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Trustees consider options for an Aboriginal-focussed school

There is strong community support for the development of an Aboriginal-focussed school, according to Vancouver Board of Education Chair Patti Bacchus, but what form it will take needs further thought and discussion.

The Vancouver School Board hosted a series of forums with students, staff and community members during the past two weeks to discuss Aboriginal education and the idea of creating a mini-school at Britannia Secondary School. The forums were moderated by UBC Associate Dean of Indigenous Studies Jo-Ann Archibald, who will be submitting a report to the board in coming weeks summarizing the consultation and recommending next steps.

The proposal is deliberately vague at this time because trustees wanted an opportunity for people to say whether the school district is heading in the right direction.

"We've been saying at the meetings that we didn't plan next steps because we didn't know where this was going to go. We were prepared for people to say, 'No, this is the wrong way,' and then we would have just stopped," Bacchus said.

"But I am really inspired by what we've heard - there's major interest. I think if we didn't proceed now we'd be in real trouble. There's certainly people who are reluctant, but there is certainly pretty strong support for moving forward from those who want to."

The idea of developing an Aboriginal mini-school for Grades 8-12 was most recently raised during budget consultations last spring. It has been suggested that it be located at Britannia Secondary, which is also being considered for possible reconfiguration as a Kindergarten - Grade12 school with Britannia Elementary.

"We've said from the get-go that we weren't locked into a model or location," Bacchus said. "We gave the idea as a starting point. We talked about possibly a mini-school at Britannia, or not. But this is what we're listening for - this is our time to listen and think about options."

And what trustees heard surprised even Bacchus, who said the proposal was very positively received, but that the mini-school might not be the right model.

"What we've heard "� [is] that maybe we need a school that is its own school," she said, adding that some speakers asked for a K-12 Aboriginal school.

Bacchus recounted the comments of one student who participates in pull-out programs at her school. The student said she feels self-conscious walking down the hall with drums to go drumming, and that she'd feel safer in a school that was focused on Aboriginal culture.

Whatever the model, Bacchus wants students to have a choice of attending and expects it will be available to all students, not just those of Aboriginal ancestry.

It's not the first time that VSB has considered creating an Aboriginal school. In 1995, the district studied the idea of an Aboriginal secondary school with a population of 350, but decided against proceeding.

"They didn't think they'd have the support or the numbers for a stand-alone school, which is why we said let's start with a mini-school because it doesn't require [as much space or as many students]," Bacchus said. "But what we're hearing is they want bigger - more - than what we're talking about."

The fact that it's the Aboriginal community that is asking for Aboriginal-focussed programs is key for Bacchus.

"We know if the school board comes out and tells them what they need then that's completely the wrong approach," she said.

"What we're saying is that we've heard this ask and we're going out and asking how we should proceed and are looking to members of the Aboriginal community to provide leadership and tell us what we need to do to enable this school to happen."

Initially, trustees had hoped to see the program start up for September 2011, but Bacchus now admits that might be overly ambitious.

"This may require significant changes to the way we govern schools. We may have to work with the province and our employee groups, so there may be some fundamental changes that have to happen," Bacchus said.

"It seems like we have enough support to move forward, and then we have to actually start developing what this will look like; who will be involved; how will it operate; what are the resources that we'll need; what's the format; and what's the curriculum - do we need to change curriculum or actually develop curriculum."

Regardless of the challenges ahead, Bacchus is grateful for the time people have taken to speak to the district.

 "They have come out and spoken passionately and articulately. They have provided us with a great deal of input and advice and points that we need to be mindful of as we move forward," she said.

For now, trustees will await Archibald's report on the consultation process and her recommendations for moving forward.

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