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How Chief Atahm Elementary School Became a Success Story

'Develop wisdom, honour the spiritual.' Those principles guide a unique learning approach breaking through low expectations for First Nations achievement. First in a series.

Katie Hyslop 6 Sep

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: Canada's fastest-growing demographic, youngsters of First Nations, Metis, or Inuit heritage, face the bleakest outlook for employment, addiction and the risk of incarceration. Better education is key to changing that, experts agree. But the history of efforts to "educate" Aboriginals on Euro-Caucasian lines runs a grim litany from cultural repression and worse at residential schools, to the ineffectual present. Barely 50 per cent of Aboriginal students graduate from high school, compared to 80 per cent of other British Columbians. This graduation gap lies behind countless stories of individual disappointment and misery. Taken collectively, it's costing Canadian society billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, healthcare, social assistance, policing and incarceration.

In this new Tyee Solutions Society Series, reporter Katie Hyslop looks at some inspiring models for doing things differently; what society's failure to help our Aboriginal youth learn is costing the rest of us; and how the federal and provincial governments might better spend Aboriginal education dollars.

For more on how this issue affects British Columbia's interior, catch the series "Nation Education Beyond the Three Rs," co-produced by Katie Hyslop, running all this week on CBC Radio's Daybreak North.]

Chief Atahm isn't your typical elementary school. The teachers won't instruct in English until Grade 4. Curriculum is created by teachers and parents instead of the Ministry of Education. Here, hands-on learning means skinning a deer, collecting medicinal plants, or cleaning and smoking fish. It's one of the few Aboriginal immersion school programs in B.C. and -- celebrating its 20th anniversary this year -- the oldest.

Chief Atahm Immersion School is a one-storey building situated on top of the grassy plateau that is the Adams Lake reserve. Connected to the community of Chase by a bridge across Little Shuswap Lake, it's a 60 kilometre drive north-east of Kamloops. For a Kindergarten-to-Grade 7 school, Chief Atahm is rather small: only five classrooms for eight grades. But the grounds are vast. Like most schoolyards they include a fenced-in play area and a jungle gym. Unlike most, there's also a smokehouse out front for preserving deer meat and fish.

More than all of those however, Chief Atahm's teachers and parents say the school's most important element is its full immersion in Secwepemctsin. They say it produces students who not only have a good academic foundation but, equally importantly, are well grounded in their own culture. Entirely Aboriginal and parent-run, Chief Atahm offers hope to other Aboriginal communities struggling to prepare youth for 21st century life within the values and learning of their own culture.

"We think that if we offer a quality education here, [our graduates] will be prepared to go anywhere," says Robert Matthew, the principal at Chief Atahm for the past 16 years. "And history has proven it's true. Our students here are well prepared for the public school Grade 11 and 12, and many have gone to university or colleges."

Beyond a traditional education

There are 52 children currently enrolled at Chief Atahm, about a quarter of the children who live on the reserve. Their parents have the same goals any parent has for their child's education: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. But they want something more. They want their children to grow up knowing who they are, where they came from, and why their identity should be a source of pride.

"We believe that everybody has unanswered questions of 'Who am I? How did I get to this place and time? How did my parents get here? Where do I live?'" says Matthew. "We deliberately ask those questions, then answer them within our school. By the time they leave, whether they're 13 years old or 16 years old, they'll have the [answer]: 'Who am I? You are Secwepemc!'"

Many of its students enter Chief Atahm from the Cseyseten Family Language Centre, a self-styled Secwepemctsin "language nest" for infants to four-year-olds. There, elders and teachers interact with toddlers only in their ancestral language.

Chief Atahm follows the same model for kindergarten to Grade 3, with instruction entirely in Secwepemctsin. The teachers run the gamut from proficient to fluent, so elders also sit in on classes, either offering language help or running their own lessons.

Unlike most reserve schools in the province, Chief Atahm doesn't follow the provincial curriculum. Instead teachers -- mostly veterans of the public system -- and parents adapt conventional classroom practice to involve aspects of traditional Secwepemc life: gathering roots and medicines, cleaning and smoking fish, singing and creating art. Students read books written in or translated into Secwepemctsin. They watch and listen as elders tell stories through audio and video recordings, speaking in Secwepemctsin about important places or traditional hunting practices.

"In Grade 4 in the public school, they do bean seeds in an egg carton," says Matthew. "We go out and study a real plant that has a stem, a flower, a root. We're observing nature and changes: that's science."

