Delegates aim to increase First Nations success
First Nations and the Nicola-Similkameen School District 58 delegates have signalled their continued commitment to work together in what many stakeholders are calling a monumental moment in history.
The two groups signed the Ministry of Education’s Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement at the Merritt Civic Centre on Wednesday, the second such commitment made by the groups in less than a decade.
Since the last Enhancement Agreement in 2004, SD 58 has committed itself to increasing the Aboriginal Peoples high school completion rate, which rose from 37 per cent in 2005 to its 54-per-cent rate in 2011 in the district.
During that period, the district added Principal of Aboriginal Education Shelley Oppenheim-Lacerte, who stressed what she called the importance of moving past a tragic history.
“There is a lot of negative history that has happened,” she said. “I recognize that and I understand that, but we are here today and we need to connect and move forward for the best interest of our children.”
The evening was accented by dignitaries signalling their mutual respect.
SD 58 Superintendent Bob Peacock was celebrated for his participation in hand drumming that was part of the evening’s entertainment.
He told the audience that he has tremendous respect for First Nations.
“Aboriginal Peoples have a certain heart,” he told the audience. “And it’s a heart that touches not only other people, but nature as well.”
Superintendent of Aboriginal Education for the Ministry of Education Dee Dee DeRose said it is rare to see a superintendent of schools demonstrate that level of respect.
“There is obvious trust and a positive working relationship when a superintendent of schools is invited to hand drum alongside members of the community he serves,” she told the audience. “You must know that it is a rare sight.”
Still work to do, say delegates
Since the 2004 signing, schools throughout B.C. have been tasked with increasing focus on traditional First Nations learning, which can include language and culture lessons.
“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t stop doing that work,” Peacock said. “We won’t stop doing that work until we get a 100 per cent graduation rate among Aboriginal students.”
SD 58 has a five-year 70 per cent First Nations completion rate target.
The Aboriginal Academy at Merritt Secondary School and programs in schools throughout SD 58 are teaching students about drum making, deer skinning and First Nations languages, for example.
As recently as last week, students from Merritt Central Elementary School tried their hand at scraping a deer hide.
Students are more confident to learn when they feel that their culture is valued, SD 58 stated in a report.
That type of activity could help students work hard, which Coldwater Indian Band Chief Harold Aljam said is vital for achievement.
“It’s really about how we get our youth to really step up and take a piece of the pie,” he said. “They don’t seem to realize that education is for their success of what they want to do and they really need to see the benefit.
“This is the point where we move on to make things better.”
Peacock said the previous Enhancement Agreement was more focused on data, while the new one aims to improve the execution of programs.
Approximately 40 per cent of the students in the district are First Nations.