A case Study of Atikameg School, Canada.
by Anthony Olusola B.Ed, B.A.
Atikameg School: A success story of an Aboriginal Self-governed Educational system
Atikameg school, located 428 kilometers northeast of Edmonton on the Whitefish Lake First Nation reserve, is made up of three Utikoomak Lake reserves of land totalling 11,974 hectares. The language predominantly spoken is Algonquin Cree. The new and modern Atikameg school opened on March 27, 2002, designed for student population of 500, and providing educational programs for Kindergarten to Grade 12. Nearly all the students travel to and from the school by bus because of the school’s location and distance from homes. However, the commuting is sponsored and coordinated by the band.
The selection of the Atikameg school is premised upon the demonstration of a unique and effective administrative and working relationship between the political and educational leaders of the Whitefish First Nation, the Northland School Division No. 61 and Alberta learning, thus fostering a balanced and commendable inter-agency relationship, as any governance jurisdictional conflict is considered secondary to the collective focus on what is educationally best for the students and staff.
The cordial relationship among the educational agencies and the leadership of the band in the formation of the students have yielded tremendous results. The percentage of students meeting the Grade 9 Provincial Language Arts Achievement test, Acceptance Standard is on the continued rise from 36.4% in the year 1999/2000 school year to 84.6% in 2002/2003 school year. Student attendance also increased from 75.7% in the 1999/2000 school year to 76.6% in 2002/2003, while the school experienced a jump in enrollment from 309 students to 341 students, with a 93% annual retention rate. The band also prides in the stability of teachers and administration turnover as a major success, and this success story is shared by the school division and the school community. Since the 2000/2001 school year, Atikameg school continues to experience on average, nine new teaching staff members.
Atikagem School: Understanding the governance and leadership
Historically, Atikameg school was governed by the Northland Division No. 61 Corporate Board under a tuition agreement with the federal government. With the passing of the Northern School Division Act 1983 in the Alberta legislature, a basis for the creation of a unique school division was established. The Act provides specific exemptions from the School Act and Local Authorities Election Act in reference to First Nation schools, and in 1996 the Whitefish First Nation assumed full governance authority for the school. The band membership, now in charge of governance, established the position of Director of Education, as they see this to be important for the future educational well being of their community.
The management structure and chain of command was established through a contract of services with the Board of Trustees of the Northern School Division and Alberta Minister of Education, empowering the band with the rights to hire the Director of Education, on their behalf, to oversee all education programs including Atikameg school. The Chief and Council also has the power to appoint the Educational Advisory committee, with the power to expel students, deal with parental concerns, and make recommendations to Chief and Council concerning programming and operational issues at the school. The Principal, according to the contract of services, is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school and for carrying out the policies, goals, and wishes of Whitefish First Nation #459, as well as overseeing the professional staff as directed by the Northern School Division No. 61. This indicates a structured, yet collaborative management pattern. The chain of command is not vested in an individual, but spread across the community. Interesting to note is the aspect of the Principal’s duty of stewardship and accountability in alignment with the wishes of Whitefish First Nation –planting, educational activities and conduct toward cultural values and tradition of the community.
The contract also set out the procedures to establish and agreement on the financial obligation for the band to pay for the professional services of the administration and teachers at the school and specified instructional support. As many would argue, accountability and financial management remain as key issues in many Aboriginal communities, however, Atikameg school has done well in proving their ability not only as a protector of their cultural heritage but also funds for the running of the community school. The principal prepares the operation budget and presents it to the Director of Education for final approval. Extra and emergent funding issues are also presented to the Director of Education. However, the hiring of support and maintenance staff, and the associated budget is at the discretion of the band. Worthy to note is that the Director of Education is a band member, which explains why his role is vital in the scrutiny and thorough evaluation of administrative activities and governance of the school. The individual also plays a liaison role between the community and school, with the best interest of the student education as a key focus. Trust is vital, and expected at a high level in Aboriginal communities, and this high level personal trust is expected between Chief and Council, Director of Education, principals and Northland administration by which the community holds them accountable for their stewardship.
As in the light of governance complexity, a leader who is trusted and respected by all parties makes the key difference in setting the caring and professional tone. The running of Atikameg school can therefore be attributed, in part, to the clear vision the Chief and Council, strong leadership by the Director of Education, unambiguous administrative chain of command and mutual understanding among Northland School Division No. 61, shared responsibility among teachers and staff, and community involvement toward better education of students.