Building a nest

Chief Atahm is the brainchild of Kathryn Michel, a Secwepemc woman born and raised in downtown Kamloops. Michel's parents, Joe and Anna, spoke Secwepemctsin fluently but chose not to teach it to their nine children. Disciplined and abused herself for using it at residential school, Anna Michel thought it would prevent her children from getting into university.

Kathryn and her siblings attended public school, often the only Aboriginal kids in class. Although she did well there, Kathryn was keenly aware of her difference from the school's Euro-Canadian culture. But with few relatives in the area and parents who refused to speak their native language to her, Kathryn scarcely gave a thought to learning Secwepemctsin.

All the Michel children continued their education after high school. It was at the University of British Columbia where Kathryn's passion for her native language finally ignited. At a World Indigenous Conference on campus, Kathryn heard a young Maori woman from New Zealand give a speech in te reo Maori about the "language nest" concept.

"At the end of her speech," Michel recalls, "she said, 'A year ago I couldn't speak a word of Maori.' That really floored me."

The speech changed Michel's life path. On graduating she moved to the Adams Lake reserve, where her parents then lived, determined to start her own Secwepemctsin language nest.

"I made brochures up and I went door to door telling people, 'Please sign your child up for this language nest,'" Kathryn recalls. But she faced questions she couldn't answer: "'Well, where will it be?'... Oh, I don't know. 'What will it cost?'... Oh, I don't know.

"I had no answers."

Finally someone directed Michel to the public school's Grade 1 teacher, a woman who also lived on the reserve and had her own keen interest in its language. Janice Dick Billy had a very different reaction.

"I showed her what I wanted to do," Michel says. "And she took out notepaper and the next thing she says is: 'How much do you think you'll need? Sounds like you'll need to hire an elder. Sounds like you need to start a bingo.'

"Actually, she didn't say 'you need.' She said 'we need to.'"

The two convinced the band council to let them use an empty log building. Kathryn recruited her parents as fluent Secwepemctsin teachers, as well as several other prominent elders in the community. A couple of bingo nights later Michel and Dick Billy had their start-up costs.

'Giving power and responsibility to the elder'

Only Kathryn Michel, Janice Dick Billy and one other mother enrolled their babies in the fledgling language nest. And it was soon clear that no one involved knew how a language nest was really supposed to work. There was no internet, and it was too expensive to call New Zealand.

Michel opted to leave the day-to-day activities up to the elders. It turned out to be an inspired choice. "Giving that power and responsibility to the elder was the key to how it actually evolved into the Chief Atahm school and then a resilient program today," she says. "Its foundation was really the language and the cultural knowledge of our elders."

But as her own child got older, Kathryn faced a decision about where he would go to elementary school. Living just across the street from the local public school, she had seen white and Aboriginal children segregating themselves on the playground.

"My child is fair [skinned] enough to have had to make a choice of which side of the playground he wanted to play in," Michel says. "And I said, 'No five year old should ever have to be in that position to make that choice."

582px version of Chief Atahm Elementary school
Chief Atahm's unique curriculum includes gathering roots and medicines, cleaning and smoking fish, singing and creating art, with elders often showing the way. Photo by Marvin Beatty.

With their own children aging out of the language nest, Dick Billy and Michel pressed the Adams Lake band for money to start a kindergarten. When the band agreed, they named their new school after an ancestral figure whose children went on to be chiefs of the Little Shuswap and the Neskonlith Indian bands in the early 20th century. Dick Billy quit her public-system job to teach there.

Ten students enrolled in the first class. But not every parent knew what immersion meant, and some pulled their kids out after realizing nothing was in English. They feared their children would do even worse at Chief Atahm than in the public school, where Michel says graduation rates for First Nations children at the time were as low as two per cent. The Kamloops School District could not confirm these numbers as they did not have data that went back that far.

But Michel and Dick Billy adapted. "We said, 'We need to have a little bit more of a process here.' So we have an interview process [now], where we talk about what our visions are for the school, we talk about what parents' roles need to be, and parents sign a contract saying that they understand that and they agree with it," says Michel.

Maintaining the vision

The school grew, adding a grade or so each year until it reached Grade 10. But hampered by the lack of a science lab for chemistry or biology, it eventually pared back its classes and now ends at Grade 7.

Its ambitions remain undiminished, however: ensuring that kids leave school with a sound education and with a sense of pride in their heritage that was denied their parents and grand-parents through a century and a half of colonization and residential schools.

Parents and teachers have devised a vision and set of values for the school that emphasize community responsibility for raising each child, and the respect every student must have for themselves and others. These include a series of principles: we are all related; help yourself; take time for yourself; develop wisdom; and honour the spiritual.

