Success for Aboriginal students


Brianna Brash-Nyberg
Focus on Adoption magazine

In School District 59, a ground-breaking program works with Aboriginal students, coach/mentor teachers, families, and communities to improve outcomes for Aboriginal students.

According to District Vice Principle Caron Jones, a coach/mentor teacher in each school guides a collaborative process that places Aboriginal student achievement at the forefront. The result has been increased successes in many areas including reading scores, course completion, and graduation rates, which rose from 45% to 62% over five years.

“The difference it’s making in our Aboriginal kids up here is just amazing,” says Adoptive Families Association of BC Adoption Support Coordinator Sherrie Jones, whose children participate in the program.

Although the program is grounded in First Nations traditions and approaches, it began halfway around the world. Inspired by Australia’s successes in Indigenous education, district superintendant Kathy Sawchuk (now retired) took a personal leave and travelled there on her own time to learn more. She brought back many new ideas and approaches. Now, five years in, the program serves approximately 1,200 students, and is getting requests from districts all over Canada that want to start something similar.

The program employs a wide range of cutting-edge strategies. These focus on restorative rather than punitive processes and often bring Aboriginal role models in to visit and inspire students. The first-hand narratives of learners’, families’, teachers’ and leaders’ educational experiences inform the ongoing development of a relationship-based learning program. Each classroom works to develop a family-like context in order to support this relationship-based learning.

The program also strives to increase the pedagogical expertise of classroom teachers that support Aboriginal learners, and uses the tool of mentor coaching to support change at every level. Coach/mentor teachers work with classroom teachers to develop classroom profiles that take into account strengths and concerns of individual students and the entire group of learners.

These profiles are used to develop an instructional plan that meets the needs of all students, with a special emphasis on Aboriginal students. This process is followed up by five collaboration sessions with the coach/mentor to review and refine throughout the year using student data.

The program employs a coach/mentor teacher in every school. These teachers also serve as Grade and Grad Coaches, which means that they coach students, help them set short term and long term goals, create action plans, identify potential risks and academic concerns, ensure that immediate resources and support are provided for students, and ultimately see Aboriginal students graduate with dignity, purpose, and options.

“They’re absolutely amazing,” says Jones. “Teachers make sure the kids don’t fall through the cracks, and they help them work through any roadblocks or struggles in coursework. If a student hasn’t been at school that week they’ll track them down, find out why the kids aren’t there, and remove the barriers. They’ll go right to their house, and they’ll do the rounds in the morning and pick them up and take them to school. Whatever the barriers are, they’ll remove them. My son wants to be a welder, and they’re ensuring that he has all the courses he needs so that by the time he’s in Grade 11 he’ll be doing dual credit at Northern Lights College. He’ll come out of high school with his level 1 welding and credits towards graduation. Our Aboriginal kids are walking across the stage and getting their diplomas and the mentors even have a stockpile of grad dresses and suits. These one-to-one workers, one of them even bought a grad dress for a girl because she couldn’t afford it. It’s all about making connections.”

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