First Nation child attending ceremony at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

Amidst the Big City, an Aboriginal Public School?

Katie Hyslop, The Tyee.ca
1/5/12

Vancouver's school board sees potential in a school designed from curriculum up to appeal to urban First Nations youth. Fourth in a series.

[Editor's note: British Columbia's failure to meet the educational needs of its fastest-growing demographic dooms thousands of its youth to a needless struggle for employment and elevated risks of addiction and imprisonment. In this series produced by Tyee Solutions Society, Katie Hyslop has looked at some inspiring models of independent and public schools putting First Nations culture at the heart of their teaching activity. But will the same idea work as well in the Lower Mainland? In this installment, Hyslop explores conflicting views of a plan to open Vancouver's first Aboriginal focus school.]

Chrystal Tabobandung is typical of most Canadians with Aboriginal heritage. The 31-year-old mother left her home, the Wasauksing First Nation reserve near Parry Sound, Ontario, at the age of 19 to pursue a higher education—first in Toronto and then Vancouver.

According to the 2006 Census, more than half of Canadians who identify themselves as Aboriginal lived in urban areas. Almost a third were under 15, but their median age was 31—the same as Tabobandung. And like her, most moved from remote birthplaces in search of education, jobs, or the services and amenities of city living.

Although her two biological children were raised in the big city, Tabobandung is also mothering her partner's three kids. They have a background similar to her own: living on an even more remote Ontario reserve from 2007 until 2010. Their rural schooling put them behind in reading and writing, an issue they share with many kids who leave rural areas for the big city.

But Tabobandung believes in their abilities and knows with hard work they will catch up. At the kids' Vancouver public school, she finds, the "teachers are dedicated to working with them to bring them up to grade, to where their reading and writing skills should be." In fact, Tabobandung says that for all her children, who range in age from eight to 15, "[I have] very consistent and open communication with the teachers. We put a plan in place and we work together to ensure the success of the children's academics in the classroom."

Vancouver is touted as one of the more culturally diverse cities in the country. Its Aboriginal population is no different: people from First Nations across the province and the country live here. This multi-cultural heritage is one reality making it difficult to provide the kind of culturally focused education found in reserve schools like Chief Atahm or in smaller public districts such as Haida Gwaii. The Aboriginal community is physically spread out, too, with over 40,000 families living in cities throughout the Lower Mainland identifying themselves as First Nations.

Nonetheless the Vancouver School Board (VSB) thinks the answer may lie in a one-of-a-kind Aboriginal school designed from the curriculum up to reflect an Aboriginal world-view. Proposed in early 2010, the school would adopt the principles of the district's much-lauded Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement with local First Nations, be taught by Aboriginal and Aboriginal-aware teachers, and involve parents, elders and community in the decision-making process.

For all its apparent wish-list features though, the Vancouver Aboriginal School has met a mixed response. Some Aboriginal parents welcome any alternative to the public system's long-standing failure to meet their community's academic needs. Others simply appreciate the District's efforts to involve the Aboriginal community in every step of its planning.

But not everyone's a fan. Where admirers see special attention, others see segregation. They fear the effects on children's socialization if they are removed from the reality of one of the most multicultural cities in the country and offered a ghettoized educational experience with students only like themselves and an academic system that expects less of them.

Aboriginals are far from the first demographic in British Columbia to envision a school dedicated to a specific history and culture. French and Mandarin immersion classes are already held in public schools. Independent and private schools represent a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, from Catholic and Evangelical Christian, to Sikh, Muslim and Jewish schools—all partly funded by taxpayers. Likewise, parents have long debated whether it's better to teach children within their traditional culture, hopefully preserving a sense of identity and passing on cultural knowledge, or to integrate them within the larger society through a public-school education.

For Aboriginal students, a difficult choice has been made even harder. With less than 50 percent of Aboriginal kids in Vancouver schools graduating each year, it is old news to parents or teachers that something needs to change.

But with B.C.'s last residential school having closed its doors in British Columbia only 25 years ago, and years of government promises to improve Aboriginal academic outcomes having come to little, it's understandable that First Nations and Métis parents are at best cautiously optimistic about an Aboriginal-focused school, and at worst entirely against it.

