Three months after Vancouver’s first aboriginal focus school opened at Macdonald elementary, 16 students from kindergarten to Grade 3 are learning about First Nations culture along with core curriculum.
Seven of the students relaxed on a medicine wheel carpet and five sat at the surrounding horseshoe of desks Monday afternoon. Their teacher read them a story about country boy Chuck, who was visiting his “kookum,” the Cree word for grandmother, in the city.
A large dream catcher brought into the classroom by a student’s Sto:lo grandmother dangled from the ceiling. Along a side wall, numbers were depicted with buffalo, totem poles and canoes and at the back of the room were images of Louis Riel, Chief Seattle and Chief Dan George.
Five-year-old Christopher Knighton said his favourite thing about the aboriginal focus school is “playing with the toys.” As for the décor, he favours the prints that include eagles and bears.
The 16 students hail from 19 different nations. Four were formerly Macdonald students and some are new to Vancouver.
“One of my parents travels right now from Surrey, but I know she just found housing in the area,” said aboriginal focus school teacher Fiona LaPorte.
The aboriginal focus school started registering students in May. Only six students were registered at the start of August, a number that climbed to 13 at the start of September. Eighteen were enrolled at one point, but the principal of Macdonald elementary at East Hastings and Victoria, where the mini school runs, says the area’s transient population accounts for the loss.
Macdonald was on the chopping block in 2010, but now the Vancouver School Board hopes the whole school will eventually become an aboriginal focus school. Three-quarters of Macdonald’s 69 students are of aboriginal descent and most of the rest have Asian backgrounds. The focus school welcomes children of all ethnic origins.
Doug Loney, who was waiting Monday for his grandson Nolan Robinson, who’s in Grade 1, said his son moved Nolan to the focus school from another school because he wanted him to learn “aboriginal ways.” Nolan’s mother is First Nations.
LaPorte said she instructs roughly even numbers of students across the four grades but added they’re not necessarily at their grade level in terms of literacy or math skills.
“In general, it’s the socioeconomic factors that influence the success of the students in this area,” she said.
LaPorte, who specialized in aboriginal education, weaves a respect for aboriginal culture into lessons any way she can.
“They actually generally don’t know their nation,” she said. “When we talked about it at the beginning of the year, I said, ‘OK, does anybody know what nation they’re from?’ and they all put up their hands, ‘I’m First Nation.’”
LaPorte’s grandmother was moved from her reserve into white foster homes in Saskatchewan “where she was taught that it was best to deny that you’re aboriginal,” LaPorte said.
“That shame piece is still very prevalent in society and it’s very important to me to instill a sense of pride in our younger generation,” added LaPorte, who has Anishnabe and Blackfoot roots.
In 2011, 32.1 per cent of aboriginal students in Vancouver achieved their Dogwood Diploma within six years of first entering Grade 8, as compared to 82.5 per cent of non-aboriginal students, according to the Vancouver School Board.
Proponents of the aboriginal focus school hope that a grounding in aboriginal culture will help First Nations students succeed.
“They still have misconceptions and stereotypes about their own culture,” LaPorte said. “As good as it would be to educate all of the students on breaking down those misconceptions and stereotypes, at least we’re starting with our own people because, geez, if we can’t even break down those stereotypes, how are we going to teach the rest of the city, the world.”