December 11, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Instilling pride in culture and heritage enhances learning #vansunkids

By Daphne Bramham

Sir William Macdonald Elementary is a small school in transition; a place where different ideas are being tried to ensure that some of Vancouver’s most vulnerable children have the best possible opportunity to succeed.

Macdonald is the first urban school in B.C. to be designated as an aboriginal-focused school. Like other Vancouver schools that focus on fine arts, French immersion or English-as-a-second-language, the core curriculum is the same only the emphasis is different whether it’s art projects, physical education or social studies.

Because this is the inaugural year, it makes Macdonald an exciting and challenging place to be. It’s the reason Vonnie Hutchingson came out of semi-retirement and left her home territory of Haida Gwaii to take the job as principal.

Three-quarters of the 80 students are aboriginal and come from 14 different First Nations. All but a few of the remaining children are of Asian descent.

Aboriginal children’s educational outcomes lag others in every measure. They take longer to pass from one grade to the next. They’re less likely to go to high school, graduate high school and go on to post-secondary education. “That’s why we have to do something different to facilitate the success of our children,” says Hutchingson. “Insanity,” she notes, quoting Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.”

Teacher Fiona LaPorte works with grade 1 student Elora at Sir William Macdonald School. (Ward Perrin/PNG)

Instilling pride in their ancestry and cultural histories, she says, can only make them better learners.

Macdonald is also designated as an inner-city school. Most students come from families living at or below the poverty line. There is a breakfast program paid for by private donors, a lunch program and the government-funded Strong Start drop-in program for parents or caregivers of children from infancy to school-age. Some kids at Macdonald may benefit from snacks during the school day; others could likely use a backpack food program so that there is something in the cupboard at home.

“There’s always a tension between how much you could do in that domain (providing food) and how much you should concentrate on our core business of education,” says Hutchingson, a former director of aboriginal education for the B.C. Ministry of Education.

“There’s a fine line between building capacity and enabling. What’s important is that we should give students the tools to be successful.”

Kids, she says, are keen to use technology. So, getting iPads, Smart Boards, computers and in-service training for the teachers so that they can use the technology to its best advantage are priorities for Hutchingson.

Hutchingson showed me a scrapbook done last year by Macdonald students. It’s charming, but it’s nothing compared to what her students in Skidegate were able to do using iPads to write, draw and enhance their reports with video and photos.

By email, she sent the Haida lullaby project done last year by students Samson Gamble and Cohen Isberg. It opens with a beautiful illustration of a sleeping baby with its head cradled in two hands. In the left-hand corner, there’s an older woman wearing a traditional cedar hat. It represents the Haida belief in reincarnation. The students recorded Betty Richardson (whose son Miles is a former chief and former head of the B.C. treaty commission) singing the lullaby. As she sings, Haida words from the song are superimposed on the illustration with their English translations.

Hutchingson is also keen for her Vancouver students to have access to Smart Boards.

Not only are Smart Boards good tools for using with groups of students for various subjects, Hutchingson wants her urban First Nations students to be able to connect with children in their home territories and with elders who can teach them traditional stories, crafts and their languages.

But to get the most value from the technology, Hutchingson is only too aware that teachers need to be taught how to best use it and remain up-to-date with the latest software.

But all of that is expensive and the school board doesn’t have the money. So, it’s usually left to parents to raise the money.

At Macdonald, the parents don’t have any extra cash for technology or field trips.

It’s not necessarily the admission prices, which range from $9 to $16 per student. Often, it’s the transportation costs that put field trips out of reach for too many children.

Hutchingson would also love to have all her students go to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden to learn about their heritage.

She’s keen to have them visit the Vancouver Art Gallery, Science World and the Vancouver Aquarium.

These wonderful institutions can only enrich the lives of children, but many never get there.

“The most important gift that we can give to children is education so that they can choose what they want to be,” says Hutchingson.

Giving that gift is not just the responsibility of governments. It takes parents, elders, teachers, friends, family, role models and even strangers willing to help.

In short, it takes a community to raise good children. And it’s the community that benefits when we do.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

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