Stories to Inspire

COACH program changing CFS students’ lives

It‟s early on a wintery morning in a church near Mulvey School, and the students who are part of the COACH 1 program are buzzing with activity. One child with hair hanging over his eyes shyly takes several adults on a tour of the church which is used to house the COACH program; from the bright kitchen where students are fed breakfast and lunch to the gym where a rowdy game of dodgeball is being played, to the quiet classrooms which have cozy floor cushions and even a tent to curl up in.

During the tour, the boy answers questions about why he likes being there. This same student would not have been able to interact with adults with anywhere near the comfort level he now has, without the COACH program, says COACH 1 program manager Nancy Mazur.

“All of our kids are capable academically, but a lot have had gaps in learning…the trauma or disruption in their lives has caused them to be behind.”

The quiet student even gives out hugs at the end of the tour, something that would have been unheard of when he started the program. In regular school, his angry outbursts kept him out of the classroom, as he would often throw items or yell, says Mazur. Now, he is calm.

COACH is a “wraparound” educational program that supports students who have behavioural difficulties due to trauma in their lives. The students are unable to thrive in a regular classroom, so they attend school in an alternate location—with the ultimate goal of being re-integrated into the regular classroom.

Children supported by COACH have experienced severe emotional, sexual and or physical abuse or neglect and have previously attended school only sporadically or not at all. They come from homes which may have involvement with Child and Family Services; there may be violence in the home, addictions, or gang affiliations.

The program is also preventative—many children who exhibit behavioural issues in school also have potential to get involved with the criminal justice system, says Peter Correia, principal and director of the COACH 1 program for elementary students, which runs out of Mulvey School. The COACH 2 program is for junior high students. COACH is a partnership with Winnipeg School Division, Healthy Child Manitoba, Macdonald Youth Services and the four Child and Family Services authorities. COACH 1 is funded by Healthy Child, while COACH 2 is funded through the Department of Families.

COACH serves all students within Winnipeg city limits, not just those who reside in particular school divisions. There is no high school program yet, but it‟s hoped that it will come.
The reason the program was developed 16 years ago, says Correia, was that educators “saw a void in programming, needed for students who were in the regular school system, were involved in other programs at the division but who still weren‟t being as successful as they could be.”
At the time, there were no resources available to reach a group of children with multiple and complex needs. COACH, which has been funded by Healthy Child Manitoba since day one, was the first program in Canada, outside an institutional setting, to use professionals from multiple disciplines and agencies to work together to address children‟s complex mental health and behavioural needs in the school setting.

‘We are here to support families’

What makes the approach unique is that the coaches are not only hired to spend the entire day with students, but also during after school hours and on weekends.

“Where they [educators] found another void was the community piece—the wraparound piece away from school hours where students weren‟t being as successful as they could be,” says Correia.

“That was the impetus that drove the program. How can we also look at after school and weekends—not just school hours.”

Having coaches pick students up and bring them to the program is key to the students‟ success, says Mazur, program manager for COACH through Macdonald Youth Services.

“Many families are fearful of CFS intervention. We are there to support families.”

She says parents and children may take a while to come around to the program. But she says within a few weeks of attending COACH, students who have had little to no school attendance “want to be there.”

Correia has the attendance numbers to prove it. For example, Correia says, last year one student went from a 25 per cent attendance rate to 99 per cent. Another went from zero to 100 per cent. Overall attendance for COACH is 96 per cent.

And academics are another success story. Students enter the program far behind their peers and progress through their academics quickly.

Average reading levels go up at least 1.4 grades per year, says Correia. One student went from being a non-reader (not even knowing alphabet sounds) to a Grade 3 level. Another student went from a Grade 3 reading level to a Grade 6 reading level in a year.

“It is quite significant,” he says.

And the behavioural incident reports also drop for students in the program—last year there was an overall 37 per cent decrease. “It‟s really quite something to see,” says Correia.

Shannon Robins, a special education resource teacher for COACH, says many of the students have never had anyone take a closer look at their behaviour. “We have the opportunity to look at where‟s the behaviour coming from, and get a diagnosis.” Part of COACH‟s success is the “tremendous support and resources that the students receive from Clinical Support Services,” says Correia.

Students have access to a school psychologist along with a social worker, speech and language clinician and occupational therapist.

And while students in the COACH 1 program used to need CFS involvement as a criterion, that‟s no longer the case. Now, says Correia, he sees the coaches and the program as “maybe the next layer of keeping the families together.”

