WALP closing doors after 22 years

WALP closing doors after 22 years
Grade 12 student Charlene Rabesca of Behchoko will be the last third-year student to graduate from WALP this June.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

After over two decades of operation, the Western Arctic Leadership Program, which housed students from small communities throughout the Northwest Territories in Fort Smith for high school, will close its doors on June 22 due to insufficient funding.

WALP board chair Earl Jacobson said a continual reduction in monetary support from the GNWT over the years has meant the program, which was once unique in leading students to high standards of academic excellence and life skills, no longer offers the value it did originally. The board has decided it can no longer justify the program’s continuation.

“Initially, the finances were so large we had a camping coordinator, we had cooks, we had the dollars to bring in special people to do extra programming, like public speaking, social work, etc.

And then we had an overall coordinator of the Western Arctic Leadership Program – everything was looked after,” said Jacobson. “Now, basically the funding has come down to the house parents and one tutor, no office manager, no nothing. So it’s just a lack of funding, and we lost our uniqueness. A boarding home is basically what we became.”

Over the years, funding through Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) for the program decreased. While WALP’s board managed to secure additional core funding through private industry and other governmental departments, receiving some support from the department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) and Enbridge Pipelines, among others, Jacobson said success was short-lived.

“It wasn’t enough,” said Jacobson. “After about five years of the board trying this, constantly looking for funding, it just got too wearing. You know, we all have full-time jobs and we just couldn’t continue doing it. The board just got very frustrated.”

WALP was derived from Grandin College, a residential school in Fort Smith that selected students who performed well academically and trained them to become leaders. Many of Grandin College’s graduates became political leaders throughout the territory.

WALP was intended to function in a similar manner, with tutoring support and additional non-academic programming to encourage students to achieve “beyond their comfort zones.” Jacobson said the program provided that opportunity to many students over the years, but success stories started decreasing as funding declined. Of the 13 students that were enrolled this year, eight remain.

“Part of our problem was we didn’t have funding for our house parents or coordinator to go to the communities and have interviews with the students coming in. Everything was done over the phone and through letters, so we kind of lost control of who we would accept – the recruitment,” he said. “With the lack of funding, we were not able to do that. So some of the students we got just didn’t fit the program, and you can tell by the numbers that we would receive so many and then so many would be let go.”

At the same time, he said, WALP retains the semblance of a residential school, making it a hard case for the GNWT to support. ECE was given a month to respond to the board’s decision with additional aid, but no response was given.

“It’s a catch 22 for the GNWT – it’s a residential school. So I don’t think that’s something they would want to pursue.”

No one from ECE was available for comment.

Students have one less option

While the board and politicians have accepted the program is all but over, students remaining in the program are wondering what’s next for them.

Lynsey Lafferty, a Grade 11 student from Fort Providence, said she planned on graduating in Fort Smith, but will now have to find another way to stay in the community for the remainder of high school.

“It’s hard to live in Prov,” she said. “There’s a lot of drugs and alcohol problems. I know there’s 13 year-olds to beyond doing drugs and drinking and stuff like that. And it’s hard because I wanted to get away from it and everything, and my parents were okay with me coming here, but with the program closing, it’s going to be harder to negotiate with my parents about staying here with someone else.”

Lafferty’s younger sister, too, was planning on applying for the program. Now, she said, there’s talk their family might have to move to Hay River for their high school – something she does not want.

“I just don’t want to keep on moving and confuse the education,” she said. “It’s better here and there’s different classes that you can take.”

For Charlene Rabesca, a third-year WALP student who is graduating in June, it’s hard to see the program that allowed her to leave her home town of Behchoko for high school come to an end.

“It gave us the opportunity to leave our home towns to get a better education, because, in truth, it’s hard to leave our smaller communities with less-developed school systems,” she said.

In Behchoko, Rabesca said many classrooms were combined due to small numbers, making it difficult for teachers to teach appropriate curricula. In the end, Rabesca said, most students graduating from high school there end up having to do lengthy periods of upgrading before going to university, or have to get sent to Yellowknife for certain courses like chemistry.

Rabesca said she had wanted to return to Fort Smith after university – she has been accepted to several, including the University of British Columbia and University of Alberta – to be a tutor with WALP and help students like herself.

“I’m upset that no one else can experience it or face the challenges and learn from WALP, because it really is a good program and gives this opportunity to people who can’t leave their communities that want to get a better education. They have one less option now.”

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