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Story poles and reading clubs - aboriginal education programs cross cultural boundaries

The key aim for aboriginal education programming across the Boundary’s School District 51 is to ensure completion rates improve for First Nations students yet its successes are as much about participation and inclusion as they are test scores. 
In 2010, 345, about 22 percent, out of 1484 students across the region identified themselves as having aboriginal ancestry. This is a significant increase since the program’s beginnings in 1995 when only three percent were aware of their ancestry.
“When the activities went into the classrooms and included all the students you really saw a sense of pride coming from the aboriginal students but also an appreciation from the non-aboriginal students,” said Joan Holmes, elder with the Boundary All Nations Council. “There’s more respect towards those things that are part of that culture. It really makes me feel like the work that’s taken place in this district has been very worthwhile.”
Completion rates for aboriginal students are still lagging between 15 – 20 points behind non-aboriginal students. But the aboriginal programming has resulted in monitoring progress of students in order to develop new options to assist them throughout their school years.
An example of a program developed specifically for the students needs is the after school and summer reading and homework club. The program is a collaboration between the School District 51, the Boundary Literacy Program and the Grand Forks Public Library. For grades one to seven students who are struggling with reading, the program is offered twice a week after school at Perley, Hutton and Greenwood elementary schools.
“This program was developed because we saw that students were coming back after the summer and having to be re-taught what they learned in the spring before. So we recognized that there needed to be a program in place during the summer to help these students,” explained Wanda Hecht, aboriginal education instructor. “We soon realized those students…needed more support and that’s when we started the after school program. These programs have been very successful and received recognition from parents who were not necessarily on board at the beginning.” There are now 40 – 50 students accessing the programs.
Most importantly, the aboriginal education program provides cultural sharing in curriculum for grades from kindergarten through 11. The story pole raising at Grand Forks Senior Secondary School just last week is a unique example of the types of inclusive cultural activities being accessed.
Totem Poles can only be appropriately raised along the Pacific coast. Story or Cultural poles are used to involve the community in aboriginal culture and further awareness. In this case the pole began last spring, with guidance from Xwalactun, an internationally recognised Coast Salish carver, students and the community at large designed and carved the pole.
There are three totems on the pole – a beaver at the bottom, raven in the middle and the Kokanee fish on the top. A similar event took place at the Christina Lake Welcome Center last June. Aboriginal education assistant teacher Bob Grieve was the lead instructor on the story pole project.
“I think it’s hard to find a pure-blood First Nations person. The recognition (of ancestry) – it doesn’t make you any less, it doesn’t make you any more. It gives you an opportunity to have that sense of pride that is part of your own heritage,” said Holmes. “The number (of students identifying as aboriginal) – it’s exciting to see the people come out and see people recognize (their past). And even to recognize the discrimination they may have grown up with that they may not even been aware.”
The presentation on the aboriginal program for the district’s Board of Education was done by Maxine Ruzicka, director of instruction; Wanda Hecht, and Marilyn Hanson, aboriginal education instructors; joined by Joan Holmes, elder of the Boundary All Nations Council.
Watch the video above to see the amazing work of the student carvers as the story pole is placed in its permanent home.