Jenny Vonic-Joyce, a youth worker-team leader at Flexible Learning Options, an off-site campus of the Victor Harbor High School, can tell a lot of stories about young people along our coast that may surprise you.
It’s about them having the courage to re-engage with their education as a result of attending the FLO program; trying to be the best they can. She mentions little of her own achievements, only those relating to her faith in an education system that refuses to give up on these kids.
They are also stories that perhaps may have a huge impact on us all because these young people come from various walks of life; suggesting that families regardless of their social demographic are susceptible to teenage angst, including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol experimentation, disengagement from education, and in extreme cases, life itself.
We’re talking about young people who have each been identified by the school (VHHS) as needing alternative options to the ‘normal’ classroom.
According to Jenny, generally the FLO students have a negative educational experience and present with multiple and complex needs.
“Managing the FLO students both on-campus and off-campus and supporting their social, emotional and educational needs is a highly challenging task,” she said.
“Our approach focuses on relationship building, mutual respect, communication and collaboration not only with the students, but with their parents/caregivers, the school and the wider community.
“Collaboration of this kind has helped to empower our young people through the development of personal leadership skills, restorative practice and positive connection in their community.”
Jenny’s background is not unlike many of the students at FLO; a challenging upbringing and lack of respect for the education system saw her feeling disconnected and unable to trust those in authority. Ironically, but with the support of community mentors, Jenny returned to school to complete her Year 12 so that she could embark on a career as a police officer in the Australian Federal Police. A commendation for her services to the community tells us of her character, but this past is certainly no link to her current role.
Jenny admits that her career in the police force was always going to be limited as she spent more time trying to rehabilitate the offenders she worked with and did not advocate the traditional punitive model.
Her methodologies at FLO are based on the Restorative Practice model that cultivates a society based on participation and mutual self reliance, and where young people take greater responsibility for their own lives.
This theory rests upon a fundamental hypothesis that “… people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”
Jenny speaks in glowing terms of the team approach, the support at FLO from teachers, case managers and administrative staff, the valuable partnership with Mission Australia and particularly the relationship with VHHS through its dynamic principal, Amanda O’Shea, and its caring staff.
“It’s wonderful to know that there are so many people in our school community that genuinely care for the students’ wellbeing and future,” Jenny said. “Their commitment to help our young people is remarkable, to say the least.”
Jenny’s resume also includes working as a Team Leader for Operation Flinders, a wonderful character-finding program set in our spectacular Far North.
“My work with the Foundation has enabled me connect to with young people in a wilderness setting,” she said. “We are able to take young people out of their comfort zones – this fosters resilience, strength and grit.
“The relationships we forge in this environment assists them to understand that they do not need to be defined by their circumstances, that who they become in life is who they chose to be.”
Powerful stuff, and the FLO program is equally meaningful and vital when a young, seemingly lost soul, discovers what the person values most from life.
Now in her fourth year leading the VHHS FLO program, Jenny realises the need to offer something outside of the usual school curriculum will continue to increase.
“Schools across the state care about the problems with disengaged youth and are committed to understanding and addressing the complexities that surround this issue,” Jenny said.
“FLO offers a different and alternative solution to learning in mainstream classrooms. At FLO we are able to address their barriers to learning and adjust the programs content so that the young person finds meaning and relevance.
“All our students come to FLO with gaps in their education. I personally meet with every student, their family and/or their carers. Together we discuss what FLO can offer, what their expectations are of FLO and how we are going to work together to achieve their education and social goals.
“The students are all assessed by the FLO teachers and this gives us a platform to tailor make a suitable learning plan for them. We do not work on year levels here, but rather on a student’s ability. We ensure that each young person will flourish and knows what it feels like to be successful.”
VHHS FLO boasts a 95 per cent attendance rate at programs and 98% attendance rates for case management. VHHS FLO’s recent wellbeing survey strongly indicates an increase in student welling by 86%.
However, a crisis is not uncommon in this Victoria Street building, and there are setbacks, but each time Jenny reminds herself of the magnificent achievements of the students themselves. The young people know that the staff will advocate, support and help them find solutions to any problem they face.
FLO staff are experts in relationships and student engagement. There are many opportunities for FLO to celebrate student accomplishments – successes are acknowledged daily, weekly, monthly, termly and annually. Students receive merit awards, accolades, certificates and gold stars – this is referred to as ‘results-based accountability’ and FLO staff continually challenge the students to reach the goals they set.
Apart from SACE and literacy and numeracy, FLO offers programs relating to health, cooking, Learners permit workshops, construction, woodwork, community gardening, music, yoga, sport and recreation, dog handling, social enterprise, student voice, barista training, career development and art.
Every Wednesday the cooking program students create café quality meals and all staff and students sit together for a shared lunch. This fosters connection and belonging, a feeling of being valued and worthy. The students also get to enjoy a healthy meal cooked by their peers.
It is here where FLO needs our support – the team would be grateful for donations of the food staples like flour, pasta, rice, free range eggs.
Jenny and her team have developed many community partnerships that have supported their students and programs. Rotary Encounter Bay donated a number of laptops supplied, at a reduced price by local business Quik Fix, the Fleurieu Foundation donated $1500 worth of target vouchers two years running, ADRA continues to deliver food hampers each term to make sure these young people have a decent meal, while South Coast Realty provides water bottles for the sport and recreation programs and the always-generous Fleurieu Milk Company donates an incredible amount of milk so these young people can learn the craft of coffee making in order to seek local employment as a barista.
There are numerous heart-warming stories, and Jenny spoke of one of the parents of a student who commenced at FLO this year. The parent contacted her and expressed her disbelief at how her son had already changed so much in only one day at FLO; how the family enjoyed a conversation at the dinner table for the first time with their excited son.
“There have been so many feel good stories that come from this program,” Jenny said. “I genuinely love my job and love coming to work. I wake up every day and know that I am doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. I am constantly inspired by the young people I work with, and I am humbled at being given the opportunity of making a difference in their lives.”
“I am just so proud of so many of our young people, and as an example there is one of our young mums who was embroiled in so much conflict… in her own words angry at life. But she told me she wanted to be a good role model for her daughter.
“We said part of that was about her education and realising her dream to become a nurse. She knew she had a lot of work to do but she was so determined and persistent so we made a plan and continued to work toward this plan together over two years. This hard work saw her completing the Foundation Students Course at Flinders Uni last year and she has now been accepted to study full-time at Flinders and is well on her way to realising her dream of becoming a registered nurse.
“Accompanying her to her cap and gown ceremony was one of the most memorable and humbling experiences of my career. It has been a privilege to walk alongside this wonderful young woman and witness her success.”
There are no miracle workers here, just people with the ability to assist young people to see a clearer picture of what life could be if they chose to take control of their lives. And some say that no one cares about these kids. Thank God they do.
If you would like further information about the program, or how you can help please contact Jenny Vonic-Joyce on 0401 655 757.