Solutions for Aboriginal Education in Crisis

By Morgan O’Neal

A former principal of Grandview Elementary in inner city Vancouver (a very troubled school where aboriginal kids made up a good of the student body) Caroline Krause was quite frankly appalled by what she witnessed when she moved into her office to begin work in what she knew would be a challenging job. As principal of a school that was supposed to be training kids for rather unpredictable future, she realized in the first few days that it was almost entirely off the rails. She now sat in the swivel chair of localized ultimate authority in terms of both curricular and administrative duties. She would be responsible in the end for any meager success or disastrous failure resulting from any serious and substantial changes she might seek to initiate in order to get the train back on the tracks. At the time, what was spilling out of derailed classroom cars were scores of aboriginal students embarrassingly uneducated in the basics, totally unprepared for adult life in an economy controlled by the difficult dominant culture, and still nursing precisely the same resentments with which they had begun school in the first place, the resentments now multiplied in quantity and quality by however many years they had managed to stick it out in a fundamentally racist institution.

According to Krause, the system needed a complete overhaul. The British Columbia Ministry of Education is of course mandated to provide basic funding for public school education but this funding does not cover after-school programs. Krause and her allies at Grandview also lobbied the Ministry of Children and Family Development to help out financially, but were not successful. Their only alternative was corporate sponsorship in order to put together the money to be able to offer academic and athletic programs during and after school hours. Krause managed to bring several businesses, including Royal Bank, Home Depot, Starbucks and Nike, in as corporate partners who donated thousands of dollars in money and equipment to the school. She convinced University students, teachers and support staff workers to lead after-school programs that provided positive role models. These volunteers spoke to the students “about the importance of working hard in school and making it all the way through to high school completion and beyond.” According to Krause, “the atmosphere in the school began to change dramatically” after establishment of a ‘Homework Club,’ where students could receive academic support and complete their assignments at school.”

Contrary to what we might assume about a systemic problem such as this Krause is convinced that “the cultural component was not the problem. It was the fact that these students were placed in what we might call a “deficit” program, which was set up with the best of intentions to try to help them catch up academically. Since the students were not part of a mainstream program, they were unable to achieve a sense of belonging to the school, generally felt marginalized, and acted out often because they were frustrated.

Most of the mainstream classes had significant numbers of aboriginal students (up to 50%). Aboriginal culture was honored and incorporated into the curriculum and daily routines whenever possible. For example, School Elder, Ramona Gus, worked on art and carving projects with most classes. A First Nations Student Support Worker, Kwakwee Baker, started each day with drumming in the foyer of the school and taught drumming to groups of students. The First Nations Resource Teacher, Daphne Wale, created a First Nations novel study class for Grades 4, 5 and 6 students.

Grandview School had an army of volunteers helping: parents, adults in the community, and university students, as well as a core of dedicated and caring teachers. In addition, the corporate sponsors were very generous. For example, since the Read Well primary reading program implemented early in Krause’s tenure, 95% of Grade 1 students and older non-readers, who have transferred into Grandview, are successfully reading at or above grade level expectations by the end of the year as measured by the Canadian Test of Basic Skills. At Grandview/?Uuquinak’uuh the numbers (90 to100 Aboriginal students) have remained fairly consistent over the past decade. The rest of the students are from various countries and many speak English as a Second Language. The school celebrates National Aboriginal Day as well as Black History Month and Chinese New Year and usually hosts a multicultural celebration at the end of each school year. Aboriginal authors, storytellers and performers are invited to come to the school. One important subject that is still missing in most schools is authentic aboriginal history.

The Vancouver Board of Education is currently working on an Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, which is an agreement between the Ministry of Education, the School Board and the local aboriginal community to work together to help students experience greater academic success. The Indian Act of 1876, which made aboriginal people “wards of the state,” is still in effect. In his excellent book, Dances with Dependency, Calvin Helin not only explains how this dependency came about over the past 300 years, but also offers solutions and gives examples of some amazing success stories. We cannot continue to throw money at a system that is not only not working but one that is keeping a significant number of aboriginal people living in Third World conditions. Since the young aboriginal population is one of the fastest growing in Canada, this is where we should focus our time and energy. In a little school in the heart of Vancouver’s inner city, a start was made by teaching children to read at an early age, by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning, and by giving them healthy alternatives to street activity. If this can be achieved against all odds in a public school like Grandview, the same thing can happen across the country in practice at every level of education.

At the extreme other end of the broad spectrum is the theoretical initiative taken at the University of Saskatchewan in the College of Education with the establishment of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre founded in 2003 in order “to build research capacity and nourish leadership in a new generation of scholars as they take their place in the Canadian academy, in the administration of schools, colleges, and universities and in advancing Aboriginal education.” The overall plan is to collaborate and innovate to ensure that research undertaken at the Centre has a significant social impact, that it translates from the theoretical realm to the practical. According to Dr. Cecilia Reynolds, Dean of the College of Education, the research should develop a better understanding of “the needs of the Aboriginal student populations and develop successful teaching methods which will enhance the delivery of education to Aboriginal students in both provincial and band schools.”

The College of Education in the University of Saskatchewan has a strong history and important role in advancing Aboriginal education including the establishment of core course requirements for all teachers in addressing social justice, gender equity, multicultural and Aboriginal education, specialized Aboriginal teacher education programs, and Aboriginal faculty to provide the needed expertise and research to develop this area. More focused research is needed, however, on diverse systems of learning, community based approaches to Aboriginal pedagogy, Indigenous knowledge and the needs of Aboriginal student populations. The Research Centre provides expertise in development, collaboration, and coordination of action on the ground in Aboriginal education and provide mechanisms for knowledge dissemination. AERC engage researchers in improving the success of Native learners in different learning environments, and in improving teacher education in applying Indigenous knowledge systems in diverse school environments and curriculum.

In its first year of operation, AERC developed and hosted the Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre for the Canadian Council on Learning. AERC and the First Nations Adult and Higher Education Consortium in Calgary are now co-leading a three-year national project concerning First Nations, Métis and Inuit learning. AERC is also involved in projects within the health sector and with the study of indigenous knowledge and science, seeking to expand in areas of Endowed Graduate Scholarship Awards, a Research Chair Professorship and diverse projects to support scholarship in Aboriginal education at the U of S. The Aboriginal Education Research Centre (AERC) is located in the central prairies, in the land of the treaty First Nations and Métis. No comparable centre exists in Canada and AERC is at the very forefront in working to prepare future teachers, administrators and staff who should help generate a systemic transformation in education that will go far toward a remedy for the current crisis in Aboriginal schooling and learning. For information on the Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre see