The principal of Vancouver's new aboriginal focus mini school says 13 students were enrolled in kindergarten to Grade 3 as of Wednesday morning.
"As with all things new, they start small and people watch. I'm hoping that the enrolment will climb as people begin to trust us more," said Vonnie Hutchingson. At the beginning of August, enrolment at the school was listed at 6.
Hutchingson, who's in her third week on the job, hopes to connect with parents as soon as possible.
"The focus has to be on parents, family and community and what it is that they want for their children and to help to implement that," she said.
Hutchingson hails from the village of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii. The Haida and Tsimshian woman completed her post-secondary training at Simon Fraser University's first external site in Prince Rupert in the early 1980s and taught both elementary and secondary school. She worked on Prince Rupert school district staff and then as a principal helped coordinate construction of a new school.
"I thought we have all the bells and whistles, the physical envelope was beautiful, but we still weren't having the kind of success that I would like to see for aboriginal students," Hutchingson said.
So she secured a position as aboriginal coordinator and then director of aboriginal education within the Ministry of Education. The ministry gathered and published data on aboriginal students' graduation rates during her tenure in the 1990s.
"What we know from research is that if you focus on an area, that area will grow," said Hutchingson. "The performance levels of aboriginal students has grown and they are doing better, but it seems to have plateaued."
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.
Hutchingson believes a school that grounds aboriginal students in aboriginal culture at a young age could improve those rates. That's why she left her role as a consultant to the provincial First Nations Education Steering Committee to become the new principal at Macdonald elementary and its brand new kindergarten to Grade 3 aboriginal focus mini school on East Hastings Street near Victoria Drive.
She attributes her own educational success to her robust cultural heritage.
"I come from a nation that has really strong values and is grounded in their traditions, their land and their territory. I was brought up by grandparents. I was exposed to the Haida language_ so that's what grounded me," she said. "If that grounded me, can it help to ground other children--like one of our chiefs, long gone, said--to have an honest pride in the deeds of their ancestors?"
Students at the mini school will learn about local Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples first.
"Then you go to the rest of B.C., but layered on top of that is the individual nations of each of the children or nations that they prefer to study," Hutchingson said.
"This school will be as inclusive as any provincial school is," she added. The aboriginal school will be open to students of all backgrounds. Hutchingson likened it to French immersion programs.
Scott Clark, the executive director of Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), told the Courier in late July that he believes every school in the province should teach students about aboriginal history and culture to reduce ignorance and racism.
Hutchingson noted teachers in B.C. can choose to use curriculum that includes aboriginal content to further basic skills, but she believes teachers should continue to have the autonomy to choose whether to use that material.