Naomi Walser enrolled her five-year-old daughter Elora Waardenburg in the Vancouver School Board’s new aboriginal focus school last year when they moved from Burnaby to Vancouver.
“The first week last year I wasn’t exactly sure what to think. There were maybe seven students there, it was a new program and it was kindergarten to Grade 3,” Walser said.
Walser, originally from the Beausoleil Nation near Georgian Bay in Ontario, recalls reciting the Lord’s Prayer at school and being pulled out of P.E., “out of the good stuff,” with the other First Nations kids to receive lessons in aboriginal studies. So she likes that Elora and her classmates made their own drums and perform a drum song every morning and that aboriginal education is integrated and not supplemental at the school. “Hearing her walk up to other kids and asking ‘What nation are you?’ at six years old… that’s really huge,” she said.
Vonnie Hutchingson, principal of Sir William Macdonald elementary where the aboriginal focus school runs, noticed the same transformation. “By the end of the year, all of them had a sense of who it is that they were and where it is that they came from, each of their nations, for sure,” Hutchingson said.
Last year, the school taught 16 students in kindergarten to Grade 3 in one classroom at East Hastings Street and Victoria Drive. Enrolment has doubled this year with 32 students in two classes, one kindergarten to Grade 1 and the other grades 2 to 4. The students all have aboriginal backgrounds with the exception of one who is Asian.
Hutchingson said most of the school’s first 16 students returned. Those who did not moved away or found it too onerous to travel from other parts of the city or Burnaby. Most of the new students are in kindergarten but some transferred from other schools.
“Enrolment had been, in this school, declining for many years and this is the only place we have any kind of renewal from,” Hutchingson said.
Total enrolment at Macdonald remains at 70 students in a school that served more than 200 students in 2000.
Associate superintendent Maureen Ciarniello says the school board expected the focus school to start slowly and that fewer children live in the area now.
Macdonald’s students are mostly of aboriginal descent and Ciarniello believes they’re benefiting from having an aboriginal principal, two aboriginal teachers in the focus school and a full-time aboriginal education enhancement worker. “There’s actually a number of staff there that are also modelling and connecting all of the kids in the school and staff to an aboriginal world of learning,” she said. “And it’s something we’re interested in more broadly in the whole school district.”
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 school board.
Proponents of the aboriginal focus school hope knowing who they are and where they come from will help First Nations students succeed.