Vancouver’s first aboriginal school program has almost tripled its enrolment since August.
The program, located at Sir William MacDonald Elementary School in northeast Vancouver, has increased enrolment to 16 students from six in the first four grades now being accepted. Continued growth could result in expanding the program into the secondary-school system, said Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus.
“We know we will be learning as we go and determining what works and what doesn’t work, but the intention is that it would grow potentially to be a K-12,” said Bacchus. She said as long as demand and enrolment stay strong, the board will introduce the aboriginal program to a higher grade level each year, as the current group of first-timers moves through the system.
That has teachers and parents excited about the possibility of seeing more aboriginal students make it through to high-school graduation, a goal that many don’t reach at the moment.
Teacher Fiona LaPorte said starting the program at elementary school is important because “we have already lost them by the high-school level.”
“By beginning, the program at the elementary level we are establishing that sense of identity and belonging,” said LaPorte, who is in charge of the school’s multi-grade pilot.
But Bacchus acknowledged the decision to start an aboriginal school in the district with the elementary-level program – and not a high school – disappointed some parents.
“They wanted a high school program and ultimately that wasn’t the decision that was made,” she said. “This is new and we are still determining what it looks like, so I think it has been a challenge.”
Growing market for alternative schools
University of Toronto education professor George Dei, whose research focuses on indigenous knowledges, said that alternative schools are often slow growing because it takes time to identify whether a school will work for each student.
“They are not always right for everyone, but we look at what these students need that they are not currently getting,” said Dei.
The Toronto school board has followed a similar model in launching an Africentric elementary school.
Toronto’s Sheppard Public School was approved as an Africentric elementary school in 2009 and opened with almost 90 students. The school now includes kindergarten to Grade 7 and, according the Toronto school board, has had over 190 students enrolled in 2011.
Next year, the first Africentric cohort will have an opportunity to follow the program to the high school level.
Expanding to high school
Bacchus’ goals for the aboriginal school are to have something similar happen in Vancouver. “When students are looking at being in Grade 7 and potentially going on, then we would have to reevaluate what the size of the program is,” she said. “We really don’t know what level of demand there will be as it progresses.”
MacDonald principal Vonnie Hutchingson said the school has been putting a lot of resources into the program and has had a lot of positive interest.
LaPorte said she too hopes that the program will eventually include a high-school level, but reinforced that it is important to begin this program with young children.
In a class this fall, LaPorte had the children sitting in a circle passing around a talking stick for one class exercise. In another, she had them doing arithmetic practice by counting canoes, rather than apples. Native elders are frequently invited into the class.
She said she has already seen a lot of excitement from parents.
“Some parents have enrolled their students in our pre-school with the intention of having them join the program in kindergarten.”