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Keeping Canada's Indian Youth in School

A Winnipeg high school offers native children traditional values and a supportive atmosphere

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 1994


SITTING in a class of 15 inner-city Indian students here at Children of the Earth High School, 16-year-old Ira Johnson is struggling to reclaim his native roots by learning his ancestral language - Ojibway.

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Learning Ojibway, however, is clearly not a piece of cake. Moisture glistens on young Ira's brow as fellow student Julie Parenteau turns to him, holding a flash card with a picture of an old-fashioned water pump with a long curved handle.

Long seconds pass as Ira pauses, perplexed over a word that would have sprung easily to the lips of his grandfather.

``Nibiishka' igan,'' he says finally.

``Good, that's right,'' says Annie Boulanger, the language instructor who is looking over Ira's shoulder. ``You got it.''

This small triumph for Ira is part of the larger battle at Children of the Earth, which is attempting to teach young urban Indians acquainted with city survival about the culture and values of their forefathers. Along the way, the students here must also meet standard high school educational requirements laid down by the province.

Children of the Earth is one among eight native ``survival schools'' that have sprung up across Canada in response to the failure of traditional education to stem high dropout rates for Indian students.

In a country where 18 percent of all students drop out, according to a 1991 Statistics Canada survey reported last year, the rate for native students is far worse. A Winnipeg school official says only about three out of 10 native children will graduate from high school.

Faced with that lack of success, parents, teachers, and school officials in Winnipeg School Division No. 1 began in 1990 to weigh alternatives that included creating a school specifically to meet the needs of urban Indian youth. An Urban Aboriginal Educational Advisory Committee involving urban native leaders was also established by the school board.

The committee began by examining the experience of Canada's native ``survival schools.'' Several had been around since the 1970s. All had remained small, experimental programs outside the mainstream of public education. By 1991, however, the committee was endorsing the notion of building a public school in Winnipeg modeled after the successes of survival schools and avoiding their failures.

Indian parents were brought formally into the process in 1991 with the founding of the Thunder Eagle Society, a volunteer group that was charged with figuring out how to integrate native culture and values. Ultimately, a unique joint-management committee of school board, Thunder Eagle, parents, and teachers was formed.

Children of the Earth opened its doors in September 1991 with a student body of 240, the largest such school in Canada and the only one created within the public-school system. Located in a former high school that had been mostly Indian, school officials and students say there is an air of openness and family unusual for a public school.

``I had pretty well given up on school when I heard about [Children of the Earth],'' says Scott Stephens, a 12th-grade student of Ojibway descent. ``Everyone's on a first name basis. There's no Mrs. or Mr.... It's more like you're friends.''