of say, ‘school is not necessarily a traditional, sit-in-a-classroom-from-nine-to-10 and switch classrooms,’” said Kevin McNutt, a teacher with the program. “There are other options.”

When Anna Bishop first sought help from The Alex Youth Centre, she had dropped out of Forest Lawn High School.

READ MORE: Half of Alberta’s homeless are living on Calgary streets

After the death of her father, she was struggling with post-traumatic stress and anxiety, along with the scars that alcoholism left on her family.

“My life just kind of stopped,” the now 20-year-old said.

After receiving medical and emotional support at the health centre, she registered for Discovering Choices at “The Alex.”

The program offered personalized learning that helped her to succeed.

“I was normal — and not just normal, I was smart and was able to succeed and have my teachers be totally supportive of me. It was absolutely incredible,” Bishop said.

She is among eight students who have graduated from Discovering Choices at the Alex Youth Health Centre since the program started in 2014.

“Most of those kids were kids who were so close to begin with, and felt there were no options until they started talking to the staff or to myself and that maybe there is a way to finish,” McNutt said.

Bishop graduated this past spring, but she didn’t stop there.

She started classes this month in the theatre program at the University of Calgary.

“I actually got there and I got accepted into my dream program,” Bishop said. “I’m starting to do what I really always wanted to do.”

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