Learning framework aims to support Indigenous student challenges

‘If you have identity, it gives you pride and confidence, and if you have pride and confidence, the world is there for you to conquer’

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As Indigenous students continue to face low graduation rates, public school officials are rolling out a new Indigenous learning framework that looks back on the truth of history in hopes of moving students forward to success.

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For the third consecutive year, less than half of Calgary Indigenous high school students, or 48 per cent, are graduating in three years, and only 53 per cent within five years — numbers that fell well below provincial averages for 2021.

In comparison, 82 per cent of all students at Calgary Board of Education high schools graduated over three years in 2021, and 86 per cent within five years, according to the latest data on academic success.

Academic challenges among Indigenous kids, which make up about four per cent of CBE students, are still continuing even after a $13-million funding injection to support them in the CBE’s 2020-21 budget, a $1.6-million increase from the previous year.

The latest piece to that support is the “Indigenous Education Holistic Lifelong Learning Framework” presented last week to CBE trustees from a staff of six administrators with the Indigenous learning team, and including input from 11 Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers from First Nations communities across southern Alberta.

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The detailed framework will train teachers to bring more Indigenous perspectives, experiences and learning traditions into all classrooms at all grade levels, while also addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action which include age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, Indigenous history and contemporary contributions.

The aim, officials say, is to move forward by facing the dark truths of the past, including the ongoing discoveries of unmarked children’s graves at former residential school sites across Canada.

CBE admits the gap between success for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students continues to be too wide, and a framework like this can provide the unique supports that Indigenous kids need.

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“Our goal is to eliminate that gap, to ensure these students are known for who they are, for teachers to work closely with them and their families to allow them to reach their potential,” said Andrea Holowka, CBE superintendent school improvement.

“We know there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, and we are committed to that.”

As part of the framework, all schools will now be encouraged to include more learning activities that focus on Indigenous ways of life, like outdoor learning, participating in traditional Indigenous ceremonies and practices, and using more Indigenous-based resources and literature.

Schools are also being asked to invite more Indigenous leaders into classrooms, including musicians and artists to work with all students.

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“This framework needs to come alive in schools, that is the expectation, where we want to see all schools take up this work,” Holowka added.

“We will use this in the professional learning of staff, ensuring all students are aware of Indigenous culture and experiences, but also really focusing on Indigenous students in schools, trying to make a significant impact on their education by knowing exactly how to support them.”

Events like Orange Shirt Day, observing the legacy of Canada’s residential school system on Sept. 30, could also be used as opportunities for learning and age-appropriate discussion, Holowka said.

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Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers called the framework critically important in providing Indigenous kids with the self-esteem, self-reliance and tenacity it takes to find academic success.

“Our students need identity,” said Leonard Bastien Weasel Traveller, a Blackfoot elder with the Piikani Nation.

“If you have identity, it gives you pride and confidence, and if you have pride and confidence, the world is there for you to conquer.”

Bastien says a large part of the solutions lies in including more Indigenous leaders in all ways of learning, from hiring them to teach Indigenous languages to inviting them as guests to work with students as mentors.

“We need role models. We need heroes, so all of these kids can aspire to them, and see what Indigenous people can do in the community.”

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But the framework also arrives at a time when the education system continues to come under fire for what critics are calling a haphazard approach that is a disservice to the complexities of Indigenous history and culture.

Last week, students and Indigenous advocates called for the renaming of the CBE junior high school named after Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a strong proponent of the country’s residential school system.

While CBE officials say they are committed to supporting Indigenous students and Indigenous history, the issue was not raised as part of discussions around the Indigenous learning framework.

The northwest Calgary school is just west of the Nose Hill Siksikaitsitapi Medicine Wheel, a monument that sits on traditional Blackfoot territory and holds spiritual and historical significance for the Blackfoot Confederacy.

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Michelle Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Reconciliation Action Group, said while the learning framework makes sense, it needs to do more than just pay lip service to a complex problem.

“We need more than just words, we need action. This is why we are called the Reconciliation Action Group, not the word group,” she said.

“All we want is a renaming of this school, but there is a barrier, a wall, in terms of including parents and the general public in this dialogue.”

Robinson said she is also concerned what might happen to the Indigenous learning framework if the controversial UCP social studies curriculum — highly criticized for its racist undertones and disrespect of Indigenous history — is pushed through within a year.

“What we need more than anything is anti-racism training and Indigenous education for all teachers.”

But Holowka argues the learning framework is doing just that, and will train teachers to still infuse ways of Indigenous learning, no matter what curriculum is brought forward by government.

“These will be foundational, enduring elements to our learning, allowing for whatever curriculum comes forward,” said Holowka.

“This professional learning will keep us moving forward.”

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