How are some schools helping Aboriginal students belong?

Right now, approximately 60 percent of First Nations students living on reserves, and about 30 percent of those living off reserves, do not complete high school. Those are startling statistics but the good news is some educators are beginning to understand why so many Aboriginal kids feel they do not belong in school and what needs to be done to fix it.

A study released by the C.D. Howe Institute in late 2008 showed that some schools do it better than others when it comes to closing the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

“What are these districts doing right?” write the study’s authors. “In sum, they emphasize Aboriginal education success as a long-term priority, involve Aboriginal leaders and the broader community, use objective data on Aboriginal student performance in design of policy and follow through on policy implementation.”

In other words, Aboriginal students do better when community leaders, schools and teachers make Aboriginal education a priority and where innovative programs engage Aboriginal students.

“It’s (about) creating a place and a space where you feel like you belong. Until you have that, you can’t move forward,” says Lynnita Jo Guillet, an Aboriginal education resource teacher for the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board.

Aboriginal herself, Guillet made it her mission to make Aboriginal education a priority in Ontario classrooms. Part of that mission involves teaching the culture in a way that engages both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

She started out small by doing community outreach and bringing communities together. Then she moved on to curriculum development so she could help kids share their cultural heritage while developing critical literacy skills.

Guillet has also developed a cultural kit, which includes: moccasins, dream catchers, soapstone carvings, a M├ętis sash, healing medicine and different significant animals, that is now being brought into classrooms across Ontario. Also, the character education program in some northern Ontario schools includes the Seven Grandfather Teachings (Honesty, Humility, Courage, Wisdom, Respect, Generosity and Love).

There is little doubt that the way Canada educates its Aboriginal children is a very controversial subject. But for people like Guillet, debate should not negate action. Without the implementation of special programs now, Guillet fears it will be too late.

“If my culture goes, it’s gone forever,” she says. “And the only way we can stop that from happening is through education of our youth and instilling a sense of purpose and place and space for our Aboriginal children so that they know how to fit into this.”

For more on Aboriginal education watch Your Voice’s Aboriginal Education: Solutions for the Future, and Aboriginal Education: The Past and Present