Jesse Costucci doesn't go into detail about the troubles of her adolescence, but the little she does say tells plenty: She was overweight, teased and depressed. In and out of maybe 10 foster homes, she was listless – and her attitude and grades reflected that.
"I hated basically everything," the 17-year-old said recently, "including myself."
Two years ago, desperate for change, Ms. Costucci signed up for Grade 10 of the Streetfront Alternative Program at Britannia Secondary. Based out of two adjoined portables behind the East Vancouver school, Streetfront caters to students who for whatever reason – family issues, mental-health challenges, learning disabilities, involvement in the criminal justice system – struggle in a traditional classroom setting.
Led by a teacher, a youth and family worker and a student-support worker, Streetfront's 22 students run up to 10 kilometres three times each week and spend about 35 of the 190 school days in an outdoor environment. Out of a five-block school day, two will typically be physical and three academic: English, math, science, etc. The program is built on the belief that the same discipline required in strenuous physical activity – training and completing a marathon, for example – translates in an academic setting.
It was a rough start for Ms. Costucci, who "hated running with a passion" and threw up during one of her first 10-kilometre runs. But with the constant encouragement of Trevor Stokes, Streetfront teacher and Alternative Programs department head, she got better; she's since run four full marathons – and made it on to the honour roll at John Oliver Secondary.
"I never thought I would be able to run 10K, let alone a full marathon," she said at a recent "celebration of success" at the school, during which she wore her medals proudly. "And I was the first girl [at Streetfront] to do that."
The small class size also allows for greater personal attention to a vulnerable population. When Ms. Costucci's mother died two days before the woman's birthday, Mr. Stokes brought in a birthday cake to celebrate his student's mom. He also attended her funeral, Ms. Costucci said.
Frankie Joseph says he joined Streetfront at 13, after logging more than 100 absences in Grade 8 and a flustered vice-principal urged him to look elsewhere. Mr. Joseph, now 19, said he felt confident academically at the time, but just wasn't at all interested in a traditional classroom setting.
Regarding his first 10K just a couple of weeks into the program, Mr. Joseph recalled how he nearly threw up and wanted to quit, but Mr. Stokes kept pushing him, talking to him the entire run.
"There is something about perseverance that drives me – getting to the point where you feel like you can't do it any more, but you do it anyway," he said. "When you take that principle of perseverance, you can apply it to so many different areas of life, where you say, 'This is difficult. This is overwhelming.' But you push through anyway."
He has since run 10 marathons and recently finished missionary work in both India and Mexico.
Streetfront's next goal is to send 18 students to Tanzania next spring to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. For many, the trip will be their first time not only out of country, but out of Metro Vancouver. The "Street2Peak" trip will cost about $6,000 per student, and the program has already fundraised more than $100,000.
"It's analogous to what we're already doing at Streetfront," Mr. Stokes said. "We don't climb small things, we don't run small races."
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