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Jacqueline Sanderlin, who works in Los Angeles’ Compton and Inglewood school districts, says digital resources are having a positive impact on these communities.JILL CONNELLY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

There was little in Jacqueline Sanderlin’s formal training that prepared her for the “gang gauntlets” outside elementary schools, the entrenched poverty and the high number of students in foster care when she embarked on a career in the underserved Compton and Inglewood school districts, located south of Los Angeles. So she improvised.

Sanderlin has worked with gang members to teach students how to choose better outcomes.

Visiting chefs have taught the children how to grow fruit and vegetables in school gardens. And she has enlisted business leaders as mentors to the young “scholars,” as she calls them. With every new post, the educator, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership and administration, went door-to-door introducing herself as the new principal and asking how the local public school could best serve its students. The communities rallied.

Parents and foster parents became invaluable advisers. She recruited business partners, who donated time and millions of dollars in art supplies, musical instruments, electronics and books.

Sanderlin’s transformative methods have been featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in the Los Angeles Times. “I had to do something; I had to be creative,” she says.

Now, after 30 years as a teacher, principal and school district administrator in Southern California, Sanderlin is applying her infectious enthusiasm to a new mission as educational ambassador for an innovative North American program called WE Teachers.

WE Teachers, developed under the auspice of the WE organization, is an online program that gives participating teachers free access to expertise and strategies that will equip them to address critical social issues with their students. “It’s a game changer,” Sanderlin says.

When teachers enrol on, digital training modules on youth violence, poverty, diversity and inclusion, bullying and mental health are at their fingertips. Webinars are in the works, and there will also be virtual office hours, where teachers can engage with specialists and peers on issues particular to their own students and classrooms.

Sanderlin says these resources are desperately needed, especially given the steady erosion of psychological and social work support services in school systems across North America. “We [educators] were kind of just thrown into situations where a lot of our students face these critical social issues [that get in the way of learning], yet we were never really trained.”

To address the complex array of issues affecting students, educators first have to understand them. “I found out that for some of those gang members who were involved in youth violence…it was their way of survival in these communities. That’s where they lived, that’s where they grew up. And they didn’t have the luxury of moving. I had to accept it and work with them,” she explains.

This knowledge underscored how important it was for Sanderlin and her colleagues to “empower our youth” and open their eyes to the range of options available to them. They endeavoured to establish their schools as “safe havens,” where students could focus, learn and think big about what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Why not?”

Sanderlin urged her students. “Why not you?”

At the same time, the hope was that students would feel comfortable enough to talk about issues that were affecting them, and that teachers could offer support. A key goal of WE Teachers is to foster “a more resilient classroom.”

In Sanderlin’s schools, students also needed schooling in how to conduct themselves outside of their tough neighbourhoods. “I started a program called Gentleman Scholars. The whole purpose was to teach them that they didn’t have to be violent.” Community partners came in to show students how to knot a tie. They were taught the beneficial impact “of being a gentleman.” A concierge from the Beverly Hilton, in Beverly Hills, Calif., coached them on etiquette, and once a year, for several years, Sanderlin’s gentleman scholars – dressed in their Sunday best – were given the red-carpet treatment at a posh L.A. prime rib house.

As the WE Teachers program rolls out, teachers will have an expanded forum to compare notes and post lesson plans on what worked for them and might work for others.

“It warms my heart to know that now we’re going to have a platform to share strategies like that.”

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