In October 2019, leaders from Fort Chipewyan, a village in northern Alberta, raised the alarm about an education crisis at a community meeting.
“The leaders felt that the children in the community were not getting the proper education they deserve,” said Bonnie Fraser, councilor for Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN).
“There were no high school graduates for, I think it was two years earlier.”
A young man made a passionate plea at that meeting, recalled Kerri Ceretzke, MCFN’s director of education.
“This has to change,” he remembers him saying. “We need to want to go to school.”
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In February 2020, the Fort Chipewyan Community School opened its doors. Based in the vacant building of Keyano College, it offers students in grade 10 and above upgrade courses and complete their high school diploma at their own pace. It also enables remote learning through modules for students living outside the community.
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“You come in, we welcome you,” said Ceretzke, who is also the director. “Whether it’s September 1 or November 15, come in and let’s get started.
“Respect, kindness, those traditional values are our guiding principles when we approach education here with students.”
The school is run in partnership with MCFN, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Association. It is based on a model used in northern Alaska, where community members co-teach with certified teachers, Ceretzke explained.
“If you would look at the staffing structure within our school, we have many, many community members here who represent Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort Chipewyan Métis, and assist us in many of our roles, including services of tutoring, administrative work, liaison work with families.
“We hire local elders and community members to come out on the land. Students participate in credit-based natural resource courses: September moose hunt, winter catch. Right now, a camp is taking place that focuses on botany, ”Ceretzke said.
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It runs 12 months of the year and includes traditional seasonal camps and offers as much flexibility as possible to students. The community high school operates from 11 am to 4:30 pm and has a special evening schedule two days a week.
In June, there were 256 students enrolled. This year it will celebrate at least 41 graduates.
“The atmosphere, the energy, the conversation about education is much more positive,” said Ceretzke. “There is pride, there is that identity, it is administered by the community, there is the sovereignty of education, and I think that makes a difference.”
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Fraser said community leaders were able to come together and address the issues.
“The impact it had on the community, the result, the (number) of graduates who are leaving this school, is unreal.
“I think Athabasca Delta (Community School, run by the Northland School Division) has never had so many graduates in one school year,” he added. “Maybe four school years or five school years combined, but not one.
“This school is not just helping our youth,” Fraser said. “We have a graduate, he is 60 years old, who has gone back to school to get his high school diploma.”
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It was flexibility, connection to traditional culture, and support that drew 18-year-old Alyssa Antoine to Fort Chipewyan Community School.
“If I want to, here I can learn more about my language, learn more about Dene, the land, the people,” he said.
“It makes me proud to know that I can learn and talk to my elders and learn a lot of things that I have never learned before: fishing, hunting, all the traditional things that they had to do in their teens and that I can do. now that I have the knowledge. “
Alyssa just graduated, but plans to improve two classes before attending the University of Alberta in the fall of 2022. She would like to study psychology.
“I would like … maybe to become a psychologist or a therapist and go back to my community and help others.”
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Some students, like Alyssa, are interested in postsecondary school or career opportunities, Ceretzke said. But for some of the older students, “it is unfinished business.”
“It is the healing aspect. For our 60-year-old graduates, survivors of residential school, they want to finish that, ”he explained.
“I really found the adults, it’s healing around education.”
Other students, he said, are trying to lead by example.
“We have a mother and daughter who are graduating. For the mother, he was a role model in the education of her daughters. Very, very deep reasons. “
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Justine Antoine, 30, got a job as a school records manager. Once she was hired, she immediately signed up for classes. Justine, who dropped out of school when she was in grade 11, also graduated this year.
“I was crying and it was an incredible moment for our family.”
“I’m a mother of four so I really have to pull up my socks and show the kids that this is what you have to do,” she said. “I was really motivated to do it and to do it for myself and my kids … just to know that I made my grade 12 and be a role model.”
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