Nearly two decades ago, B.C.’s Ministry of Education realized there had to be a better way to address the education of its aboriginal students.
Having put the failed experiment of the Indian Residential School system into the dustbin of history — though it continues to cast a long and dark shadow — the ministry had yet to see necessary gains in exam scores, advancement, retention and graduation rates for First Nations students.
In what has turned out to be a wise decision, and perhaps the only viable one, the ministry chose not to dictate yet another policy from on high, but rather brought in First Nations leaders to consult with local school districts and educators.
The result of these consultations was the creation of the Enhanced Aboriginal Education Agreement. The first of these agreements was signed by participants and approved by the ministry in 1999, and the Campbell River School District was in the front of the line.
“At that time, we actually bet the government that we could spend the money and reach more goals than by them dictating it,” SD72 board trustee Darryl Hagen said during a recent meeting of the board of education. “We won that bet three or four years in a row until finally they changed the model. It was quite interesting.”
Today, Campbell River School District officials and local First Nations leaders will gather at the Kwanwatsi Big House to sign their historic fourth Enhanced Aboriginal Education Agreement.
While recognizing it operates in the traditional territories of the Laich-kwil-tach Nations, the school district will be treated to a blessing and songs before dignitaries sit down to sign the five-year accord.
A far cry from the assimilation model of the residential schools, which were constructed to assimilate native youths by stripping them of their language and culture, the Enhanced Aboriginal Education Agreement is designed to improve educational outcomes while also celebrating First Nations culture and sharing it among the general population.
“The benefits are both support and focus on student learning for aboriginal students, and a focussed approach to bringing aboriginal culture into our schools, with the way of knowing and the richness that entails,” SD72 Superintendent Tom Longridge says. “It’s not just to enrich aboriginal outcomes, but to acknowledge and learn from aboriginal ways of knowing.”
In terms of outcomes, the series of enhanced agreements have had a measurable impact, with students’ grades, advancement and graduation rates all trending upward since the first agreement was signed in 1999. The EA plays an important enough role in Campbell River’s education system that its goals are built into the school district’s 2014-18 strategic plan.
But it is a living document and very much a work in progress, with all parties acknowledging work must continue to position First Nations students to not only learn and graduate, but to do so with what Longridge terms “purpose and options” for employment and leadership roles in their community.
“Over the years it’s certainly improved, but we won’t be satisfied until those outcomes are the same as every child in the district,” he said. “We’re not sitting on our laurels here; we want to be the best in the province and do the best we can for all the children in our district.”
It is a noble goal, and one worth celebrating. That celebration resumes, in full regalia, beginning at 10:30 a.m. today.