A second chance to succeed

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Secondary Alternate Program helps high school students take control of their learning and earn their diploma at their own pace, writes Samantha Ball.


Thomas Benke is the vice-principal of the Richard Pfaff Secondary Alternate Program and the Urban Aboriginal Secondary Alternate Program. He says there is an unfair and inaccurate stigma around the alternate program.

Kaitlyn McLaren was in Grade 8, on the verge of entering high school, when her father died of cancer. The stress led to an increase in her social anxiety, which manifested itself through nausea and inability to get out of bed.

And so for the first few years of Kaitlyn’s high school career, her mother, Patricia, did everything she could to help her daughter; calling teachers, attending meetings, and driving Kaitlyn to school to make sure she went. 

The intensely stressful situation, Kaitlyn says, caused a strain in their relationship.

Then, a family move resulted in Kaitlyn starting Grade 11 at a new high school. The large student population soon became too much for her.

Kaitlyn was eventually referred to the Frederick Banting Alternate Program, part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Secondary Alternate Program, where Patricia says her daughter blossomed.

“They treat the students like young adults and not kids, and they do it in such a way that it makes the kids want to better themselves and be more than they thought they could be.”

In 2013, Kaitlyn, now 20, went on to win the Staff Award for Excellence at her graduation and an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Student Recognition Award for excellence in student leadership.

She credits Frederick Banting with helping her feel comfortable in her own skin, and says it still feels like home.

It’s a feeling expressed by the many students who receive their high school diploma while attending the alternate program, yet there is still a misguided stigma – the belief that these schools are where “all the bad kids go” –  attached to the concept, says administrator Thomas Benke.

Kaitlyn McLaren, 20, achieved her  high school diploma and won several awards while attending the Frederick  Banting Secondary Alternate Program.

Kaitlyn McLaren, 20, achieved her high school diploma and won several awards while attending the Frederick
Banting Secondary Alternate Program.

The alternate program, which offers an alternative to the traditional high school setting, enables students aged 16 to 20 to receive instruction in an individualized manner, one course at a time, in a small classroom with a special focus on supporting the student’s academic, social, and emotional needs.

Benke has been with the alternate program for almost 30 years and is vice-principal of the Richard Pfaff Secondary Alternate Program and the Urban Aboriginal Secondary Alternate Program.

There can be as many as roughly 1,100 students enrolled at a time between all of the alternate program’s five locations, and according to Benke, “they all have their own reason to be here.

“In reality, some students are too bright and too capable and the regular program doesn’t meet their needs.”

He says the personal circumstances of students enrolled in the program vary, from “poverty to seven-digit family incomes…issues range from drugs and trouble with the law, to social anxiety.”

Students who are referred to the alternate program, which happens for a variety of reasons, can start at any point in the school year. They benefit from flexible start times and the ability to complete their credits at their own pace. 

The staff and students work as a team to progress through the standard high school curriculum, with teachers acting as facilitators, and students taking control of their own

The approach is collaborative, holistic and student-centred, says Benke.

A range of resources and social supports are offered to students, including a social worker and psychologist at each site.

And teachers regularly evaluate how class material can become more accessible and interesting in order to meet diverse learning styles.

The program also provides the opportunity for staff to connect more intimately with students, which helps them succeed. 

Learning valuable life skills is an important part of the alternate program. Students demonstrate their commitment to their education through attendance, punctuality, consistent academic progress and responsible behaviour. 

And Benke says students rarely act out because having responsibility for their learning helps them stay motivated and goal-oriented.

“All of the students are in the program because they want to graduate.”

The alternate program was a great fit for Kaitlyn. She had always been a good student; however, she “started to grow up and become an adult there,” says Patricia. 

Looking back, Kaitlyn says she is grateful that her mother fought so hard for her, and says they now have a great relationship. Patricia, in turn, says she will always thank the teachers in the program for what they did for Kaitlyn.

Kaitlyn says the alternate program experience helped her become more outgoing and confident in her skills and abilities.

This year,Kaitlyn achieved straight As in her first year as a psychology student at Carleton University and looks forward to her second year. She’d like to continue her education and enter a profession that will allow her to help others. 

“I’ve struggled with my own issues, and now I feel like I can help people with theirs.”