A new action plan launched by Northland School Division in northern Alberta focusing on First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) needs has educators hopeful that culture and community will improve division-wide student success.
“We have to meet the needs of the students first and our students are Métis and First Nation,” Delores Pruden-Barrie, Northland’s director of FNMI education, said in an interview with The Journal.
Pruden-Barrie led the drafting of the division wide FNMI Action Plan and said it’s a crucial and historic moment for the school division.
“It’s teaching beyond the four walls of our schools,” she said. “This is what we feel is a very important role and need for our students to improve success: learning in their environment and learning about the well-being and connectedness of the community.”
Northland serves 24 schools in northern Alberta and of the 2,400 students, 90 to 95 per cent are of First Nations, Métis or Inuit background.
For years, the division has been under pressure to address student success with achievement exam results consistently placing the majority of schools below the national and provincial average.
In 2010, Alberta Education drafted an Inquiry Team Report for the school division, which suggested strengthening Aboriginal language and content in Northland’s schools.
Northland’s committee of school administrators, Aboriginal language instructors and advisory board members, led by Pruden-Barrie, drew on recommendations from the report to create the FNMI Action Plan.
The plan was approved by the school board in September and will see implementation over a number of years, said Donna Barrett, superintendent of Northland.
“This is something that is going to happen over time,” Barrett said. “We’ll see growth, but this is not something that is going to be started and then done. It will be ongoing as we redesign the educational system to meet the needs of our students.”
The FMNI action plan puts into writing many Aboriginal content and programming initiatives that Northland schools are already implementing, such as basket weaving programs and cultural camps.
“What we are trying to do now is go further with that, broaden the base of initiatives so that more things are happening across the curriculum in all of our schools. So it’s kind of building on that,” Barrett said.
She said that cultural content must be introduced around the standardized Alberta curriculum that all provincial schools adhere to. For example, students must do novel studies, but have flexibility as to which books are selected. The FMNI Action Plan would see Aboriginal authors or stories taught to students.
Another aspect of the action plan calls for an increase in community engagement through use of gatherings, newsletters and social media.
“Northland serves students in communities that are spread out through the North and there are different perspectives in each community about language and culture, and so part of the community engagement process, when you are designing curriculum that is responsive to the local context, you need to engage the community in that,” Barrett said.
Northland recently hired nearly 20 educators graduated from the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program (ATEP) who will be returning to their home communities to teach. The local teaching force will ideally provide guidance to current staff in community engagement.
As a Métis woman, Pruden-Barrie said an important aspect of her own education was tapping into her culture, and she would like to see the same for all students in Northland.
“This project is very, very important to me,” she said. “Everyone should have ownership in their own community and have a sense of belonging.”