Vancouver Creates Aboriginal-Focused School

Wawmeesh Hamilton
5/5/12

Hoping to reduce the dropout rate in later years, Vancouver will create an aboriginal-focused school that will be up and running in September, giving students in kindergarten through third grade the option of an educational environment that's tailored to their culture.

After months of study and assuaging some fears of the project as segregationist, Vancouver School Board Trustees voted 7–2 in favor of the aboriginal school steering committee's recommendation that McDonald Elementary School on the town’s east side become the site of the new focus school. It’s the second urban school with an aboriginal focus in British Columbia.

“I’m very excited that this initiative is moving ahead,” school board chair Patti Bacchus said. “I’m elated that we’ve some this far, and I want to see it.”

McDonald Elementary was chosen because the surrounding area is densely populated with both aboriginal families as well as being home to several aboriginal service agencies. There’s space for 150 students. The move also saves the school itself, which officials had pondered closing entirely. Enrollment had shrunk from 239 in 2000 to just 70 (half of whom are aboriginal) this year, Bacchus said.

There was talk of making the new school run from kindergarten to Grade 12, but education officials decided to focus on the earlier years, Bacchus said, so as to "do this right and get them on the right track early rather than wait until they are struggling."

Officials hope to staff the school with aboriginal teachers and principal. There are 30 aboriginal teachers in the Vancouver school system.

The development is a long time coming, said Lynda Grey, a member of the steering committee and of the school board’s aboriginal caucus.

“It tells me that there is broad based support out there for our kids to succeed in school,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Grey said that controversy was minimal. Of 300 people surveyed in February, "about one third said ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ to the idea but that they wanted more information,” Grey said. “There wasn’t a big push back against it.”

According to Statistics Canada, Vancouver is home to 40,310 Aboriginal people—the most of any city in British Columbia. There are also more than 2,000 students in Vancouver’s school system that identify themselves as aboriginal, Bacchus said. Many of these children do not graduate high school, according to Statistics Canada, which found that from 2007 to 2010 the dropout rate for Métis, Inuit and off-reserve First Nations students aged 20 to 24 was 22.6 percent, while for non-aboriginals it was 8.5 percent.

The aboriginal population is not homogenous. People hail from every First Nation in the country, and while this presents a challenge with aboriginal curriculum development, Grey said, it’s not insurmountable.

“We have a common worldview though: respect for elders, respect for the environment, and something like the medicine wheel is pan-native now,” Grey said. “We actually have more in common than people think.”

Grey emphasized that the school is “a choice, an option that is there for them just like other schools that have an arts or sports focus. And the door is open for non-aboriginal students to attend.”

Two school board trustees voted against the issue, saying there wasn’t enough time to get it up and running before September.

“I’m glad to hear that this was their only concern and that they weren’t against the concept,” Grey said. “School board staff agree that this is doable and that working it out is just a matter of logistics.”

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