Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 11, 2002
Second chance for street kids
Inner City School uses drama to help students express their views
By RENATO GANDIA
WCR Staff Writer
Joe Cloutier's youthful years have a lot to do with the foundation of Inner City High School and its component programs.
"I came from a background similar to many of the youth at Inner City High. I grew up in inner city Toronto," Cloutier, 58, told the WCR.
After dropping out of Grade 9, he lived on the streets and returned to school at the age of 30, and completed an eight-month pre-apprenticeship in carpentry.
During Alberta's economic boom in 1970, he headed west and became a forming carpenter. Soon, he was making his way to earning a bachelor of education, master of education and later doctorate.
Pursuing an education did not come easily for Cloutier. "I had always felt out of place at the university. Everyone else was so much more articulate than I was. I would think lots about things but I couldn't express myself."
Cloutier pushed to explore his potential more. Towards the end of his BEd studies he registered for a summer class in oral communication offered by the drama department of the U of A.
"It was like jumping into the deep end of the pool. People just blossomed. They opened right up. I thought, 'Boy this would be a good thing to do for the young people in the inner city.'"
At that time he was already a volunteer at McCauley Boys' and Girls' Club.
His interest in drama later led him to take popular theatre seriously. He became involved with five after-school and evening youth drama programs.
Popular theatre is a great tool in allowing "youth to express themselves and to deal with their problems."
Each play is improvised. These are their own stories and at the end of each play the youth face the audience and discuss issues like family violence, racism, prostitution and drug abuse.
The have performed in drug treatment centres, Edmonton young offenders' centre, jail, social work conferences, and for U of A education students.
For about seven years they have performed for 7,000 people with the smallest audience of two and the largest of 600.
"As we began working with the youth as a performing group, we discovered that many of the youth did not have a permanent place to live."
Cloutier rented a house downtown where those homeless youth can have a place to sleep and food to eat.
"They can look ahead further into the future that way. And these youth saw education as being the thing that can bring them out of their traps."
With encouragement from Cloutier and others in the drama group, the former street people registered in local schools.
Two months later, students began to drop out. Suddenly, the seven who remained shifted to correspondence school.
Although correspondence school worked for a period of time, one student asked Cloutier, "Why don't you start a school, start a school for us?" So he did.
Cloutier did the work and had Inner City High School certified as a private school in 1993. They got free rent for the building they use on 95th Street and 104th Avenue and operated for two years.
Inner City High started with nine students, seven members of the drama group and two of their friends. At its peak it had 70 students while the average enrollment ranges from 25 to 60.
After two years they could not make it financially. Edmonton Catholic Schools came to the rescue in 1995.
"If not for the ECS, we would have closed the school because we just couldn't make it financially."
The high school now operates in conjunction with three other programs: Inner City Youth Support Program, Negan Tapeh and Youth in Action.
Youth in Action, the drama group, has members ranging from 16 to 24 years old.
One of the most significant activities at the school is a "circle meeting" three times a day. In the circle they discuss a whole range of topics from current events, life skills, and an introduction to an alternative value system based on trust, respect, cooperation and non-violence.
"Everyone meets in the circle. We're all on the same level and we're all equal."
Many have serious literacy problems. "But they have natural intelligence for survival. They are survivors of the streets and they have handled it," said Cloutier.
"They're smart enough to recognize the deficiencies that they have in education. They cover them up with aggression, frustration and avoidance."
"I think the biggest success story is for people with no hope and not being able to see a way out of the cycle they have been trapped in, to all of a sudden have hope and make plans for breaking that cycle."
The association welcomes donations from individuals or groups like, Edmonton Salsa Congress, that recently donated some proceeds from its fundraisers. Visit www.innercityyouth.org or call (780) 424-9425.