Student Life at COACH 1

Students work with Winnipeg School Division teachers, along with their coaches, in their classrooms. How and where they work is flexible. At COACH 1, there are two somewhat traditional classrooms, but one has a pile of comfy cushions for students to work on the floor. The other has a tent in it that children can hang out in for some down time. There are also several smaller quiet rooms and an office, and children are not kept out of any room—if they want to work in the office with one of the adults, that‟s fine, too, says Robins.

On a busy Tuesday morning at COACH 1, some students are sitting with their coaches, reading or doing math, one is in the tent, and several are in smaller rooms off the classroom, by themselves or talking quietly with a coach. Their artwork lines the walls—paintings of Inukshuks and pretty snowflake cutouts.

Along with taking part in the regular curriculum, students also go swimming once a week, and go on lots of field trips, including the zoo, bowling or volunteering at Winnipeg Harvest. That‟s important, says Correia, because if they have behavioural issues, the first thing that‟s often taken away from student programming are field trips in the regular school system. Students also take part in extracurricular activities such as sports or arts programs on evenings and weekends, and their coaches are responsible for taking them to and from the activities. If the family wants to be involved in the after school hours programming, that too would be supported.
“During the day, their role is like being an EA [educational assistant],” says Correia, “Providing support in the classrooms and assisting with behaviour management. Then, during the night, they act more like a life coach,” he says. “They do activities with the students, they might help out with students‟ families, etc.”

Coaches work with families as well in terms of hosting community events such as seminars on cyberbullying, barbecues or an awards night.

The idea is that by building a relationship with the students, they will come to trust the coaches and “know that when they are in an emotional state and a frustration level, they know there are those people that are going to support them,” says Mazur.

Life at COACH 2

Coaches provide a stable adult figure in the lives of students that may not always be there, says Kerri Koblun, program manager at COACH 2.

At COACH 2, which is located at a youth services building, students—many who may live in challenging conditions—are allowed flexibility in terms of coming to school. They can come in the afternoon if they need to sleep in the morning, for example, if they have been out on the streets at night.

While children know that academics come first, the relationship building with adults at COACH 2 is very important, says Gwen McLean, principal of General Wolfe School and the COACH 2 site.

“The balance between academics and building relationships—it needs greater attention at junior high,” says McLean.

“If you have a kid coming in and they haven‟t slept all night, the first thing is to stabilize and get those basic needs met and then do the academics.” The facility includes a full kitchen for hot meals that are provided, along with a gym and a quiet room with a couch.

The walls feature professional-looking prints that are all photos taken by the students during summer programming.

COACH 2 sees more students who are in trouble on the streets, in gangs or at risk of sexual exploitation. All of the COACH 2 students are involved with CFS and are either in foster care or group homes. Often COACH is the only stability they have in their lives.

“A lot of our kids—if they weren‟t here, they would be off of everyone‟s radar,” says Koblun.

These children ‘need to be given a chance, or ten, or however many you’ve got’

She says children soon learn to trust their coaches implicitly. Often, if they need a ride late at night or go AWOL from their group homes, they call their coaches, who then call CFS.

“CFS is accountable for our kids—but we are in constant contact,” says Koblun, who is popular with the students. Many come by to chat and joke with her.

At both locations, student groups are kept small—to a maximum of 16. Children in both programs get at least one hour of integration to the regular school system each week, whether it be gym class or an assembly, to ease them into the regular school system.
Many students go on to successful re-integration in regular classrooms and continue on through the school system, says Correia. Last year alone, the entire Grade 6 COACH class was fully re-integrated.

“Sometimes it takes a little bit more to show them that we have faith, that they can really do this…[get back into the regular classroom]. Other times they are motivated to do it. We want them to be successful,” he says.
Success stories

And COACH has some amazing success stories. One former student is a business owner who comes back to visit often. “He drives by in his big Cadillac Escalade,” laughs Correia. “He‟s made it. He owns his own roofing company.” Another former student is working as a chef in British Columbia, and yet another is working full time in a cycle shop.

Koblun says she has been working with the program for 15 years and she sees the difference it has made.

“It works. They‟ll come back and say, „I wouldn‟t be in this spot‟ if it wasn‟t for COACH.‟”

She adds that all children, especially those from difficult backgrounds, need to be given a chance, or ten, or “however many you‟ve got.”

“The kids are great. People would miss out on how wonderful they are from what they read in the papers. They miss out on, here‟s this really great human being there that has so much stuff happen to them.”

A female student who had a tough home life and difficulty in school and is now excelling in COACH is proof of that.

“Before COACH it wasn‟t going well,” she says. “[Now], I feel like I‟m successful. I like coming here every day.”