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Aboriginal community wants separate school in Vancouver

Public forums for an Aboriginal mini-school in Vancouver have sparked calls for a separate Aboriginal school instead, according to a press release issued by the Vancouver School Board yesterday.

The board held two public forums last month for parents, students, educators, and members of the community on the possibility of creating an Aboriginal mini-school that would run from Grades 8 to 12 in Britannia Secondary, ready to open by September.

Unlike a traditional school, students would participate in pull-out programs with an Aboriginal focus in addition to taking regular curriculum classes. The Vancouver School Board (VSB) was hoping the model would help to counteract the low Aboriginal graduation rate in the province.

But the feedback the board received from the community was instead overwhelmingly in favour of creating a separate Aboriginal school in Vancouver: "What we’ve heard … [is] that maybe we need a school that is its own school," VSB Chair Patti Bacchus says in the press release.

"What we’re hearing is they want bigger – more – than what we’re talking about.”

Debbie Jeffrey of the First Nations Education Steering Committee is pleased the community's voice is being heard, and says a full school would provide more opportunities for student and parent involvement in the curriculum than a mini-school would.

"Because with a sub-set of a school, it really couldn't possibly be viewed as fully independent, whereas if it's a separate facility that certainly lends credence to an independent choice school," she told The Tyee.

"(A school) would mean an opportunity for students and parents to be really involved in the design and delivery of programs, an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and programs offered, and also certainly to foster a sense of community and belonging, which is often missing in the broader public school context for First Nations learners and parents."

The VSB press release also outlines possible issues with a mini-school by relating the story of one Aboriginal student who's attendance in a First Nations drumming class at her school didn't instill pride, but made her uneasy:

Bacchus recounted the comments of one student who participates in pull-out programs at her school. The student said she feels self-conscious walking down the hall with drums to go drumming, and that she’d feel safer in a school that was focused on Aboriginal culture.

Jeffrey says she's not surprised Aboriginal students feel uncomfortable about their heritage in Western schools because their peers and teachers are often uninformed about Aboriginal history in Canada.

"When you look at what is taught, it's pretty much a euro-centric point of view, and the fact that the school is on First Nations traditional territory, students attending that school would have very little opportunity to learn about that," she says.

Regardless of what model is chosen, Bacchus says it will be open to all students, not just those with Aboriginal heritage, and will likely not meet the September 2011 opening date. The board's final decision rests on the report and recommendations UBC Associate Dean of Indigenous Studies Jo-Ann Archibald, who chaired the two public forums.

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee.

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