Lower graduation rates in the big city

Big city life comes with big city problems. Lynda Gray, executive director of Vancouver's Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) , sees these issues first-hand in the roughly 7,000 Aboriginal youth who come through her doors each year. The association's office, in the heart of the Strathcona neighbourhood, is just blocks from social housing projects Gray says are filled with First Nations families. "In the city, our kids have much higher rates of extreme poverty, more homelessness, more going to school on empty stomachs," says Gray. "If they don't have money to catch a bus and they have to go to school 20 blocks away, then they either have to walk or they get there two hours late."

Urban poverty isn't unique to Aboriginals, nor is it the reality for all indigenous families in Vancouver. But a lack of representation in curriculum, the absence of indigenous faces among staff and teachers, a not-so-distant history of colonization and in many cases family legacies of forced assimilation in residential schools, are uniquely challenging for Aboriginal students, their parents and the teachers who would like to see them flourish.

Gray's case for enhancing Aboriginal content in schools has as much to do with correcting the collective record of our country's experience, as with improving individual grades. "As the first people of this country, it's really important that our reality, and the true history of how that country was formed up until present day, should be reflected in the curriculum, so that [it's] not whitewashed from history," she says. "And most kids are socialized in school. If we're invisible there, we tend to be invisible everywhere else."

Gray estimates the high school graduation rate for Aboriginals in Vancouver to be as low as 20 percent. The school board says it's drifted between 32 and 46 percent over the past decade, ending nearer the low end of that range at 35 percent in 2008–09. But even the board's relatively generous estimate of the graduation rate of Vancouver-area Aboriginals is significantly lower than that for B.C. as a whole—itself an unimpressive 50 percent.

Gray supports the idea of an Aboriginal school mainly by default: in an effort of generations where everything else has failed, a single-purpose school is at least something that hasn't been tried. Something that might, at last, work.

"Anything that provides equal opportunity for our kids to learn in a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment is a good thing," she says, adding that she's 'cautiously optimistic' about the idea and the school board's implementation of it. "[But] it must have meaningful input from the First Nations community on the planning, development and implementation. Meaningful, in that we're involved at every level."

Scott Clark has been heavily involved in the public education movement as well as the urban Aboriginal community. He acts as spokesperson for both the Alliance of Parents and Partners to Lobby for Education in British Columbia (APPLE BC), a group of public education activists that sprang up last fall during the Save Our Schools movement, and Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement (ALIVE), a non-profit organization working to improve the lives of urban Aboriginals.

A father of three whose youngest is entering Grade 4 this year, Clark attended both the board's school closure meetings and some of the Aboriginal focus school meetings. He was impressed with how well the board engaged the community's views, especially over school closures. "I think the Vancouver School Board model of community consultation really set a new benchmark for how governments should work, because they set up a really dynamic process where, for the first week, they went to each of the schools in the evening time and provided the information, and really allowed the community members to discuss their concerns and raise their issues," says Clark.

In considering the new Aboriginal focus school, he adds, the board, "did another pretty intensive consultation process with community members, parents, stakeholders like teachers and other professionals. And from that point they made the decision to proceed on creating an Aboriginal working group on what an Aboriginal school/comprehensive strategy for the district would look like."

Aboriginal consultation in education 'critical': VSB

This isn't the school district's first flirtation with an Aboriginal-focused school. A similar idea was floated in 1995 but lost steam over fears there weren't enough Aboriginal students to attend or sufficient parental support. The district's First Nation and Métis student population, roughly 2,000 kids, hasn't changed. But the district believes their parents have come round to the proposal.

In January the district revisited the idea of a "focus school," holding four forums with students, parents, community members and district staff. A total of 167 people attended at least one forum, offering feedback and suggestions for the school. The VSB recruited UBC Education Prof. Jo-ann Archibald to both facilitate the forums and write a final report. (The Tyee Solutions Society tried to contact Archibald for an interview, but was unsuccessful.)

