August 27, 2006

Using native culture to keep kids in class


WINNIPEG (CP) - High school principal Don Revel is busy these days gearing up for the start of another academic year, and for the roller-coaster of challenges, struggles and excitement his students will ride in the first few weeks.

All of the 170 students who will attend Southeast Collegiate next month are preparing to leave their First Nations reserves across Manitoba for the boarding school and a chance at a high school education most can't get at home because there are no schools near their reserves.

While aboriginal students from across Canada often must travel to go to an off-reserve public school that offers classes beyond Grade 8 or 9, Southeast Collegiate offers a uniquely aboriginal experience because it is owned and operated by the Southeast Tribal Council.

Revel says the school's attention to native culture, history, language, and counselling - as well as academics - is keeping students from dropping out while preparing many for college or university.

At a time when native residential schools are in the headlines for past physical and sexual abuse and a proposed federal compensation agreement, Revel says Southeast Collegiate symbolizes a new, positive era in aboriginal education.

"We are a modern-day residential school, and our philosophy has always been 'doing it right,"' Revel says from behind his desk hidden under mountains of papers and files.

"I don't think there's any doubt the old residential school system was an attempt to assimilate First Nations people to white culture.

"Here, it's very much more of an honouring of culture and understanding how our students can develop the skill sets to either function within First Nations culture at home, or in society as multicultural as it is in Winnipeg."

Enrolment at the school has been expanding rapidly since its doors opened 11 years ago.

When Revel joined the staff seven years ago, the school had about 80 students and a retention rate that hovered around 50 per cent.

Now, the school turns away between 50 and 75 students a year.

Revel believes Southeast has succeeded where public schools have failed because staff directly address some of the main reasons why students return to their reserves without graduating.

"We provide a home," says Revel.

"We tell staff when they are hired they're going to be parents to kids who are 200 to 700 miles away from home and who are going to suffer loneliness and need somebody to identify with."

Pauingassi First Nation, a fly-in community about 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, will send its entire Grade 10 class of nine students to Southeast Collegiate.

The community has long struggled with solvent and alcohol abuse, with one in five of the 450 residents considered a chronic solvent addict.

Social worker Eric Kennedy says the students are counting the days until they leave home, while their parents are relieved they'll know where they are and who is caring for them.

Last year in Manitoba, 1,249 students left their reserves for high school - with 740 of those coming Winnipeg, says a spokesman for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Those who don't go to a boarding school are part of the department's private home-placement program. The students choose the public school they want to attend and find their own accommodation, which is covered by the department.

But after seeing many children drop out within weeks when left on their own to find a school in Winnipeg, Kennedy says he hopes the Grade 10 class heading to Southeast will become an example for the younger kids still at home, proving there is a way to continue their education away from solvents.

Kennedy says the emphasis on native culture is the key to keeping the kids in class.

"When I walk through the doors it brings back that I'm proud of who I am, being native, and I think that's what's so unique," says Kennedy.

"They're going to be interested in finding out about their heritage."

The school is considered a provincially funded private school, although Revel says he doesn't have any students that meet the criteria for provincial funding.

Instead, the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs pays $11,000 per student annually for tuition, as well as $13,000 in room, board and trips to and from the students' home reserves.

Revel says that while Southeast Collegiate couldn't be more different than the once-mandatory residential schools some of the students' parents and grandparents attended, their sometimes painful memories are hard to erase.

"Some families are very apprehensive and some don't want to be supportive of the system, because even though it's run by a First Nations organization, there's still a belief they're trying to change their youth to a white culture," he says.

For others, it's the chance for their kids to live and learn in an environment far better than what they have at home that allows them to embrace the school.

"Housing becomes a serious issue for a lot of people," says Chief Terry Nelson of the Roseau River First Nation, about 75 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

"So if somebody wants to concentrate on their education and really get through it, they could choose a residential system where they don't have to live with five or six siblings in a crowded house."