Unhappy with school? Take a Hike program offers a new path in Saanich, Cowichan

Students in both Saanich and Cowichan Valley school districts will be able to take an alternative educational path this year through a program where they go on multi-day wilderness trips and spend one day each week learning outdoors.

The Take a Hike program, a partnership with the Vancouver-based Take a Hike Foundation, gives teens the ability to complete their high-school education at their own pace.

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Participants take a one-day field trip each week and three multi-day wilderness trips — ranging from three to 10 days. The trips depending on the student’s grade level and the season, with hiking, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking and indoor rock-climbing in the spring and fall and snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice-skating in the winter.

Around half to three-quarters of youth served will leave the city for the first time with the outdoor-adventure component of the program, according to the foundation, and some report an increase in engagement in academics.

Each classroom has a full-time registered clinical counsellor who provides support and helps vulnerable youth develop their social and emotional skills. Students also volunteer on a weekly basis.

Mike Russell, director of communications for the Cowichan Valley School District, said the program helps youth build resilience. “It helps with their relationships, helps them through challenges and ultimately prepares them for success in the larger world,” he said. “It’s one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that can facilitate success for some students.”

The intake for the program, which is new this school year in both Saanich, where it’s a pilot project, and the Cowichan Valley, is 20 students each. In B.C., it’s offered in five school districts, including Nanaimo on the Island, where there are 40 spaces.

Since its inception 20 years ago, the Take a Hike Foundation says it has supported 840 youth in five school districts in British Columbia, with a graduation rate of 97 per cent. Most of the youth remain in the program for at least two years.

“We support the youth in the program for as long as is required for their mental health and well-being,” said Nav Nagra, marketing and communications manager for the Take A Hike Foundation, which hopes to eventually offer the program in every B.C. school district.

Candace Spilsbury, chair of the Cowichan Valley School Board, said she’s grateful for the partnership with the foundation. “Providing wrap-around supports outside a traditional school schedule or function will help ensure every student can receive what they need to thrive.”

parrais@timescolonist.com

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