Corbella: Recipe for success for school kids includes weird yoga, gym, police and psychologists

 Licia Corbella Licia Corbella
More from Licia Corbella

To say that the early morning yoga class at Patrick Airlie Elementary School in Forest Lawn looks and sounds odd is an understatement.

First, the yoga instructor is not exactly dressed for the task. Const. Lisa Collier is still wearing her full police uniform — minus her boots — including her belt, complete with a firearm, Taser, baton, pepper spray and radio.

Second, this yoga class is a lot more, shall we say, energetic and joyful than most, with strange names for some standard poses.

Following deep breathing while “finding their inner superheroes,” Collier urges the class of 18 kids to stand up and make like the Incredible Hulk and “roar!” Nothing wrong with these kids’ lungs, that’s for sure!


Instead of the warrior pose, the 11-year Calgary Police Service veteran urges her young charges to make like Spider-Man and shoot their “spidey webs” to the side, then to the ceiling, then behind. The kids make squirting noises as they stretch through the motions. There are smiles on every one of the 18 shining faces.

Before this voluntary early-morning class is over, they will have rolled themselves up in the brand new yoga mats donated by the Calgary Police Foundation as they enter their “bat cave,” and once they emerge, they will stretch like Wonder Woman, push down on the ground like Iron Man and reach for the sky like Superman — all the while building their “tool belt” with calming, strengthening exercises.

Many of these kids will have already been fed a nutritious breakfast at the school’s daily breakfast program,  high-fived a trusted police officer and got their blood oxygenized with the yoga class, making them even more ready to learn. Three times a week they will all be fed a nutritious, hot lunch and there’s a fun after-school program too for those enrolled.

These are just some of the special initiatives of an innovative in-school program — ISSP — or Integrated School Support Program — the brainchild of teacher Gillian Bowerman.

After taking part in the Calgary Police Service’s Start Smart, Stay Safe (S4) program, Bowerman approached former police chief Rick Hanson on how to better support students in a low-income area of Calgary — many of whom have suffered through war and trauma, or others who live in poverty with parents who struggle with addictions.

The ISSP program was launched in August 2014 as a way to ensure students break the cycle of joining gangs and see more success in their education.

Patrick Airlie School, and just a short walk away, Holy Trinity Elementary, are the only two schools taking part in this program, which includes having a full-time psychologist and physical education teacher at each school, all funded through the Calgary Police Foundation, the charitable arm of the Calgary Police Service.

The psychologist helps assess children who might suffer from learning disabilities, but will also help kids deal with traumatic experiences. Funding for this initiative is ending in June.

On Wednesday, police commission chairman Brian Thiessen sang the praises of ISSP and said he has approached the Canada government to fund the program, which is designed to prevent crime by strengthening families and enhancing young lives.

Recently, a kindergarten student from Patrick Airlie witnessed the homicide of a family member, and as a result of this program, is receiving the supports he needs with specially trained officers and a psychologist. Bowerman says recently one child, after building up trust with the psychologist and Const. Ron Kubicek, confided that she was being abused at home. She is now safe.

“None of the kids view this uniform as a bad thing,” says Kubicek, and that rubs off on their parents, too.

“Because we’re here so much, police are viewed so positively. We have great relationships with these kids and their family members, and that will have long-reaching positive effects for these kids, who are learning anger-management tools, calming tools that we build in their imaginary tool belt — simple things like deep breathing, reading a book and anti-bullying techniques.

“Const. Ron is beloved at all the four schools he goes to,” says Bowerman. “He has such a great rapport with the kids, and the teachers and staff at all the schools say there is a big difference with the kids in terms of a lack of bullying, calmness and eagerness to learn.”

As if on cue, an impish little red-headed boy poked his head into the staff lounge and yelled: “Hi, Const. Ron! I’m going to see you later, right?”

Kubicek gives the lad a thumbs up and says, “You bet, buddy!” They use games and other tactics to deal with the boy’s anger-management issues.

Const. Lisa Collier leading a yoga class before school even begins at Patrick Airlie Elementary School in Forest Lawn. Photo credit goes to Kerri Firza, CPS

Brian Ferguson, founding chairman of the Calgary Police Foundation, says focusing on early intervention with at-risk youth will have lasting positive impacts on society.

“Teachers are the first line, where they can see that a child is struggling, and so we can get involved early and have a really positive impact for that child and society down the line,” says Ferguson, former president and CEO of Cenovus Energy.

Robert Ranger, principal at Holy Trinity School, says, “We don’t just have the right supports here, we have the right people within those supports.”

Beyond the full-time psychologist conducting tests and counselling, “the phys ed specialist, the math team, the S4 officers, the beat officers — they’re all effective in the roles they have and that makes kids available for learning — all the barriers to learning that were there, they have been removed,” adds Ranger, who says there have been measurable improvements in student outcomes at the school.

Back at Patrick Airlie, after the yoga class, some of the girls crowd around “Const. Lisa,” commenting on her sparkly pink nail polish and marvelling how she can do some of the yoga poses with her awkward police gear. For refugee kids from places such as Sudan and Syria, seeing a policewoman up close, friendly and personal, breaks down numerous barriers on gender roles, femininity and trust of police officers, which doesn’t always exist in their countries of origin.

“It’s so important for these kids to view police as safe adults they can rely on,” adds Collier, who has two young daughters. “I just love these kids. We all want them to have the best lives possible. That will come by learning to be the best citizens possible and I’m so glad to have a role in that.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Categorised in: