There is one woman in the community who cares endlessly about those around her. She fights for the rights and betterment of the people in her charge day in and day out. She is by their side, championing their cause, while empowering them to take control of their lives and achieve great things. Her latest endeavour has been to educate not just the community but the world in a heartfelt TED Talk at TEDxLangleyED, where she recently spoke of the thing she is most passionate about — her students.
Sandy Balascak is the principal at ACE, a role she was born to play and one she cultivated, as she found her way to the alternate school in Agassiz, where she has been transforming lives, since she began in 2007.
“My number one mission in life is to change everyone’s perception of these kids, and so if I can get tons of people viewing it, I’m likely to reach more people — the more people I get knowing about it, the more I can get people to see what these kids are capable of,” she said.
Sandy will be teaching a course on the subject at UFV this summer, called, “Problem youth versus youth with problems.” She will also be teaching an adult conference in May which will have an emphasis on the adult portion but the alternate will still come into it.
“We mix our alternate kids with our adults because we can — we don’t have to keep them separate from the adults because they’re “bad kids” and we have to keep them over there…everything I do is going to have that theme to it, that there’s no such thing as problem youth, just youth with problems.”
Sandy’s talk is 18 minutes long, which is no small feat, but it was a labour of love for the principal who has a background in standup comedy.
“Eighteen minutes for me to talk is not really a big problem, especially when I’m talking about my school, but when it’s something that’s more structured like that it’s a lot of preparation because you have to remember things in order,” she said. “It was a lot of work to prepare.”
Sandy acknowledged that even though she has a lot of experience with public speaking for the first time in a long time she was terrified.
“It was the idea of a permanent video on the net,” she said. “When it’s on video people are going to remember what you said.”
The Thursday before she gave her talk, Sandy, admitted that she was “quite ready to back out” but a cooler head prevailed and she got on stage and gave one heck of a talk.
“The kids were coming and even though there was a part of me that wanted to back out I had already made the commitment,” she told The Observer.
During the first couple of minutes of the speech Sandy was nervous but she continued on despite the shakes and a few rough edges.
“From the video you don’t really get the energy of the audience but there was a point a couple minutes in that they laughed at something I said and then I kind of got into it after that,” she said.
Sandy was met twice with applause during her talk, and she had to stop speaking until it subsided, which was a surprise for the dedicated principal.
Sandy was also surprised to learn that she received a standing ovation, which she could not see due to the lighting.
“There were a lot of tweets coming through after the performance — a lot of people told me that it brought tears to their eyes which was really cool.”
Sandy’s commitment to her students comes from an understanding that stems from someone who considered herself an alternate kid.
“A lot of what I do is because I was an alternate kid, or I should have been, there were no alternate schools in those days…and I did fall through the cracks because they tried to push me through a mainstream system and because that was the only real option back in those days.”
The negative experience that Sandy had in school propelled her forward in her chosen field, and she wanted to change things from within the system.
“I say to my students — don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” she said. “If you don’t like something, don’t just complain about it — go do something about it.”
Sandy, got her start in mainstream schools and ended up working with a lot of the alternate bound, at risk youth, who just happened to frequent her classes.
“I developed a knack for it and then I decided to apply for the position here…I sort of evolved into my role here at ACE, I didn’t necessarily plan for it,” she said.
Originally, Sandy, intended to make a difference in the mainstream system, this was before the inception of alternate schools.
Once she found out about them, she honed in on ACE, and she’s been with the school for over a decade. The school has seen many challenges around stigma, but under Sandy’s guidance, new partnerships within the community have brought an understanding and awareness about the school and its students, who according to Sandy are exceptionally bright.
Sandy will help nurture their talents, skills, and strengths and get them headed on the right path while supporting them in a family-like atmosphere. The students are generally at ease with each other, so much so they can joke about and banter like siblings at times, according to Sandy.
Initially, when they moved the alternate program to Agassiz, some members of the community fought it, but it’s come a long way with the hard work and dedication of both staff, students, and of course Sandy’s determination.
“The kids are the greatest reward and seeing how far they’ve come and what lightbulbs have gone on for them as adults, that’s the number one reason I do what I do.”