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School district recommits to First Nations education on National Aboriginal Day

A renewal of commitments to aboriginal education and the handing out of student Aboriginal Achievement Awards capped off National Aboriginal day celebrations at Dawson Creek Secondary.
Dwayne Gladue dances at SD 59's Aboriginal Family Appreciation Night June 21.

Last year, Chetwynd Secondary School hit a milestone: 80 per cent of its on-reserve aboriginal students graduated within six years giving the school the third-highest on-reserve aboriginal graduation rate in the province.

Up the highway, Moberly Lake Elementary School has gone from having almost no students to taking in more than it can handle.

These successes are a result of School District 59’s (SD 59) Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement with the Ministry of Education, an initiative started 15 years ago after studies discovered gaps of between 30 and 80 per cent between non-aboriginal and aboriginal graduation rates. 

In some school districts only one in ten Aboriginal students were graduating with a Dogwood diploma.

Every five years, the district signs a new version of the enhancement agreement. A signing ceremony was held June 21 in Dawson Creek, part of an evening of celebrations to mark National Aboriginal Day.

The periodic renewal of the agreement makes it a “living document,” Christy Fennell, the district’s lead on aboriginal education said. It comes with targeted money from the province to fund programs aimed at aboriginal students. 

“These programs go above and beyond what non-aboriginal students get because the ministry realized that what everybody else was getting was not closing the (graduation) gap for First Nations students,” Fennell told the district’s board of directors and trustees June 23.

This is the third time the district has signed onto a new agreement. Past enhancement agreements have led to coach/mentor programs, which include staff to help teachers work with Aboriginal students to set short- and long-term academic goals. SD 59 is the only district in the province with a program of this kind.

Caron Jones, a retired teacher who was involved with getting the project off the ground, said the increasing number of graduating Aboriginal students going on to a post-secondary career is proof the enhancement agreements are working.

“We’re seeing more kids apply to university now than we ever had before,” she said. 

Since the last agreement, signed in 2011, schools have come on board with the district’s Aboriginal education goals, Jones added.

“Schools have really taken ownership of special days that are important to aboriginal people,” she said, opening the door to using these days to teach about aboriginal cultural history, whether it be learning about the Red River Rebellion through Louis Riel Day each February, or baking bannock at pioneer village during National Aboriginal Day.

Aboriginal Achievement Awards

The district held a barbecue and Aboriginal Student Achievement Awards ceremony at Dawson Creek Secondary to celebrate National Aboriginal Day June 21. 

In addition to the signing of a new enhancement agreement, awards were handed out that evening for students who demonstrated leadership in preserving their cultural heritage, or excellence through academic, personal or technological achievements, volunteer services, outstanding citizenship, artistic or musical achievement, athletics and school attendance. 

Cash awards were also handed out to graduating students who had overcome barriers.

The most outstanding student was Kristen Gauthier, from Central Middle School. 

Click here for a full list of award winners.