The report outlines the Aboriginal view of a holistic education, one which forum members suggested the school should adopt. This view takes into account the spiritual, recognizing connections between the land, people, culture and learning; the emotional, where positive feelings and empowerment are just as important as good grades; the physical, referring to governance structure and decision making as well as physical fitness and health; and the intellectual, devising a new curriculum that meets academic standards but includes Aboriginal history and culture taught through an Aboriginal lens.

The public citizens who attended the forums held strong views that enrollment in such a school should be voluntary, and open to non-Aboriginal students too. They also requested a new, Aboriginal-inclusive curriculum for the entire district.

Since then, the VSB has hired a liaison worker to reach out to the Aboriginal community. It's establishing a working group of community members, parents, students and district stakeholders to set short and long-term goals for the school's development. And it's set a target: the aim is to open the school's doors—on a grade range yet to be decided—by September of 2012.

"Aboriginal education is a high priority for the board," says VSB Superintendent Steve Cardwell. "And we are doing a number of strong directions with respect to our Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement and this further enhances that direction."

And Cardwell appears to share at least one of Gray's concerns for the school proposal: "It's critical for us to continue consultation with the Aboriginal community as we move forward."

'Something less'

For Ontario transplant Tabobandung, living on the border of the Mount Pleasant and Strathcona neighbourhoods just blocks away from Queen Alex and Britannia schools, both have been a part of her community in every sense of the word. She's been actively involved since she joined the Parent Advisory Council at her kids' school, Queen Alexandria Elementary, three years ago.

Since then Tabobandung has also served on the board of APPLE BC, and was active in last fall's Save Our Schools campaign to keep five Vancouver community schools open, sharing the microphone with NDP MLAs Jenny Kwan and David Chudnovsky, the latter also a former president of the BC Teachers' Federation.

But Tabobandung was disturbed when her eldest's new school, Britannia Secondary, suggested her daughter be transferred to an alternative program because of behavioural problems. Tabobandung says the school had previously tried to deal with the issue within the normal classroom, until they found out her daughter was native. Fair-skinned with a non-Aboriginal last name, Tabobandung claims her teachers previously thought her daughter was Caucasian. But Tabobandug claims when they found out she was native, they suggested she join the 8J/9J alternative program for inner city youth who experience difficulties in mainstream schooling.

"I would say probably 65–75 percent of the Aboriginal youth that go to Britannia, [it is] suggested that that's the preferred program for them," says Tabobandung, who disagrees with the whole idea of separating Aboriginal kids from others. "I'm very skeptical about [Britannia's] socialization of Aboriginal kids," she says.

Tabobandung and her partner decided the segregated program wasn't the answer for their daughter, feeling the school only suggested the program to her because of her Aboriginal heritage. She doesn't believe an entire school for Aboriginal children is the answer, either. "My concern would be we are living in a multicultural, vast, society," she says. "And if in high school we subject our youth to only being taught in a First Nations environment, they will never learn the social skills to interact with other races."

Sherry Small, program director for the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, echoes Tabobandung's experience—and her skepticism of 'alternative' education streams. Small's two daughters, part First Nations, part African-American, both experienced difficulty in school. But Small claims it wasn't until teachers learned they were half native that remedial programs were suggested.

Emphasizing that her views don't represent the centre she works for, Small accuses the district of systematically diverting First Nations and Métis youth into second-class education. "I guarantee you," says Small, "that the school system is offering our children—as soon as they find out they're Aboriginal—something less."

It's not an uncommon view in Vancouver's Aboriginal community. Some parents who attended VSB's aboriginal school forums admitted to not identifying themselves or their children as Aboriginal, "for fear of being labeled with learning problems and then treated as having 'deficits.' "

Small read the report but, like Tabobandung, did not attend the forums. And like Tabobandung she doesn't support the Aboriginal school idea. "As soon as you take one whole group away from another, that's segregation, she objects. "And I don't believe in dividing people based on people-issues. That's not a real honour of diversity."

Small says she likes the Enhancement Agreement, but sees the Aboriginal school as a device to allow the district, teachers and the educational establishment to back away from incorporating more First Nations and Métis culture across the board—into teacher training as well as curriculum.

