Caledonia Regional High School teacher Benjamin Kelly and prinicipal Donna Godfrey.

Caledonia Regional High School is a small secondary school in Hillsborough, New Brunswick, with approximately 310 students enrolled in grades 6 through 12. Set in a beautiful and rural setting, the school welcomes students from the communities of Hillsborough, Riverside-Albert and Alma in addition to all the communities from Stoney Creek to Fundy National Park.

Like many rural schools, Caledonia Regional High School’s community has few entertainment options for its older students who are permitted to leave the school campus during lunchtime. The local gas station across the street had become the most popular hangout and this was becoming a problem as some students would spend their lunchtime there smoking. It was also a prime place for students who were non-smokers to pick up the habit.

“Students who love physical activity and are on our school’s teams tended to hang out at the gym during lunch hour,” explains Benjamin Kelly a teacher at Caledonia Regional High School. “The more studious would spend their time at the library. But that left a pretty large majority of students who were bored at lunchtime and would often leave the school’s grounds. They’d grab a quick lunch and head to the most popular hangout – the gas station across the street – where most would smoke or make other unhealthy choices.”

Kelly knew boredom and a lack of stimulating activities leads teenagers to make unhealthy choices. “We truly saw a problem with smoking rates among our student population. Smoking was, in most cases, related to boredom. When kids hang out with no purpose, smoking becomes the cool thing to do. Get them busy and having fun and there is no need to smoke!”

He thus came up with the idea of setting up a fun, safe and healthy space inside the school where the students would want to hang out during lunch hour instead of leaving the school’s grounds. This room became the Smart Choices Centre.

“If the students can’t leave the school grounds, they obviously cannot smoke, as smoking is prohibited inside the school,” he explains. “It makes it easier for the students not to be exposed to smoking and other unhealthy behaviours.”

In order to make the room become a reality, Benjamin Kelly, with approval from school principal Donna Godfrey, applied for a Take Action Against Tobacco Use Grant from the Department of Social Development. This grant program provides up to $5,000 to support community-led initiatives to increase tobacco-free living, strengthen community action with an emphasis on youth-led initiatives, partnerships and comprehensive actions.

“The Smart Choices Centre has comfy couches, games, even an Xbox entertainment system,” says Kelly. “There is a music system. Students play songs from their smartphones and MP3 players or stream them online. They sing along. Some read. Some play games. We’ve also invested a bit of money into a green screen so that room can be used as a creative space during off hours. Some kids come in and use it for video and photography projects. The room has a cool atmosphere and our students just love hanging out there.”

Kelly goes on to add that one of the greatest additions to the room is not, as one would expect, the Xbox entertainment system, but chess sets. “Some of the students play chess daily. We often see two chess players playing a match with 10 or so students watching them. How great is that? The students are learning, practicing their math skills, being healthy and having fun!”

To reinforce the room’s healthy choices and tobacco-free message, Caledonia Regional High School sought a partnership with its local Sobeys Pharmacy for its Smart Choices Centre. “They gave us informational brochures and resources, which we keep in the room. These cover topics like how to avoid smoking, facts about tobacco, and how to quit smoking. I often see students picking up and reading these brochures.”

Kelly volunteers 300 minutes per week to supervise the students in the room. “I make sure the room is open and available during recess, lunchtimes and a bit during afterschool hours. I sit quietly in the back and observe. I want the students to be comfortable and to feel like this is their room. I’m not there to impose anything.”

The Smart Choices Centre was launched on September 10, 2015. Kelly says that right off the bat, student participation was high, with 20% of middle school students and 20% of high school students coming in daily to spend their lunch hour break. “We’re reaching 40% of our student population; basically the percentage we used to see head outside the school’s grounds.”

He adds: “At first we saw mostly girls coming into the room. But we soon saw that the fact that girls were hanging out in the room also brought in the boys. The students are still at that age where the boys and girls mostly keep to themselves, the boys are shy and don’t want to talk to the girls, but they do want to be around them. So they’ll hang out in the room and show off their skills on the Xbox video games. It has become the cool place for students to spend their lunch hour. Many students have told me: This is the most awesome space ever! ”

According to Kelly, the Smart Choice Centre has not only been beneficial in reducing student exposure to smoking, but it has also been beneficial for students who use to have a lot of behavior issues. The space keeps them busy and entertained instead of bored and acting out. The Smart Choices Centre is also very inclusive. It is open to special needs students, and all age groups mingle.

“So far, it has been tremendously positive for our school,” says Kelly. “And the community is glowing about this initiative too.”

Kelly says the school is already looking at ways to increase space as the students have expressed a need for more seating in the room. “The space is built to fit 18 students. We often see 30 to 35 on any given day. We’re looking for ways to expand.

The genius behind the Smart Choices Centre is that the anti-tobacco message is perceived and understood by students, without having to be aggressive. Choosing not to smoke gives students an immediate reward or advantage over those who do not make healthy choices. “I always close the door after the first half hour of the lunch period. Students who don’t get in the room before this time – which is when smokers usually go outside for a smoke – are not able to hang out in the room. It encourages smokers or youth who might venture outside the school grounds and be exposed to peer pressure about smoking to make a choice – go outside and smoke or stay inside this cool room. We do have about 3 or 4 smokers right now who are regulars in the Smart Choices Centre and choose to spend their lunch hour there instead of going outside to smoke. Hopefully, this will also encourage them to quit smoking altogether.”

Kelly notes that the students have even started to police themselves. “I remember this one occasion when a student came in the room smelling of cigarette smoke. The other students quickly told him that he was not allowed to come into the room smelling like cigarette smoke. They told him that the room is an anti-smoking and healthy choices space and reserved for those who make the right choices. The student wanted to be in the room and explained that he would never smoke; the smoke smell came from his house, because his mother is a smoker. They agreed that he should leave his jacket in his locker, so not to bring in the smell of smoke into the room, and he was then welcomed with open arms by the other students. The inclusiveness and acceptance of his peers over his declaration of not wanting ever to become a smoker will surely make this boy want to remain smoke-free.”

Kelly says there are now lots of interest from other staff members in the Smart Choices Centre project. While he remains the supervisor of the project for now, duties could easily be shared with other teachers. The key is to give the students a lot of leeway so that they feel like they have ownership of the room and how they use it – so long as they are healthy as well as polite and considerate of each other. This ensures that the room remains attractive to students – the “it” place where everyone wants to hang out – turning peer pressure for once into a very positive thing – reinforcing the anti-tobacco and healthy choices message.

“Tobacco is a gateway drug,” says Kelly. “If we can stop the students from becoming addicted to nicotine, then we are also helping to model healthy behaviours for other areas of their lives.”

Bravo Caledonia Regional High School!

Photos and story used with permission from Caledonia Regional High School

Published in March 2016

By Nathalie Landry – NBATC Communications Coordinator