Mark Kaercher

Mark Kaercher

Re-imagining alternative education

The district principal of the West Shore’s adult and alternative education has a new vision for learning

The new signage isn’t even on the building yet, and once it’s fastened into place it may not be accurate for very long.

That’s the nature of change, however, and change is exactly what has been going on within the Sooke School District’s (SD62) alternative education programs –  with more on the way.

Paul Block, district principal of adult and alternative education for SD62, is one of the people driving that change. It makes sense, since he has always had a soft spot for those on the margins of society – as many of the students in SD62’s alternative education programs are.

He says growing up in East Vancouver as a middle-class kid playing in punk bands gave him a different view of the world and formed the basis for his future early in life.

“I got to meet a whole different demographic of people, and really started to understand early on that the story of people’s lives are a heck of a lot different than perhaps many of us in middle-class life understand and appreciate,” Block says. “What you see on the outside is maybe not what’s going on on the inside.”

That understanding and appreciation for the struggles of others is what eventually led him to working within the education system in a position where he can work with those who are struggling within that system, and attempt to find a better way to help them learn.

“The students that we work with,” he says, “can’t be successful with the curriculum until we stabilize their lives. When there are things going on in their lives, domestic challenges at home, or they’re homeless –  which is the case with a lot of our kids –  or they’re couch-surfing, or they have substance abuse issues … sitting in a classroom doing math goes way down the list of priorities. Education is a huge primary piece of what we do, but before we can educate, we have to stabilize.

“These kids are highly intelligent, incredibly resourceful and very resilient,” Block says. “They just need some guidance and compassion for what they’ve endured and continue to endure.”

The main way to build a foundation for learning, he says, is to build a level of trust and sense of community that is welcoming and secure; a comfortable place for students to thrive.

Helping achieve that is the programs’ newly incorporated “cohort model,” where students move through non pre-determined curriculum in groups – much like what happens in elementary and middle school.

“What I saw when I was working in primary school, was the strength and power of the cohort model, where the same group of kids move through together and build a community,” Block says. He believes it will translate well for those older kids who don’t necessarily learn best in a traditional educational structure.

When you build that community within the education system, he says, you can begin to build a foundation of what is arguably the most important aspect of education itself, something he calls “character education.”

“What are our values? What are our morals? What is right and what is wrong? What are ethics? How should we treat each other? What is a community and what is the power of community?” Block asks rhetorically.

They are the foundations of education in these alternative programs, which have recently been reorganized, right down to the physical locations where they are offered.

Pacific secondary, for example, moved into the revitalized, SD62-owned location on Sooke Road in Colwood from its prior home at 1830 Island Hwy.

The district was leasing the previous space, an expense that ran somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200,000 per year, according to Block. A proposal was developed to instead reinvest those funds into something the district owns, and would be more conducive to what Block wants to build educationally.

Without physical education facilities like sports fields or gymnasia, without the ability to offer interesting electives, Block asks, “How can we build a culture and a sense of belonging in kids who have felt marginalized by the system? How can we make them feel respected as if they are welcome in our schools and being given the opportunities and privileges of the students at Belmont and the other schools?”

How they do that is to create a better, more diverse facility and strike up various partnerships. Those include a deal with Royal Roads University to use its gym for physical education, a conversion of the gym at the old Metchosin elementary into a shop for trades-style electives like carpentry, and joining up with the YM-YWCA to create a teaching garden to learn sustainable resource practices – which also then improves their cooking and foods programs.

“So suddenly we’ve gone from no electives to a bunch of very cool ones,” Block says.

Dave Betts, assistant superintendent for SD62, echoes Block’s sentiments.

“How do we work with the kids that are not being successful (in the current system) to ensure that they are going to be successful?” was the question being asked, he says. “What we wanted to do is bring all of the non-adult students together in one campus on the West Shore community. We owned the building already, so we put some additional portables in there and repurposed some of what we had there already, and did a big renovation on the building to accommodate the learning styles and programs we want to have in there. One of our goals is to get out of rental buildings and into our own facilities, but the primary objective is to move into our cohort programs and down the pathway of helping kids be more successful.”

The new alternative schooling format at the West Shore Centre’s family of schools offers options for adult, alternate and distributed learning education. For more information, contact Block at