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Transforming Student Culture at Quinte Christian High School

Written on February 29th, 2016

Group Of High School Students Walking Along Hallway

One of the Core Values that Quinte Christian High School (QCHS) in Belleville has committed to as a school community is “to respect each student as a whole person”—an increasingly difficult goal to reach in a time when teenagers often struggle in areas that extend beyond academics.

John VanderWindt, principal at QCHS, has been actively finding ways to live out this goal. This is his third year as principal, but he has been interacting with students in various roles at the school as teacher, athletic director, and vice principal since 2001. It has become increasingly evident to him over the years that many of the students who come to school each day carry all kinds of burdens with them—whether that be relationship issues, anxiety, depression, or difficulties in their homes.

“If a student is dealing with [issues] that they don’t know how to deal with, they won’t be in a place where they are capable of learning,” shares Mr. VanderWindt. “I believe the school has a responsibility to help them, and to move them into a place where they can learn.”

This responsibility is one that he, and the board members of QCHS, have taken seriously. In the past three years, they have begun to take bold steps towards finding ways to help students achieve or maintain a place where they feel emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally strong.

“I think the answer lies in the fact that we need to look at the whole student and how they are doing, not just one or two aspects of them,” shares Mr. VanderWindt.

Some of these areas are easier to gauge than others in a high school setting. Struggles with emotional and mental health, for example, are often masked by teenagers—they often equate the inability to cope with being crazy, weak, or flawed. When their usual ways of coping are no longer working as well as they’d like them to, students end up struggling to navigate through difficult times.

Educational leaders are recognizing an increasing need for them to play a larger role in their students’ lives, rather than a solely academic one, and they find themselves looking for ways to offer support to students who are struggling. In response to this concern, QCHS has actively engaged in creating a partnership with another Christian organization that offers professional help for their students.

The program is called CAPS—Counseling Assistance Program for Students. It has been offered to students at QCHS over the past three years. In partnership with Shalem Mental Health Network in Hamilton, the school has been able to provide professional counseling support with specialized Christian counselors, either at the school or in their offices. The partnership is designed to offer privacy and convenience to students. The school is charged based on the rate of use for the program, and students are anonymously offered a certain number of sessions with a counselor.

Part of the role of CAPS, according to program director Marg Smit-Vandezande, is to affirm to students that they are whole beings that contain both strengths and weaknesses, and that it is okay for them to ask for help when they struggle with certain aspects of their lives.

“If they are not feeling well physically, students usually feel comfortable asking for help from a medical doctor,” she  relates, “and I think people are starting to feel more comfortable when they need support around mental health challenges—even when they just need extra support or perhaps as a prevention before things do become bigger problems. Our goal is to make it easier for them to reach out.”

Ms. Smit-Vandezande also commends schools who are taking steps to help their students in areas that haven’t always been popular among school communities in the past.

“Schools have done a great job, historically, in helping with various types of student needs. However, there has often been a stigma attached to providing help with physco-social and emotional needs, and there haven’t always been resources available to address these issues. It’s commendable to those schools who are willing to reach outside of the norm and find ways and resources to help students in all areas of their need.”

Mr. VanderWindt originally heard about a similar program being offered in various churches in the area. When he investigated further, he found that other Christian high schools were also looking at ways to create similar partnerships, including Woodland Christian School in Breslau, and found that there were options available for schools as well.

“The idea was that we wanted to be able to offer Christian counseling services to our students, but we are not a big enough school to hire our own counselor on staff,” reflects Mr. VanderWindt. “I feel really good about this partnership, because when students come to talk to me in my office, I can offer them a solution that’s right at their fingertips. All they have to do is pick up the phone and call.”

Another thing he loves is the fact that students can connect with counselors on their own. In fact, the school is not even given a record of names of students who are receiving help. This has opened up a path for many more students to have help that normally would hit roadblocks such as asking for parental permission, money, or transportation.

Male High School Student By Lockers Using Mobile Phone

Students have responded positively to having support available to them when it is needed. One student in particular shared her gratitude for having a place to turn for help. “[The program] has helped me deal with the losses I have had,” she related.

Being able to provide help to our students when they need it has been a wonderful experience for us,” shared Mr. VanderWindt. “It has been amazing to see the growth and changes that have occurred for the students in just a few short years already.”

“We are intentionally trying to create a culture in the school where it’s okay to ask for help when you need it,” Mr. VanderWindt continued. “We want this to be a place where we can encourage students, to help them to know that they aren’t alone in their struggles and that there are avenues that are easily available for them to take so that they can get the help that they need.”

The parents in the Belleville school community have been exceptionally supportive of the steps taken by the school to provide help in areas where needed. Several times throughout the past three years, they have shared comments such as, “I’m really glad that, as a school, you are offering this. Thank you so much for being willing to come alongside our kids in this way!” and, “If my child needs help, and if they’re too scared to talk to me, I want them to have a place to go that offers them Christian counsel to work through their struggles.”

This community support is meaningful to Mr. VanderWindt and his staff at QCHS, as they strive to come alongside students, and to create a school culture of caring and respect for one another.

“I really believe that this fits into our mandate of educating the whole child—not just academically but also spiritually and emotionally.”