First graduates of Mother Teresa school in Regina rise above tough circumstances

13 September 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

From roots planted in the troubled north-central neighbourhood of Regina has blossomed a unique group of youth who are making strides to break the cycle of poverty that is their everyday reality.

The students are graduates of Mother Teresa Middle School, a Grade 6-8 school in the heart of a gritty inner city neighbourhood. From the first class of 17 that began in 2011, 11 students have graduated high school and 10 will commence higher learning this month. Four more will continue their high school studies while one is gainfully employed.

The success stories are quite an accomplishment for students raised in the economically disadvantaged area, with its large Indigenous population, that was labelled Canada’s worst neighbourhood by Maclean’s magazine in 2007.

The area has struggled to shed the label ever since. While things have improved, the same problems cited by Maclean’s — unemployment, gangs, crime, violence and drugs, often the legacy of the reserve system and residential schools — remain.

And the students reflect the face of the community. About 60 per cent of that first class is Indigenous (subsequent years has seen that number rise to 80 per cent), while a number hail from refugee families. The thing they have in common? Money, and opportunity, is scarce.

Curtis Kleisinger is the executive director at Mother Teresa. You can sense his pride when he tells you 70 per cent of the first class has graduated, a number well above the Saskatchewan average for Indigenous students.

“A lot of our kids, without some added supports, some coaching and someone looking out for them and somebody working with the families, probably wouldn’t be in school today … they would be finding other things,” said Kleisinger.

He leaves it hanging, but you know he means “things” that can lead to prison.

Mother Teresa has been doing its part to change the troubled neighbourhood. The school got its start through the philanthropic efforts of the Hill family and its group of companies that for more than 100 years has been part of western Canada’s financial fabric. The Hill Companies give back to the community through the One Life Makes a Difference charitable foundation.

On a trip to India, Paul Hill, chairman, president and CEO, and his wife Carol were captivated by Mother Teresa’s urging for them to return to their community, identify a need and give of themselves and their resources to fill it. Paul Hill — entrusted as a Knight of St. Sylvester by Pope Benedict XVI in recognition of his charitable work — came across the Jesuits’ Nativity Miguel Network of Schools in the United States and its mandate to provide a positive, quality school choice for families in impoverished neighbourhoods.

In partnership with the Regina Catholic School Division, Campion College at the University of Regina and the English Canadian Jesuits, Mother Teresa Middle School was born, joining the 46-member NativityMiguel Coalition of schools across North America (44 in the U.S. and Gonzaga Middle School in Winnipeg). The first class began studies in 2011, and each year since a new class of highly motivated, economically disadvantaged students has enrolled.

Students are chosen based on two criteria: need and motivation.

Members of the Buffalo Boys drum corps from Mother Teresa Middle School are seen with Father Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Jesuits.

“It’s the only program that has proven to change lives with measurable outcomes,” said Hill, noting students that had an 80-plus per cent chance of failure have turned it around after attending Mother Teresa and now have an 80-plus per cent chance of success.

“A lot of these kids have never crossed the tracks” — Regina is the classic other-side-of-the-tracks kind of town — “and now they’re exposed to all the possibilities in their lives, professions, job opportunities, educational opportunities that they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise,” said Hill.

Dylan Cyr-Yuzicappi can attest to the difference the school has made. Part of the original Mother Teresa class, 17-year-old Cyr-Yuzicappi went on to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, the private Catholic school in Wilcox, Sask., a half hour south of Regina, where he graduated last spring.

He is now taking classes at First Nations University of Canada on the University of Regina campus, where a number of his classmates will also continue their studies. He said it was tough to overcome the challenges from his North-Central upbringing, “but with the support of Mother Teresa, they helped a lot through my tough times. I can’t thank them enough for that. I really appreciate that.”

Mother Teresa opened up a new world for the Indigenous teen, beyond just education. Prior to Mother Teresa, sports had not been a big part of Cyr-Yuzicappi’s life. He ran some cross-country, but says for the most part he’d hang around the house.

But at Mother Teresa he developed into a high-calibre athlete and played on the Saskatchewan Selects football team in the gridiron-mad province and on the provincial rugby team. He will further his rugby career with the University of Regina Cougars this fall.

Mother Teresa School graduate Dylan Cyr-Yuzicappi has played rugby on the provincial team and will play for the University of Regina.

It’s the education, though, that has had the greatest effect on Cyr-Yuzicappi. His goal is to be a teacher and give back to his community.

“Seeing how good the teachers are and how they helped me getting on the path of doing good in my life, that’s what really helped me,” he said.

He was an average student at best upon entering Mother Teresa, but with that help he has been able to harness his potential.

“They taught me how to set goals, reasonable goals that I could attain, and just how to become the best student (that I can be).”

As part of the first class, Cyr-Yuzicappi doesn’t take lightly the example he and his classmates set for those who follow.

“I’ve known all these younger kids for a while now and I’ve grown an attachment to them, and I want to see them succeed,” he said. “I want to show them what’s possible in their future.”

Many Mother Teresa students are the first in their family to go this far in their education.

“We need somebody in their family to be the first,” said Kleisinger. “Somebody being the first is incredibly powerful. Now they’re an example for everybody. And if you can do it, so can I. That’s what they didn’t have.”

Hill is thrilled with the first class attaining these heights.

“It’s exciting to get that far,” he said. “As the program moves along it gets stronger and stronger.”

A new phase, though, brings new challenges. For many of the students and their families, life has always been a struggle. Some have watched their parents die — even at the hands of another parent — or they’ve been abused by family members, or dealt with schizophrenia, or grown up in foster care, or even lived within the shelter system.

“It’s not as easy as I just need to take this kid and get him in a different school and life is going to be different,” said Kleisinger. “Our kids, sometimes it’s five steps forward and two steps back. Mom, she’s clean this week and next week she’s not, and what does that do to the family?”

Mother Teresa’s model is designed to give students a better chance to succeed. With smaller class sizes, staff can move quicker to help students. And keeping the kids in the same school for three years is unheard of for many of them. Kleisinger said the transient nature of many families has seen students enrolled “in 16, 17 schools by the time they get to us.”

“Our School Community Outreach Coordinator (social worker), teachers, graduate support director, college and careers coach, cultural liaison and support staff go above and beyond to remove any barriers that come between our students and their education, said Kleisinger.

Hill concurs. “All the people who work in the programs, I call them saints because they’re extremely dedicated. It’s challenging, they’ve got a crisis every day.”

Support includes two meals a day, professional counselling, dental and eye care, after-school enrichment, summer programs and mentors from the community, as well as support for the families.

There’s no doubt, Kleisinger has seen progress. The key to the future, though, will be in capitalizing on the hope that has been generated where there was none.

“We really focus on hope, engagement, well-being,” said Kleisinger. “The biggest thing you have to flip is the hope, that hope piece, that things do work out and I can work hard, I can be successful.”

Kleisinger sees the results. “I do feel confident that we are making a difference.”

Cyr-Yazicuppi hopes to play a major part in making that difference. His aim is to help others overcome their struggles, in the classroom and on the playing field.

“I want to bring rugby to reserve communities and get more Native people involved in the sport,” he said.

He embraces the challenge of blazing new trails as he and his classmates continue their studies.

“We’re the first class, we’ve been trail blazers for a lot of years, and it’s really nothing new for us. It will be a challenge that is welcome,” he said.

The future won’t be without its struggles. Money is needed to run the school itself and for ensuring its graduates can make it through the high school system. For some, like Cyr-Yazicuppi, that means getting them into a school like Notre Dame, where it can cost a student living in residence $30,000, or Luther College High School, a Regina private school.

With Mother Teresa’s first graduates now reaching university age, even more funding is needed, adding up to a total commitment of 11 years or more to its students.

About 25 per cent of the school’s budget is government-funded and another quarter comes from a major donor. That leaves a lot of ground to make up, and Kleisinger finds himself seeking donors, running fundraisers and accessing grants to help make up the difference.

Family support is also important. Kleisinger said many of the parents and grandparents are products of residential schools, so the education experience has not been good.

“You’re dealing with a population that doesn’t trust anybody and doesn’t trust very easy,” he said.

But staff are slowly gaining that trust, making connections with families, and that allows “us to go to places some people can’t.”

Hill is hoping to see the Mother Teresa model expand into other areas of Canada facing the same issues as inner-city Regina. Gonzaga in Winnipeg is in its second year and he said there has been interest expressed to establish a school in Saskatoon.

Kleisinger knows he and his staff have a long way to go before they can say they are a true success story.

“When do you know when you’ve been successful? For me it will be when they can come up to me and introduce me to their families. They are loving fathers, good husbands.”

That is down the road a little, but Kleisinger can wait. He says they set a lofty goal “to bat 1,000.”

Mother Teresa may not reach that — “we’re not perfect” — but the effort will be there.