One of the most gratifying aspects of the job for Crossroads teacher Lory McMullen is having students tell her they love coming to school.
That feedback is especially meaningful when it comes from her students in the Niagara-on-the-Lake school’s Routes program.
Routes is specifically designed to support members of the Low German Mennonite community living in the Niagara region.
The Low German Mennonite community has a long-standing historical connection to Mexico and families often travel there in the winter months, where many of them have farms, family, and friends.
In addition to the time some spend away from school in the winter months, students may also not attend school because of language barriers and a general feeling of cultural exclusion from the surrounding community.
“The students in the Low German community are incredibly bright and talented children,” said McMullen.
“We really believe they have every ability to be successful in school, but we needed to foster those positive relationships with the community to build trust and assure them we would provide for their children’s needs in an inclusive and culturally sensitive fashion.”
That meant creating a single classroom covering Grades 1 through 8 for the 15 students enrolled in the program.
It also meant engaging families through regular communication and outreach activities.
One of the most successful events was a Faspa, a simple meal shared with family and friends, held at the school.
Crossroads Principal Gerda Klassen said that event helped demonstrate the school was willing to recognize and celebrate the community’s heritage.
“It was a great opportunity to speak with families, share a meal, and start building those bridges between the school and home to help our Low German students feel good about coming to school,” said Klassen.
Academically, said Klassen, the program is focused on literacy and numeracy.
“We focus on meeting students’ individual needs,” said Klassen.
To do that, McMullen has to spend time with each student to assess his or her educational progress, but also to support a positive attitude about learning.
“These students have a lot on their plate. Many are working on learning five different languages,” said McMullen.
At any one-time, Low German students can be working on mastering their home language, while also learning High German, English, French, and because of the time many spend in Mexico, Spanish.
“We have to make sure students are at a place where they feel smart and capable of learning,” said McMullen.
Differentiated instruction is at the heart of the Routes program.
“It’s about getting to know each child as an individual. From there we can progress to working on letter sounds, reading, and working independently,” said McMullen.
For students who continue to progress in school, the Routes program also has a secondary component, led by Eden High School teacher, Rudy Klassen.
Rudy brings decades of experience in the classroom to the program, as well as in-depth knowledge about the Low German community.
The program is delivered in a face-to-face setting on Monday evenings during the school year at Crossroads, and there are also online opportunities for students to continue their learning outside those hours.
So far, Rudy has been able to support five Low German students to graduate from the Routes program with their secondary diplomas, with many more to come.
In the 2018-19 school year, 16 Low German students will earn a total of 88 high school credits.
As with the elementary program, Routes’ secondary success comes down to developing positive relationships with students.
“Mr. Klassen understands and helps us. We were raised differently; he understands us and our culture. He respects us and makes learning fun,” said one student.
Rudy said he’s “amazed at how hard these students are willing to work in the evening class after a full day of work.”
For their dedicated work, both Lory McMullen and Rudy Klassen were presented with Awards for Outstanding Achievement by DSBN Director of Education, Warren Hoshizaki.