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Backing for aboriginal focus school despite enrolment issues

The Vancouver school board is sticking with the city’s only aboriginal focus school despite one group’s criticisms of low enrolment…

By Wawmeesh G. Hamilton , in City , on November 3, 2014 Tags: , , , , , ,

Aboriginal focus school principal Vonnie Hutchingson.
Hutchingson: The classroom at the aboriginal focus school gives kids direction

The Vancouver school board is sticking with the city’s only aboriginal focus school despite one group’s criticisms of low enrolment and questionable benefits.

Board chair Patti Bacchus acknowledged that the three-year-old focus school has struggled with enrolment since opening two years ago. “But we knew enrolment would be small for the first couple of years,” she said. “I’m not aware of any established attendance targets in place for this program.”

However, the school board’s failure to recognize that aboriginal people don’t just live in one place is a factor in the school’s low enrolment, said Scott Clark, spokesperson for ALIVE, a Vancouver aboriginal group. “Aboriginal kids go to school all over Vancouver, not just on the Downtown Eastside.”

More than 2,000 students self-identify as aboriginal in the Vancouver school district and are spread across the city.

School board numbers show that 16 students were enrolled in the focus school, Macdonald elementary school on the corner of Hastings and Victoria in the east side, in 2012. That doubled the next year, to 32.

There are 35 students enrolled in the focus school this year – half of the school’s student population, said principal Vonnie Hutchingson.

Bacchus wouldn’t speculate about low enrolment. But a pending review of the focus school may yield answers in the coming months.

Questions over segregation

Scott Clark questions whether or not the aboriginal focus school has provided any benefits to First Nations students.
Clark questions whether the aboriginal focus school has provided any benefits to First Nations students.

The aboriginal focus school launched in 2012. The school is located 1.6 kilometres from the eastern border of the Downtown Eastside, and is comprised of kindergarten to Grade 3. The school still offers regular-stream classes from kindergarten to Grade 7 for its other 35 students.

The school was ill-conceived from the outset because it is segregated, Clark said.

“We’ve seen no evidence that segregation works and there hasn’t been engagement with the aboriginal community outside of the usual agencies,” Clark said. “I’m aware of some parents who took their kids out.”

But Bacchus argues that the focus school is only an option for aboriginal students to consider, that it is not mandatory to attend.

Clark also said the lack of support services at the focus school is a key issue.

“They (support services) were a big issue when it opened and it may not have all of those,” he said. “It  may not be what it’s been made out to be.”

Focus on poverty issues

Clark advocates for a place-based approach for aboriginal students throughout the district instead of a focus school.

The approach involves identifying aboriginal students` needs in schools throughout the district, then partnering with existing agencies meet those needs.

The school district already has a plan like that in place for the rest of the district’s aboriginal students, Clark said.

But Bacchus said that district-wide plan is focused on poverty issues. That does end up providing help for a lot of aboriginal students.

But the district-wide program doesn’t provide a services focused exclusively on them, the way the Macdonald school does.