A new vision for native education

After finding that aboriginal students weren’t graduating at the same rates as other students in Wild Rose Public Schools, administrators partnered with the Rocky Mountain House Common Ground Initiative and the Rocky Native Friendship Centre to create a program to help them.

Grade 4 student Jesse Fillmore holds an arrow during a presentation at John Wilson Elementary School. The students learn about aboriginal stories and artifacts from Iris Loewen

Grade 4 student Jesse Fillmore holds an arrow during a presentation at John Wilson Elementary School. The students learn about aboriginal stories and artifacts from Iris Loewen

After finding that aboriginal students weren’t graduating at the same rates as other students in Wild Rose Public Schools, administrators partnered with the Rocky Mountain House Common Ground Initiative and the Rocky Native Friendship Centre to create a program to help them.

Louise Russell, Common Ground community development facilitator, said in the past an aboriginal young person having difficulty in school would have to sit in on an attendance board or talk to the school board and it could be highly intimidating.

So Russell brought forward the idea of having a Vision Circle, which would gather prominent First Nations people in the areas of mental health, addictions, corrections and children’s services, as well as a school division representative, to meet with the student and their family to talk about what directions and strategies they can use to improve their lives. Russell said it is believed that these initiatives will be taken seriously by the students because they will be coming from their own people.

During the summer, young people will help create the space where the Vision Circles will take place at the Rocky Native Friendship Centre, adding their artwork to the space.

“The outcome of this is enhancing not only the quality of education for the aboriginal youth, but enhancing the quality of life for aboriginal youth within our community,” Russell said. She said it will affect not only the youth, but the family and the school.

Kathy Murch, director of student services for Wild Rose, said they will look at the child as a whole and make sure the student receives the support he or she needs.

Students involved in the Vision Circle will have the issues they are facing assessed, create goals and bring supports and closure to the situation. There will be bi-weekly home visits with an outreach worker to work with the client or family and the opportunity for families to go to cultural ceremonies, sweats and other culturally significant functions.

“I guess my ideal is that if we do it right, then the kids are engaged in their learning and stay there and are able to complete high school and manage all of the issues they are dealing with appropriately and they are able to be successful,” Murch said. She wants to ensure that the students aren’t just successful in school, but in life.

As part of the work, the division did a forum for aboriginal students and has plans to create a youth action group to help improve things in Wild Rose schools for aboriginal youth.

School divisions around Central Alberta have worked on initiatives to help aboriginal youth.

The Red Deer Public School District runs the Aboriginal Family and School Frontline Program, which has been underway for a couple of decades. The program now serves students both in Red Deer Public and Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division schools, with three teachers and two educational assistants in close to 40 schools helping students in a variety of ways.

Around 770 students out of close to 10,000 in Red Deer Public self-identify as aboriginal and 300 out of 6,000 students in the Catholic division do.

“We have recognized not just in our district, but across the province that there are aboriginal students who have not achieved at the same level. There is a gap in achievement between First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and non-aboriginal students. We have always been working on that and done a variety of programs,” said Bruce Buruma, director of community relations with Red Deer Public.

He said in the past the program has provided many cultural experiences for all of the students in the district, but is undergoing a bit of a shift this year. In the past school year, Alberta Education has put First Nation, Métis and Inuit student achievement as one of the goals for school divisions. The goal looks at measurable criteria, such as provincial achievement test results, diploma exams, high school completion, Rutherford Scholarship eligibility and transition rate to post-secondary education.

“I think one of the biggest opportunities we have to improve the success of aboriginal students is to engage with the community, to engage with parents and much of that has to happen at a school level. When I look at the Aboriginal Frontline Program, we are there as a service and a support,” Buruma said.

The staff will do presentations at the schools connecting curriculum across all grade levels and subject areas to look at the infusion of aboriginal perspectives in each of the courses of study, Buruma said. Red Deer Public launched its Aboriginal 10 course open to students in both Catholic and public school divisions this year through the Outreach School Centre.

“It’s really important for all students to have an appreciation and an understanding of First Nations people and aboriginal people,” Buruma said. He said it means there will be better understanding in schools and the community.

Paul Stewart, associate superintendent of student services with the Red Deer Catholic, said it’s a matter of getting students the help they need, whether it is academic or learning more about their culture. Programs such as a drumming club at St. Teresa of Avila School, funded through the First Nation, Métis and Inuit funding, as well as money from the parent council and school, have allowed all students at the school to enjoy a cultural experience.

“We have workers that are so aware of the culture that they can meet the students in their places of everyday life. They can look at a holistic lifelong learning with the students and experiential learning. Having aboriginal frontline lets us meet these students where they’re at and in their culture,” Stewart said.

In Chinook’s Edge School Division, Iris Loewen, co-ordinator for FNMI programs and the library co-ordinator for the division, has compiled resources for teachers to learn about aboriginal culture, as well as offering sessions with students herself. There are 400 to 450 students in Chinook’s Edge who identify as aboriginal.

In one project, Loewen collected First Nations artifacts, including bison hides, bone tools, jewelry and toys that students can examine while wearing white gloves. Students get to guess what the artifacts might have been used for before doing more in-depth study. Before they get to see the tools, Loewen will share a number of First Nations stories with them. She has created a wiki, a special website for teachers, expounding on the items and culture for teachers who can also use the artifact kit with their students.

Loewen consults with elders and other First Nations people, as well as reading extensively, to learn about aboriginal culture and how First Nations people wish to be understood and represented.

In the Wolf Creek Public Schools, there are 325 students who identify as being of First Nations, Métis or Inuit background. The division has three FNMI liaison workers and educational assistants that provide academic support for students who help the connect the students to the school environment, said Wanda Christensen, assistant superintendent of student services with Wolf Creek.

“They play a supportive role and work in the FNMI community to help facilitate communication and correspondence between the school and family,” Christensen said. “The attendance of our FNMI students has increased due to this type of intervention.”

sobrien@bprda.wpengine.com