Ensuring every Indigenous learner crosses the stage with dignity and purpose

Posted March 22, 2021 in Education
Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE)
Funded since 2018

Schools lose kids—particularly vulnerable kids—in moments of transition: from grade to grade, school to school, or home to home. For Indigenous children, this happens as early as Grade 4. But why? And how could schools prevent it from happening? NOIIE made it their mission to find out.

You can’t address problems you don’t understand. And how do you gain understanding? For NOIIE, the answer is brilliant in its simplicity: you ask, and then you listen. 

The organization’s proprietary Spiral of Inquiry process begins with inviting vulnerable kids to share what’s going on in their lives and what their experiences are like at school. 

“It’s basically like design thinking,” says Judy Halbert, Co-director of NOIIE. “You start by talking with the people you’re supposed to be serving.”  

In 2017, a cohort of 11 BC secondary schools took on the challenge of improving the transition experience. Dr. Catherine McGregor from the University of Victoria researched the impact of this work and documented the findings in a report titled “Improving Transitions for Indigenous Learners Through Collaborative Inquiry.” 

In 2019, a second cohort of 13 schools was launched; their inquiries are due in 2022. At each participating school, a team of educators spends time with Indigenous students to learn about their experience and then designs specific interventions aimed at creating a greater sense of identity and belonging. And because each school sees different challenges, the outcome of the process—what’s learned, and what action is taken as a result of that learning—looks different for every school. 

Those outcomes then feed back into more scanning, more learning, and more action—over and over, again and again—which means schools that have been doing the Spiral for years can see the significant cumulative impact that the process has on the lives of Indigenous students and on schools as a whole.

Taking Education Out Of Traditional Classrooms

One of NOIIE’s notable success stories comes from South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver. Teachers and administrators knew they were losing kids at the grade 9 or 10 level. Checking in with their students, they learned three important things: they wanted more hands-on learning, they wanted to be outside and they wanted more connection with their community and the land. 

This understanding inspired the creation of a pioneering cross-curricular learning experience called EPIC, which stands for Experiential, Project-based, Indigenous, Community. The program broke down barriers between classes like math, PE, art and shop, frequently taking learning outside school and onto the land. For instance, students would learn about the importance of snowshoes in Indigenous culture, then build their own PVC snowshoes, then go out into nature to use them. 

What was supposed to be a semester-long experiment continued, expanded and evolved. Now in its fifth year, EPIC has become an inspirational model for educators from other schools and districts wanting to engage their Indigenous learners. And graduation rates for Indigenous students in School District 53 have reached an all-time high. 

The school’s principal, Tracy Harrington, says they’ve watched their students “blossom” as the result of the program. “They’re so proud of who they are and where they’ve come from.” 

Welcoming Incoming Students With a Ceremonial Feast

Another impactful Spiral of Inquiry continues to play out in Prince Rupert, where educators noted that students faced challenges transitioning from grade 8 to 9, which meant leaving their smaller elementary schools for the larger Charles Hays Secondary School. 

The inquiry team scanned for about a year, gathering copious data from students, and developing a hunch that ultimately evolved into a welcome feast that honours the big jump—and the accompanying emotional transition—that students were making. 

Aboriginal Family Resource Worker Marlene Clifton says, “It acknowledges that we are on Sm’algyax territory, and culturally, this is what we do as Indigenous people, we have feasts to welcome, to celebrate, to honour.” 

The feast is one of the ways the trilingual school—which conducts classes in English, French and Sm’algyax language—is ensuring that Indigenous culture is felt throughout the school, not just by Indigenous students or within the bounds of First Nations 12 class. 

“There is an Indigenous presence at this school that is celebrated by all,” says Charles Hays teacher Nancy Griffith Zahner. 

“It’s all a way of bringing our community closer together and our students closer together to us,” says Sandy Beckwith, Aboriginal Family Resource Worker. “We’re with them for four years. We’re their family, so we’re trying to establish something right off the bat so we can push them through and watch them succeed.” 

Elder and Sm’algyax Language Teacher Alex Campbell says the impact of what the school has done is profound. “This is one of the most important things that I have seen happening in my lifetime…we stand together, we lock arms and we move forward at the same speed.”