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City School thinks outside the classroom box

As a teenager working a full-time job to get by on his own, Paul Sander was having a tough time in school.
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As a teenager working a full-time job to get by on his own, Paul Sander was having a tough time in school. One day, a friend told him about the City School, a program based at King George Secondary that uses the city as its classroom, teaching students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 who learn more effectively outside the traditional classroom box.

(City School) is for students who want an educational experience more engaging and intimate, says Sal Robinson, an alternative program worker and Sanders former teacher. Our mandate is to use resources outside of the classroom to cover the curriculum using the city as the classroom. So instead of just reading a play in class, we would go and see it.

Since 1971, the school has engaged its students by taking them out into the community, extending the classroom into places like the theatre, concerts and galleries and incorporating the experiences into the curriculum.

Not everyone thrives in the traditional public school system, says Sander, who is now the director of Hollyburn Properties, a major property management company in Vancouver. City School gave me a flexible environment in which to prioritize my education one that allowed me to organize my studies around my full-time work schedule. The caring teachers and unique opportunities of this program were really fundamental in my success.

Robinson, who is a former City School student as well, remembers the young Sander vividly.

Paul was really enthusiastic and not always awake when he needed to be, she recalls with a laugh, but he was always busy doing important things for himself. He was busy supporting himself and getting through school.

Thirty-three years after Sander graduated, he saw the program in danger due to funding cuts. He jumped in and created the Hollyburn Helps Fund providing monthly donations of $1,000 to the program that guided him as a teenager.

Seeing that my former high school, the City School, was one of the schools affected [by the cuts] really resonated with me, Sander says. Many of our employees kids and our residents kids go to King George Secondary today so I went to the principal to see how Hollyburn could help alleviate the budget cuts and the shortage of staff that job action was presenting at the time.

One student who is benefitting from the fund is Michael Frolek Turner. Michael just completed her first year at the City School, in Grade 10.

It was great, it was fantastic, the 15-year-old says. I had a lot of trouble transitioning back into public school so City School was a lot closer to that style of education I grew up in. Its a lot more open and offers a lot more freedom to do what you want. In City School, we call teachers by their first names, which builds a certain tone between students and the teachers. Its put them more on your level so youre able to connect with them more; theyre really great.

The diversity and the depth of experiences help student like Michael, but so does the intimacy of the City School classroom.

If I struggle in a subject, teachers dont always have the ability to help me because they have to take care of the other 29 kids in the class, which is a problem, she explains. Because of the smaller class sizes, I can have one-on-one time with my teacher and have any questions answered. I really need that.

The caring teachers and unique opportunities of this program were fundamental in my success, Sander says. Three decades later I feel fortunate that Hollyburn is able to give back to the West End community through my old school and to know that other teenagers, challenged by the mainstream system, have options.

Happy and looking forward to staying in the program until Grade 12, Michael knows what she wants to do when she graduates.

Art repatriation, she says quickly. Either that or take over the universe.