Amidst the Big City, an Aboriginal Public School?

Vancouver's school board sees potential in a school designed from curriculum up to appeal to urban First Nations youth. Fourth in a series.

By Katie Hyslop 14 Sep 2011 |

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the non-profit Tyee Solutions Society. This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. Funding for this series was provided by McLean Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Additional reporting was sponsored by CBC Radio and aired on the Daybreak North radio program Sept. 6-9, 2011. To republish articles from this series, please contact TSS Editor Chris Wood here.

[Editor's note: British Columbia's failure to meet the educational needs of its fastest-growing demographic dooms thousands of its youth to a needless struggle for employment and elevated risks of addiction and imprisonment. In this series produced by Tyee Solutions Society, Katie Hyslop has looked at some inspiring models of independent and public schools putting First Nations culture at the heart of their teaching activity. But will the same idea work as well in the Lower Mainland? In this instalment, Hyslop explores conflicting views of a plan to open Vancouver's first Aboriginal focus school.

For more on how this issue affects British Columbia's Interior, hear Katie Hyslop's multi-part conversation with Carolina de Ryk and Robert Doane of CBC Radio's Daybreak North.]

Chrystal Tabobandung is typical of most Canadians with Aboriginal heritage. The 31-year-old mother left her home, the Wasauksing First Nation reserve near Parry Sound, Ontario, at the age of 19 to pursue a higher education --first in Toronto and then Vancouver.

According to the 2006 Census, more than half of Canadians who identify themselves as Aboriginal lived in urban areas. Almost a third were under 15, but their median age was 31 -- the same as Tabobandung. And like her, most moved from remote birthplaces in search of education, jobs or the services and amenities of city living.

Although her two biological children were raised in the big city, Tabobandung is also mothering her partner's three kids. They have a background similar to her own: living on an even more remote Ontario reserve from 2007 until 2010. Their rural schooling put them behind in reading and writing, an issue they share with many kids who leave rural areas for the big city.

But Tabobandung believes in their abilities and knows with hard work they will catch up. At the kids' Vancouver public school, she finds, the "teachers are dedicated to working with them to bring them up to grade, to where their reading and writing skills should be." In fact, Tabobandung says that for all her children, who range in age from eight to 15, "[I have] very consistent and open communication with the teachers. We put a plan in place and we work together to ensure the success of the children's academics in the classroom."

Vancouver is touted as one of the more culturally diverse cities in the country. Its Aboriginal population is no different: people from First Nations across the province and the country live here. This multi-cultural heritage is one reality making it difficult to provide the kind of culturally-focused education found in reserve schools like Chief Atahm or in smaller public districts such as Haida Gwaii. The Aboriginal community is physically spread out, too, with over 40,000 families living in cities throughout the Lower Mainland identifying themselves as First Nations.

Nonetheless the Vancouver School Board (VSB) thinks the answer may lie in a one-of-kind Aboriginal school designed from the curriculum up to reflect an Aboriginal world-view. Proposed earlier this year, the school would adopt the principles of the district's much-lauded Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement with local First Nations, be taught by Aboriginal and Aboriginal-aware teachers, and involve parents, elders and community in the decision-making process.

For all its apparent wish-list features though, the Vancouver Aboriginal School has met a mixed response. Some Aboriginal parents welcome any alternative to the public system's long-standing failure to meet their community's academic needs. Others simply appreciate the District's efforts to involve the Aboriginal community in every step of its planning.

But not everyone's a fan. Where admirers see special attention, others see segregation. They fear the effects on a child's socialization if they are removed from the reality of one of the most multicultural cities in the country and offer them a ghettoized educational experience with students only like themselves and an academic system that expects less of them.

Aboriginals are far from the first demographic in British Columbia to envision a school dedicated to a specific history and culture. French and Mandarin immersion classes are already held in public schools. Independent and private schools represent a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, from Catholic and Evangelical Christian, to Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish schools -- all partly funded by taxpayers. Likewise, parents have long debated whether it's better to teach children within their traditional culture, hopefully preserving a sense of identity and passing on cultural knowledge, or to integrate them within the larger society through a public-school education.

For Aboriginal students, a difficult choice has been made even harder. With less than 50 per cent of Aboriginal kids in Vancouver schools graduating each year, it is old news to parents or teachers that something needs to change.

But with B.C.'s last residential school having closed its doors British_Columbia only 25 years ago, and years of government promises to improve Aboriginal academic outcomes having come to little, it's understandable that First Nations and Metis parents are at best cautiously optimistic about an Aboriginal-focused school, and at worst entirely against it.

Lower graduation rates in the big city

Big city life comes with big city problems. Lynda Gray, executive director of Vancouver's Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) , sees these issues first-hand in the roughly 7,000 Aboriginal youth who come through her doors each year. The association's office, in the heart of the Strathcona neighbourhood, is just blocks from social housing projects Gray says are filled with First Nations families. "In the city, our kids have much higher rates of extreme poverty, more homelessness, more going to school on empty stomachs," says Gray. "If they don't have money to catch a bus and they have to go to school 20 blocks away, then they either have to walk or they get there two hours late."

Urban poverty isn't unique to Aboriginals, nor is it the reality for all indigenous families in Vancouver. But a lack of representation in curriculum, the absence of indigenous faces among staff and teachers, a not-so-distant history of colonization and in many cases family legacies of forced assimilation in residential schools, are uniquely challenging for Aboriginal students, their parents and the teachers who would like to see them flourish.

Gray's case for enhancing Aboriginal content in schools has as much to do with correcting the collective record of our country's experience, as with improving individual grades. "As the first people of this country, it's really important that our reality, and the true history of how that country was formed up until present day, should be reflected in the curriculum, so that [it's] not whitewashed from history," she says. "And most kids are socialized in school. If we're invisible there, we tend to be invisible everywhere else."

Gray estimates the high school graduation rate for Aboriginals in Vancouver to be as low as 20 per cent. The school board says it's drifted between 32 and 46 per cent over the past decade, ending nearer the low end of that range at 35 per cent in 2008-09. But even the board's relatively generous estimate of the graduation rate of Vancouver-area Aboriginals is significantly lower than that for B.C. as a whole -- itself an unimpressive 50 per cent.

Gray supports the idea of an Aboriginal school mainly by default: in an effort of generations where everything else has failed, a single-purpose school is at least something that hasn't been tried. Something that might, at last, work.

"Anything that provides equal opportunity for our kids to learn in a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment is a good thing," she says, adding that she's 'cautiously optimistic' about the idea and the school board's implementation of it. "[But] it must have meaningful input from the First Nations community on the planning, development and implementation. Meaningful, in that we're involved at every level."

Scott Clark has been heavily involved in the public education movement as well as the urban Aboriginal community. He acts as spokesperson for both the Alliance of Parents and Partners to Lobby for Education in British Columbia (APPLE BC), a group of public education activists that sprang up last fall during the Save Our Schools movement, and Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement (ALIVE), a non-profit organization working to improve the lives of urban Aboriginals.

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