First Nations School of Toronto ready for brighter future

While I always have mixed thoughts about ethnically (or religiously) based schooling given that it can hamper integration, understand the pressures particularly with First Nations.

It will be important to have some long-term evaluations of this school’s effectiveness, not just in terms of graduation rates (important, where I expect improvement) but 10 years post-graduation in terms of employment and income:

Twenty-five years ago, Shannon Judge was an indigenous student in a Barrie high school where sports teams were named the “Redskins.”

A generation earlier her mother, from Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, wasn’t allowed to speak her first language of Ojibwe at the elementary school she attended on her reserve.

Today, Judge’s two children are finally breaking the cycle at First Nations School of Toronto. Raven, 9, and Rayne, 8, are part of a new era of indigenous education that teaches them through the lens of aboriginal experience and history.

Thanks to their school, both children now speak Ojibwe with their grandmother, which has inspired Judge to take lessons too, provided by volunteers through the school. Morning smudging ceremonies and daily 40-minute language and culture classes with an elder are part of their routine.

“I feel like my kids are getting something from school that’s not only education, but a connection to their history and identity that empowers them and gives them a sense of worthiness,” says Judge.

As of this month, students will have the option of keeping that connection until they graduate from Grade 12, following the school’s long-awaited move from its cramped quarters at Dundas Street Public School.

The Judge family - Shannon and Neal with Raven, 9 and Rayne, 8, - are shown outside the First Nations School of Toronto, which opened in its new location this month.

The move to the spacious building — site of the former Eastern Commerce Collegiate, which closed in 2015 due to falling enrolment — means that beginning in September, First Nations School will introduce a new high school grade each fall. The new Grade 9 class next September will become the first graduates in 2021.

That will make it Ontario’s first publicly-funded school to offer aboriginal education from kindergarten through Grade 12.

“The dynamics have changed,” principal Jonathan Kakegamic said following the Jan. 10 opening on the six-acre property, also home to the Aboriginal Education Centre run by the Toronto District School Board.

The kids, currently in kindergarten through Grade 8 and from all over the city, were beside themselves to see all the space, inside and out. Instead of eating breakfast and lunch in a crowded classroom, they now have a cafeteria, along with their own gym and an auditorium.

“I’m just excited to be here,” says Kakegamic, who moved from Thunder Bay last August to become principal. “It’s an honour to be part of this new era.”

Attendance has already risen to 131 students from 96 in September and the new site will accommodate 600.

Teacher Maliha Mitha reads to her Grade 1 and 2 class at First Nations School of Toronto during the children's first week at the new site.

Kakegamic and others in the community stress that expanding to secondary school is critical to reducing high dropout rates among indigenous students, who often feel lost in a larger system that doesn’t teach their perspective and history.

Source: First Nations School of Toronto ready for brighter future | Toronto Star

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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