POWER program helps get lives on track
"Everybody has a story. That's why POWER is what it is," declares Catherine Erofeeva of the educational program that changed her life.
There will be plenty of stories like hers to be told when POWER, a New Westminster school district alternate high school education program, celebrates its 20th anniversary at its Columbia Street centre on Feb. 21.
The acronym stands for planning, ownership, work, education and respect.
Jim Russell, the program’s department head, has taught there for 17 years after teaching in small schools up north as well as urban schools. POWER is the best of both those worlds.
"It’s relationship-based where you get to know the students, you get involved with them and teaching them," says Russell. "Getting to know the students and the person that student is. Teaching takes a back seat. Being able to talk about life and how they see it, talk about their dreams and how they plan on achieving them. Sometimes we have a laugh, and sometimes we have a good cry."
Tears are likely an inevitability when Erofeeva, 19, graduates in July.
Her parents moved to Montreal from their home just outside of Moscow when she was a baby. Montreal was a city Erofeeva loved, but her family’s life turned upside down with the unexpected death of her older sister when Erofeeva was 12.
Three years later, looking for a change of scenery and nicer weather, her parents, both of whom worked in the medical field, decided to head west.
Erofeeva had been in an arts-based school in Montreal where she knew everybody and had a personal relationship with the teachers. So when her parents loaded up the U-Haul she was dragged kicking and screaming with them as they left town.
"I was upset I was even moving in the first place. I was just overwhelmed with everything; new house, new school, new people."
They found a home near Burnaby South secondary where they enrolled Erofeeva in Grade 10 at the start of the school year. By December she had left.
"I couldn't fit in. I was upset at the whole situation. I didn't really understand the situation," recalls Erofeeva. "It was super modern compared to a heritage building [in Montreal]."
So she signed up for online studies instead, but was easily distracted. She pretended to do classwork, not caring to learn anything. One day her mother went to the school to check on her progress and discovered Erofeeva hadn't been there for months.
"It was total chaos," says Erofeeva of her parent's reaction. "My parents finally understood it had hit rock bottom, that I wasn't responsible for my future. I was just drifting."
More than a year after leaving school, a friend of the family gave her mother a POWER pamphlet and she put it on the table to see if Erofeeva was interested.
"I was tired of doing nothing and everybody else was graduating," she says.
She had no desire to return to South because it would be embarrassing to go back to class with kids two years younger than her. "I was ashamed of myself at that point." So she decided to give POWER a try.
"I didn't have anything to lose," says Erofeeva.
It was easy to get lost for Chris Pratap amongst the 1,500 or so grade 11 and 12 students at Queen Elizabeth secondary in Surrey about the time the calendar struck Y2K. To him, school was impersonal and boring and he was kicked out.
“It was really easy not to be held accountable,” says Pratap, 29.
As a young pup, a curious Pratap eagerly devoured books with a particular fondness for historical ones. But junior high wasn’t stimulating enough so he turned to other activites that got his adrenalin going.
"I tuned my parents out and there wasn't much they could do about it. It's amazing what kind of resolve you can have against your parents,” says Pratap. "There were things I was doing if I continued my life would have ended up completely different. Maybe I wouldn't have even had a life."
His girlfriend, now his ex-wife, realized the things he was doing were becoming more and more dangerous. She knew he was intelligent and social, and his life could have more meaning if only he could get his act together.
Her brother had gone to an alternate school so she suggested Pratap check them out. That's when he found POWER.
"It was a completely different environment from Day 1.”
POWER runs on a different calendar than New Westminster secondary. It has three 13-week terms, January to April, May to July and September to December.
"We thought it would be a hard sell, but strangely enough it's not," says Russell of the trimester system. "It gives us more frequent entry into the program."
Most kids take two courses per term, or six a year, although some eager beavers take three a term so they get through it faster.
Russell says the program usually starts in September with about 110 students ranging from 16 to 19. It has a total of just under six full-time teaching positions along with a counsellor, a youth care worker and an educational assistant.
"We give them a little bit more attention. They see graduating is desirable and they're willing to put the effort into it," says Russell. "They rise to the occasion the more they buy in to the stuff and the programs, as well as they see the benefit."
And for those that do leave before graduation, POWER won't close the doors on them if they choose to come back at a later time.
While she didn’t leave it did take a while for Erofeeva to come around.
"The first semester I was still confused. I was here because I had to be," she admits.
Over time she developed the close and personal relationships with the staff and students she craved from her Montreal days and she began to blossom.
"I had no confidence. I thought I would end up being a cashier or something like that," says Erofeeva. "Now I'm an A student with offers of scholarships from several places.
"I felt really important. I felt my reachers really cared. My teachers know what happens beyond school time. Everybody comes here a little bit broken. A little push and they show they're capable of being somebody."
Erofeeva sensed a big change for herself one day in an English 12 class taught by Mike Ireland. They were learning grammar and she was excelling at it to the point where she was helping the other students. It suddenly dawned on her "I am capable." Ireland told her she had the brains, she just had to apply herself, so she did.
Pratap thrived on the smaller class sizes. The teachers knew him and everything about him. He knew they were there for the right reasons, and not to punch a clock and keep kids moving through the system.
"You felt like you were part of something,” says Pratap. "You just want to do your best for yourself. It's just a shock to your system."
Pratap realized learning, not life on the streets, was for him when he wrote a paper for his Comparative Civilization class. Like most youngsters, he'd put off doing the paper until the night before it was due, but as he worked through the wee hours it started to pour out of him.
"It wasn't a chore, it was more of a challenge crafting it."
He got an A, and the teacher took him aside telling Pratap he had a knack for writing. So they spent a lot of time growing his skills. It felt more rewarding and gave him a bigger sense of accomplishment than anything he'd done before.
Erofeeva has plans to become a cardiologist. She has to go to Douglas College to do some upgrading courses before she goes to university, so to go all the way to becoming a heart doctor means about another decade of school.
"That doesn't scare me any more because I'm so hungry now. It's so amazing," says the young woman who was so disillusioned and discouraged she quit school just three years ago. "I don't feel that way anymore. I've acquired that self-confidence that gets me going and I never would have done it without the staff and the teachers here."
Erofeeva can't wait to graduate in July, a day her mother and father feared wouldn’t come.
"My parents are astonished. They are in awe," says Erofeeva. "I'm feel my parents are proud of me and that makes me want to do more.
"I can go anywhere. It's exciting doors are open to me, I just have to walk through them."
Pratap has already walked through those doors.
Although after graduation he didn't know what he wanted to pursue POWER had fostered a need to be productive. He went to work in a call centre selling light bulbs and found he was good at it, and then on to another company where he eventually become responsible for VIP clients and account management. Now, at age 29, he's an account executive for a major office supply company in Burnaby.
On June 24, 2011 he was at his parent's house when he heard a bunch of commotion down the street. He went outside and there were police cars and ambulances everywhere. The word was someone had been shot. A little while later after heading home he got a text message from his father saying it was Chris Reddy who had been shot and he had died.
Not only did the realization it hit him that his boyhood buddy suffered a fate he could have incurred if he had kept on the path he was on before finding POWER, but an overwhelming sense of guilt swept over him. Reddy had been a kid, a few years younger than him, who had knocked on the family's door wanting to be friends.
"I showed him a few of the ropes," says Pratap softly with deep regret about introducing the boy to the gang lifestyle.
Like Pratap, Reddy had two younger brothers. He went to the funeral and saw all "the usual suspects" showing no emotion.
"There's nothing worse for a parent than have a child die and than have the police on the outside watching everyone who went in," says Pratap.
It’s no wonder he’s so grateful to the staff at POWER that he stops by every month or so to visit and sometimes he volunteers there.
"They made me feel great. They still make me feel good,” he says. "There isn't one student who went through those years that doesn't go back ... I'll do anything for them."
While not every story has a happening ending, Russell has seen ones similar to Pratap’s over and over again. He mentions one grad is a parliamentary aide in Ottawa, another works on oil rigs in Australia, and a third is an RCMP officer in Alberta.
"As a program we are successful. Our grad rate is rising 25 per cent per year," says Russell. "Our graduation ceremonies in July are joyous occasions with lots of tears shed. [Many students] never thought this day would ever happen."
An opportunity to catch up at the anniversary with former students who he has helped to overcome obstacles and barriers, guiding them through the good times and the bad, excites Russell.
"It's the things like that that make the hard days manageable," says Russell.
• POWER will celebrate its 20th anniversary at its facility, 1001 Columbia St., on Thursday, Feb. 21, from 4 to 8 p.m.