Patti Bacchus: Something to celebrate—a Richmond high school’s innovative medical science program

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      It’s been a bleak year to cover public education, and I needed something positive for my final column of 2020. I’m never short of issues to write about: my inboxes are full of important messages about serious problems in schools. It gets overwhelming some weeks.

      That’s why I was delighted to come across a story about a new medical science program at a Richmond secondary school that trains students to be certified first responders.

      To heck with all the stressful bad news—I’d rather tell you about this as a reminder to you and me that there’s a lot of great work happening in B.C. schools, and there’s much to celebrate and support.

      Don’t get me wrong; I care deeply about all the challenges in our K-12 schools: COVID-19 exposures, stressed-out and exhausted school employees, staffing shortages, students struggling with quarter systems and not being able to spend time with friends outside school, kids with special needs not getting enough support, and the list goes on.

      One can get jaded being an education columnist. People contact you when things go wrong. It’s the reverse of being a school trustee, where you get to go visit schools and they always show you their best stuff. Sure, I’d also have inboxes full of problems and complaints then, of course, and hours and hours of tedious meetings, but I’d usually fit in at least one school visit a week, and it would inevitably recharge me and remind me why I was a committed public education advocate.

      It’s been too long since I’ve visited a school and gotten that recharge, but I got a jolt of it reading about the new program at Cambie Secondary School in Richmond, and I felt an energy boost after talking by phone this week to Sarah Ardat, the teacher (and Cambie Secondary grad) who created and teaches the innovative program.

      Program teaches students to become certified first responders

      High school students are required to take certain academic courses to graduate, along with “electives”, which include a range of courses that let students explore various activities or pursue particular interests—and, for some, to discover their passions or pathways to careers.

      Ardat’s new course is called Introduction to Medical Science, for students in grades 11 and 12, and it enables pupils to earn Canadian Red Cross first-responder and standard first-aid certification, which is impressive and will open all kinds of doors for those who successfully complete the program.

      We hear a lot about the value of “hands-on learning” in education these days, and in this program students learn—often on their hands and knees—to check blood-glucose or oxygen-saturation levels and administer oxygen, epinephrine autoinjectors (EpiPens), or naloxone (to treat drug overdoses).

      More important than ever during a deadly pandemic, students also learn to understand how diseases are spread and to prevent transmission. Some of Ardat’s students have learned so much in the course they’re now making Zoom presentations to seniors to teach them how to stop germs from spreading.

      Pupils practise taking vital signs.
      Sarah Ardat

      In nonpandemic times, the students would be out in the community, volunteering with first-aid teams at events like seniors’ games and other sports tournaments.

      Before Ardat’s course was offered, students who wanted to learn about first aid and get certified would have to take weekend classes, and pay hundreds of dollars to do so. Ardat’s course fits in students’ timetables and provides more time to practise and reinforce skills. It’s also a lot cheaper for students, although there is still a course fee of $375 to cover the costs of training materials and equipment.

      Teacher's love for learning inspired course creation

      In a year when so many teachers are at the end of their ropes with exhaustion and stress from trying to teach throughout the pandemic, I asked Ardat where she found the energy and initiative to create a brand-new course that meets Red Cross certification requirements and needed sign-off from her school administration and school board to authorize the for-credit course to be taught in high school.

      She says she took first-aid courses on weekends in high school and found that each time she interviewed for any kind of job, employers were interested and impressed with her first-aid training and her first-responder volunteer work. She says she also loves learning and often takes courses for fun, and she wanted to give her students the opportunity to learn important skills.

      The 34-year-old, who also teaches English, social studies, and PE, said she got nothing but support from her colleagues and school administrators—as well as the school district and board—to launch the program. The district also gave her an innovation grant, which she used for some of the classroom set-up, and she says she’s lucky to have an extra room where students can get down on the floor and practise their skills.

      She also credits Jeff Watts, a retired paramedic, with helping her design the program and get access to specialized training equipment for her students to use.

      Course to be expanded next year

      Ardat’s enthusiasm for the course—which she plans to expand next year with a next-level-up emergency-responder class (required for those who want to become paramedics)—resuscitated my appreciation for public education the way visiting schools and having teachers and students show me projects they were especially proud of used to do.

      I always loved seeing nontraditional classes and programs that got some students—who may have been otherwise disengaged in school—excited and motivated. This is that kind of program, and Ardat says she has already had a parent call to thank her for how excited her child is about the course and how hard they’re happily working on it after previously being uninterested in school work.

      I’ve seen lots of terrific and innovative school programs do that, and they almost always start with a teacher or administrator who is passionate about something and wants to share it with kids. It can be magical to see how that can transform students’ attitudes toward school and set them on a positive and successful path, both personally and careerwise.

      In this case, not only are some students discovering a love for medical science (Ardat already has students who have decided they want to become doctors or pursue other careers in the medical field) but those first-responder skills could be lifesavers in both the students’ personal and work lives.

      Responding to emergencies where people are injured or in some kind of medical distress requires students to think critically by quickly and carefully assessing the situation and determining the right response, calling on their knowledge and training.

      Part of the that training includes responding to overdoses and administering naloxone. Given the tragic numbers of young lives lost to contaminated drugs, the more people know how to respond to overdoses the better.

      Because school districts have adjusted timetables to minimize students’ contacts, this year’s first course has finished, as it was taught in the first “quarter” (where students take two courses at a time for a quarter of the school year). Ardat says she’s “super happy” with how it turned out and that it was even better than she expected. She says she’s proud of her students and how much they now know and what they can do.

      Next on Ardat’s agenda is expanding this exciting and innovative program to other schools and districts. Sounds like an excellent plan to me.

      I’d also love to see the provincial government consider increased funding to support innovative programs like this that have added equipment and certification costs that tightly budgeted school districts can’t afford to cover. I love to have my taxes be invested in teaching students skills that can save lives and make them excited about careers in the medical field.

      And thank you to Ms. Ardat for reminding me of how great our public schools and teachers are, in so many ways.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you

      I’ll be taking a break from this writing this column, going nowhere, until the new year while I work on finishing up some other projects. Before I go, I want to thank all the teachers, support workers, school administrators, school custodians, and other frontline workers who have kept our schools and other essential services going throughout the pandemic.

      I know that for many it’s taken a heavy toll, and the long list of school exposures is nerve-racking and worrisome. More must be done to keep staff and students as safe as possible while they’re at school.

      I agree that keeping schools open should be a priority, but as I’ve said before, it’s time we started treating and funding schools and the people who work in them with the respect and investment they deserve.

      My best wishes to all for a restful, safe, and healthy holiday season and a much better new year than the one we’ve endured in 2020.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.