"No matter how well you develop a curriculum, no matter how well you develop your institution, the teachers that walk in are the ones that need to change," she says. "It's mandatory in the curriculum to teach First Nations studies, but [teachers] can't because they're not taught [about First Nations]."

Correcting the curriculum

Both Small and Tabobandung believe the answer to improving Aboriginal outcomes is changing everyone's school experience to include more Aboriginal history and outlook. It would not only serve to make Aboriginal children more comfortable in the public system, they argue, but help reduce racism against Aboriginals by teaching other children about First Nation cultures and backgrounds. "I think the Enhancement Agreement calls for us to be more inclusive and not segregated, to learn about the real, true history of Aboriginal people of Canada," says Small.

Tabobandung cites her son's experience at Bob & Kay Ackles YMCA Nanook House child-care centre as an ideal model for an inclusive public education. She liked how that school's director incorporated many different cultures into the curriculum in a way young children could understand. "For African American history month, they learned about Rosa Parks and all of these different people. They made the curriculum and content suitable for children in daycare!

"If a supervisor can do that for a day care," she says, laughing, "we've got to be able to do that for children in elementary and secondary."

In that regard Gray, and the majority of those who participated in the VSB's forums, agree: "The First Nations community, our culture and our traditions, a lot can be drawn from that in the curriculum," says Gray. "Say in science: you can learn about fish, or you can learn about the waterways, a lot of the things that our ancestors used to practice on a daily basis. A lot of our people still have that knowledge."

She dismisses fear that the school will be a form of segregation, and suggests that anyone who lets that stand in the way of accepting it doesn't understand the abject failure of the mainstream public school system to graduate Aboriginal children.

But they may come around as they better understand the proposal, Gray thinks. "We found at the forums that people come in and say things like, they didn't want it because of this. Then they hear something and they go 'Oh, that's great. I never thought it was going to be that, I thought all our kids are going to be forced to go there'. Once they have the actual knowledge, then there's a different attitude. I think if [parents] understand that it's going to meet provincial standards, that they'll have a different point of view."

School system only half the battle

Clark is impressed with both the VSB's Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement and its track record in consulting with the community at large. "What is good about the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement is that it's comprehensive in its scope about the need to work with the children, the families, the community and the school," he says. But that doesn't mean he's necessarily going to send his son to the school once it opens: "It wouldn't be in his community," Clark explains. "There's a solid network in place where he is now."

Vancouver's Aboriginal School remains more high concept than bricks and mortar reality. The VSB hasn't determined where the school will be, or what grades it will deliver -- though forum participants leaned in favour of a kindergarten-to-grade-12 school. For her part, Gray believes it should be at MacDonald Elementary in Strathcona, and run from kindergarten to Grade 7. Slated along with four others to be closed last fall, MacDonald is at about 40 percent capacity—and four-fifths of its students are Aboriginal, Gray notes.

"The community has a really good relationship with that school," she says. "They feel safe. This is the hub of the native community here. There's about 15 different social housing buildings that are around here, so people can easily get to the school, even if they're poor they can walk there."

But convenience to that cluster of First Nations and Métis families would put a school in Strathcona out of the way for many other Aboriginal families across the Lower Mainland.

Nor, Clark argues, should the burden of improving Aboriginal learning fall solely on the shoulders of the public school system. "We can't just pin all the blame on education," he says. "We think we can just dump our kids on the school system, and they're going to fix everything. That's wrong. Education is a lifelong process. And it's time we as parents and as a community take ownership over the impact of mainstream media, popular culture and constantly be working with our children."

With the district set to continue discussions with the Aboriginal community and urban Aboriginal organizations through the end of last year, it's clear that whatever final decision awaits the focus school, parents of Métis and First Nations heritage seeking a better educational future for their kids, and the Vancouver School Board itself, both know they can only find a solution by working together.

Katie Hyslop, Tyee Solutions Society; reporting made possible through the support of the Vancouver Foundation, McLean Foundation and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of Tyee Solutions’ reporting).

Click here to view the first in this series.

Click here to view the second in the series.

Click here to view the third in the series.

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