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Aboriginal students find success in Sooke

May 13 2012

Aboriginal students continue to make remarkable gains in the Sooke school district, where they have posted one of the highest graduation rates in the province.

The district, which celebrated the students' achievement at a traditional ceremony on the Camosun College campus Saturday - at least 81 students are expected to receive a diploma this year, up from 51 in 2011 - boasted an aboriginal graduation rate of 73 per cent last year.

That's the top rate for aboriginal students on Vancouver Island, the highest among large and mediumsized districts in B.C., and a full 20 points above the provincial average.

Just four years ago, Sooke's rate sat at 38 per cent.

How to explain such rapid progress? District officials point to a host of reasons: inspired leadership, more aboriginal teachers, increased aboriginal content and a strong relationship with local First Nations chiefs and communities.

The district's expanding aboriginal education department now has teachers and staff in every high school, working directly with students.

"We really promote having the support right in the classroom as much as possible," said Kathleen King-Hunt, the district's principal of aboriginal education.

"For sure, that's been working for us."

Superintendent Jim Cambridge, who credits King-Hunt's leadership, said the district also hired more aboriginal teachers. They understand what the students are going through, work with them in the classrooms, and can be both an advocate and mentor.

The approach, he said, has "really connected with kids."

The schools also have "all nations rooms" or "learning centres" where students can receive additional help from fellow students or aboriginal education staff.

"Especially in the high schools, everyone knows now, all the staff know, who the aboriginal students are, what their credits are, what they need to do," Cambridge said.

"So they're basically making sure they don't fall through the cracks."

He noted, for example, that King-Hunt oversees a lunch at the start of the year where Grade 12 aboriginal students meet with their school's entire staff - teachers, support staff, principals, vice-principals and the aboriginal education department.

"The kids talk about their hopes and then a bunch of people try to help make that happen."

Mahalia Nahanee, who is slated to graduate from Edward Milne Community School, said she has been close to her First Nations support workers since elementary school.

"It's helped me a lot, both emotionally and with school work," the 18-yearold said.

"There was a time in Grade 10 when I wasn't so happy and I didn't really want to attend classes. I was kind of struggling, and they helped me through that."

This year, said Nahanee, her grades have jumped, and she's planning to pursue post-secondary studies in social work at either Camosun or Langara College in Vancouver.

She's also working in the learning centre helping Grade 9 and 10 students, just as older kids once helped her.

"It's kind of like a family environment," she said.

Cambridge said success breeds success. The district's aboriginal students now believe they can achieve - and so do their parents.

"What happens from there is that that belief starts going down through the grades," he said.

"So students in Grade 9 are starting to imagine what their post-secondary life will look like, and families' expectations are changing."

lkines@timescolonist.com

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