Curriculum and Programs
The Whitefish Lake First Nation Chief and Council and Board of Trustees of the Northern Board direct the school principal and teachers to adhere to the Alberta Learning Program of Studies and Regulations so as to provide the highest quality of education to the students and be comparable to other jurisdictions in Alberta. However, the curriculum resources and programs must have the approval of chief and council, and perhaps Alberta Learning. This reflects a systemic way of integrating contemporary educational standard in a traditional setting without loosing the cultural heritage and ownership of the community to western standard.
The teaching method in Atikameg school, as identified by the majority of the teachers, is hands-on, which is said to be effective. Many teachers also highlighted the support they receive from the classroom teacher assistants who know the students and the community and can bridge this knowledge with the daily lesson being taught by the teachers. Notable in the school, was the increase in students reading proficiency and interests in learning as a result of the levelled reading group in primary classes and the use of teacher assistants to provide small-group instruction targeted to students’ ability levels.
Native Language and Culture
As it is universally known, language is an important element of being human, as it sets people apart in such distinctive and unique way. As the world continues to lean toward western lifestyle, many peoples loose out on the richness of their culture. Atikameg community, like many other first nations communities, believe in the transmission of their cultural heritage down generations. Premised upon these facts, the staff, parents, and ultimately the community of Atikameg were concerned that students may lose their Cree language, and something must be done. To fix this, the band hired two Cree instructors from the community to teach Cree on a daily basis to students in Grades 1 – 10. It was also expressed at the province, the need for Cree second and immersion language teachers trained at a university and certified by the the province. This way, the community expresses the importance of contemporary knowledge base, and training as a possible way to teaching culture. It can be argued that the band desires to provide a well-balanced teaching method for an all-round development of the students.
Assessment for learning and accountability:
The assessment for learning at the Atikameg school is the responsibility of the Whitefish Lake First Nation, Northern School Division, the province of Alberta, and this fosters an ongoing cycle of relationship, goal setting, nd identification of appropriate strategies to achieve these goals, measurement of progress, and reporting of results. This further translates into the invovement of parents in the ongoing educational development of their children, as student’s first report card is delivered to homes of the parents by the home room teacher. This reflects the value of communication and first hand reaction of parents regarding the performance of their children. It provides an opportunity for the parent-teacher interview, but at the comfort of home, as opposed to a structured school enviroment, thereby enabling both the teacher and parents to establish future communications based on understanding, respect and trust toward child’s educational improvement or cognitive development. In the second report circle, however, the school fosters a classroom competition to reward the highest percentage of parent participation at the interviews and this has been reported to be successful as students exert pressure on their parents to attend.
Several academic growth has been attributed to the adaptation of contemporary educational system in the running and administration of Atikameg school, as opposed to assimilation of the cultural values into the contemporary system and management. The Grade 9 Language Arts test results in Alberta province indicate the the school’s emphasis on reading and the language art program is rasing student achievement. The community expects that their students will graduate from high school and further their education on to post-secondary programs, and this expection seem to have met the desires of the students as the student group interviews confirmed thst most students have post-secondary plans.
While recognising the dynamics of the present day and the effects of modernity and civilization on humans, as expressed through agents of socialization such as educational institutions. The progess being made by Atikameg school, however, can be attributed to leadership, commitment, and trust thus making possible a alliance and mutual relationship between the contemporary educational institution, the Alberta School Division, and the cultural institution – the Whitefish First Nation. The ownership and governance provided by the Chief and Council, and their high level of commitment as well as their administrative leaders is also foundational for the school success.
Further more, the separation of governance by the leaders, and the informal and formal administration and operations of functions begets a sense of respect and compliments, less beaurocracy and more of support for each other toward better educational programs in the best interest of the students. Parents and community involvement and the speaking of native language is also an indicator of the success story. Therefore when given the chance, an Aboriginal communities, as seeing in the case of Atikameg school, are capable of providing governance and desirable administration to their people, teaching and educating their young ones using methods and approaches that they will understand toward ensuring holistic childhood and educational development, inclusive of systemic contemporary procedure, however without jeopardizing core community values and heritage.
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