Vancouver Moving Toward City’s First Aboriginal-Only School
Vancouver Moving Toward City’s First Aboriginal-Only School

Public support for aboriginal-focused, separate schools is growing in British Columbia, says the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which in recent weeks has hosted a series of forums with students, staff, and community members to discuss aboriginal education.

VSB chair Patti Bacchus says such strong support for the schools is encouraging.

“I am really inspired by what we’ve heard—there’s major interest. I think if we didn’t proceed now we’d be in real trouble. There’s certainly people who are reluctant, but there is certainly pretty strong support for moving forward from those who want to.”

We’re looking to members of the aboriginal community to provide leadership and tell us what we need to do to enable this school to happen.

— Patti Bacchus

The initial idea of developing an aboriginal mini-school for Grades 8-12 was raised during budget consultations last spring. It had been suggested that it be located at Britannia Secondary in East Vancouver, which already provides some unique programs designed specifically for First Nations students.

But Bacchus says there has been increasing support for a K-12 school that would admit aboriginal students only, in order to foster a safer, more comfortable, and culturally relevant environment for students.

“What we’ve heard … is that maybe we need a school that is its own school,” she said, “We’re looking to members of the aboriginal community to provide leadership and tell us what we need to do to enable this school to happen.”

The importance of a safe learning environment is crucial, as some reports show aboriginal students are twice as likely to be bullied in school than their non-aboriginal classmates.

The 2008/09 Ministry of Education’s annual “How Are We Doing?” report on aboriginal education showed that by grade 12, 15 percent of aboriginal students reported being bullied, teased, or picked on, versus 7 percent of non-aboriginal students.

Debbie Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), says a separate school for First Nations students appears to be a solution that would promote a “sense of safety and belonging.”

Jeffrey says that after hearing feedback from regular workshops conducted by the FNESC, they have identified major concerns in aboriginal education such as low graduation rates, student safety, children in care, and the over-representation of native children in special education. She hopes that an aboriginal-only school could combat these issues.

“The graduation rates for aboriginal students in British Columbia have stagnated at close to 50 percent for the past five years. The Vancouver School Board’s proposal and community feedback for a separate school for aboriginal children is an example of one school district’s efforts to address the issue of aboriginal student achievement,” she said.

This would not be B.C.’s first aboriginal-only school.

School district 57 recently opened the Aboriginal Choice School in September 2010, which serves the community in Prince George. The school provides a focus on aboriginal language and culture and “indigenous ways of knowing in a framework of restorative practice,” says its 2010/11 District Plan for Student Success. It is also open to non-aboriginal students who wish to attend.

Although it is too early to judge the success of aboriginal-focused schools in B.C., other provinces in Canada have already explored the idea—with mixed success.

The First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto opened as an alternative education for aboriginal students in 1977, but students have consistently struggled to meet provincial standards, and report high suspension rates.

In 2008 Toronto also introduced Canada’s first “africentric” school, catering to black students who experienced some of the highest dropout rates in the city. The Toronto Star reported last year that the school outperformed other public schools in the area on standardized tests.

Winnipeg has two successful aboriginal schools: Children of the Earth High School and Niji Mahkwa Elementary, which teach from an aboriginal perspective, incorporating traditional culture, history, languages, and practices into daily lessons.

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