"I think [in] public school and university, you do have to have some inner strength to survive," says Matthew. "So this is what we want them to have when they leave here, some kind of inner strength."

Chief Atahm has not kept records of how many of its students have gone on to graduate from high school. Nor has the federal government kept track of how students perform in schools on reserves. According to the Aboriginal and Northern Affairs website, the department is in the process of developing an Education Information System to track student progress, but it won't come online until Sept. 2012. A statement on their website about the current system says it "is a patchwork of systems that are not integrated and do not use a cohesive set of performance indicators. As well, the current focus of the information is related to outputs such as the number of students, grade level and age, rather than achievement, 'how students are doing.'"

Strength in language

Like most of the 34 Aboriginal languages still spoken in B.C., Secwepemctsin is endangered. Fewer than four dozen people still speak it fluently, and many are elderly. Not only does Kim Dennis, Matthew's administrative assistant, not know her own language, even her grandmother's knowledge of it did not survive her residential school experience.

Dennis wanted a different upbringing for her own three children. "I want them to know who they are, because I never did," says Dennis. "I want my kids to not be scared of who they are, that they are natives, and [to] know their culture."

Kathryn's mother and uncle still work at the language nest, and at Chief Atahm. Now 80, Anna now takes immense pride in teaching children their native language -- an act she once thought would ruin a child's education.

"These are our own children, our grandchildren, relatives, grand nieces and nephews," the elder Michel says. "We're all related, and it's so beautiful to be involved in their early years."

582px version of Chief Atahm Elementary school
Most Chief Atahm teachers are veterans of the public system, using books, audio and class visitors to immerse kindergartners and first graders in the Secwepemctsin language. Photo by Marvin Beatty.

"Our language is the only thing that differentiates us from other brown people," she now recognizes. "If you look at our people, we could be Chinese or any other that were brown. Our language is the only thing that would label us as Secwepemc."

But fluency in Secwepemctsin is a hard goal to meet, especially when parents aren't fluent and kids revert to English outside of class.

"There's so many things in English around us that it's hard to motivate the kids: they say sometimes, 'Why learn it?'" says Matthew.

Roxanne Sampson, a former student at Chief Atahm, didn't see the value in learning to speak Secwepemctsin at first. By the time she got to public school she excelled in math and sciences, but struggled with English.

"We never learned English until Grade 6, we weren't taught it," she says. "When I went into high school I failed English a bunch of times."

But now an adult, Sampson's been surprised to find that Secwepemctsin opens doors for her, such as the one that led her to a job as a language teacher at a Secwepemc nursery in Kamloops.

Not every child will grow up to be a language teacher. But many educators, First Nations or not, agree that traditional languages encode the personal history and culture that students need to build strong, positive identities. Languages transmit ancestral knowledge, from traditional medicines to the meaning of land treaties being argued over in court today. Other non-cultural studies link early knowledge of more than one language to improved learning and achievement later in life.

But language and culture also evolve. Matthew and his staff strive to adapt the latest technology to keep kids interested in learning Secwepemctsin. "Elders have to learn how to work with the snowball mic hooked up to a laptop," he says, "same with students. Because once we got back to project-based learning with technology, the kids all light up again."

'We used to raise our kids ourselves'

Keeping Chief Atahm on track still takes as much labour as love. In addition to the initial interview, parents commit to attend four meetings per year to discuss the school's philosophy, budget, activities, and curriculum. They're expected to help fundraise -- as a reserve school, Chief Atahm gets support from Aboriginal and Northern Affairs but still needs to raise about $100,000 each year to operate. As well, every year the school holds a three-day parent-teacher retreat to re-examine its vision and values.

But Kathryn Michel encourages Aboriginal educators and language advocates not to be daunted by the workload. "We forget to believe in ourselves, and in each other," she told a First Nations language education conference last May. "That's one of the strengths of Chief Atahm. We remember that we used to raise our kids ourselves, without asking another nation to help us. We were once a strong, vibrant nation on our own."

Ultimately, it's that strength Matthew hopes to instil in the children who pass through Chief Atahm's doors. Whether they move far afield and earn doctorates or finish high school and stay on the reserve, he hopes to see self-reliance and pride in being Secwepemc.

"My dream is to be driving through this reserve 10 years from now and finding one of my former students repairing his own porch," Matthew says. "Not phoning Indian Affairs, not phoning the band office, phoning anybody else, but doing it yourself."

As a metaphor for Chief Atahm's first-of-its-kind model of learning immersed entirely in ancestral language and culture, you could hardly do better.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

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