Ermineskin Elementary School in Maskwacis has brought up literacy levels and attendance by using a Cree-style approach that’s resonating with students and their parents.
Principal Doris Auger said First Nations schools have always struggled to get a “buy-in” from families, because of negative historical associations and experiences with residential schools.
Achieving a significant measurable educational success — as was formally recognized by the school receiving a Leader in Me Lighthouse School certification by the FranklinCovey educational program — is very heartening, said Auger.
The certification recognizes that more than half of the Grade 1-6 students (54.7 per cent) reached an acceptable literary level in 2018-19. Auger said this compares to just 29 per cent in 2010-11.
It also recognizes that 40 per cent of the school’s students have achieved 90 to 100 per cent class attendance, compared to only 28 per cent in 2010-11. Overall attendance during this same period rose to 85 per cent from about 81 per cent.
Auger has seen a remarkable transformation from when she started teaching at the 342-student school 30 years ago. “I was lucky if half the kids were there each day,” she recalled.
A decade ago, former Ermineskin Elementary School principal, Debbie Michael, noticed that the FranklinCovey program being used in her son’s school was making a positive difference in his attitude towards learning and life. The global program is based on Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but is tailored for young students.
Michael, who is of First Nations background, also noticed distinct similarities between the program’s approach and traditional Cree teachings, said Auger — so the school applied for a grant and was able to adopt the program.
Ermineskin Elementary students are now taught “you are in charge of your own education.” They learn to collaborate, work towards an end goal, take responsibility for their own actions, and to “seek first to understand others and then to be understood — which means listening first,” said Auger.
Among the principles is “sharpening the saw,” which means taking care of yourself in body, mind and spirit, she added.
The school has created “leadership teams” for dancing, technology, cooking, or others area of student interest, “so they can show off their skills and passions,” said Auger.
Outdoor education and community service are other prioritized areas. Auger said the children have sung to seniors’ groups, collected donations for the food bank and women’s shelter, and made cookies and mitts for those in need.
Because of these community connections, she believes parents have gained a more positive view of the school, and have encouraged their children’s education through more home reading and homework sessions.
Auger believes this has especially helped during periods when the school has had to shut down to reduce the COVID-19 spread and shift to at-home learning.
“Our literacy is not high enough yet, but it’s improving,” added the principal, who is Métis and is married to a First Nations man. She believes the many years she and other educators have taught at Ermineskin Elementary School has also helped foster trust and good community relations.
”Some of my students’ parents I taught from when they were in Grade 1!”