SFU researchers speak out in favour of Aboriginal schools

Program which places emphasis on Aboriginal curriculum sees praise from parents, amidst criticism

The entrance to the AFS is marked by a carving by elder Henry Robertson of the Haisla Nation.

A recent report released by SFU researchers has found that 57 percent of parents with children enrolled in BC’s only Aboriginal Focus School (AFS) would enroll another child in the program.

The findings came after the school, located at Sir William MacDonald Elementary in Vancouver, faced controversy and was nearly closed by the Vancouver School Board (VSB) last fall.

SFU psychology professor Michael Schmitt and graduate student Scott Neufeld teamed up with the alumni and the first principal of AFS, Vonnie Hutchingson, to collect interviews with 71 parents, teachers, and staff to make recommendations to the community and the school board.

Fourteen parents of the 50 children enrolled in the school were interviewed.

Of that number, eight said they would definitely send another child to the school, while another three reported they would consider it.

“The parents that we talked to were pretty happy,” explained Schmitt. “It’s helpful to know when you’re considering all the pros and cons of the focus school that at least parents are seeing real benefits for their [children].”

Those who participated in the study also said that they appreciated the diversity in the school and wanted to see even more Aboriginal content in the curriculum.

Forty of the students currently enrolled in the ASF’s kindergarten to grade five program identify as Aboriginal, while another 10 come from a variety of non-Aboriginal backgrounds.

The report confirmed that since the school opened four years ago, there has been a common misconception that the program is meant only for Aboriginal students. This makes it clear, says Neufeld, that there’s more the school board needs to do to promote the school for non-Aboriginal children.

Of interviewed Aboriginal parents whose children did not attend Macdonald Elementary, 28 percent responded that they “definitely would not” send their Aboriginal child to the focus school. Only one parent said they “definitely would.”

Three non-Aboriginal parents from the surrounding area were in favour of  enrolling their children in an AFS.

Through one-on-one interviews and focus groups, the report’s authors determined that much of parent’s hesitation could be attributed to misinformation. Other reasons expressed were a lack of confidence in the school board and classroom academics, and, additionally, many Aboriginal parents said it “reminded them of residential schools.”

“There’s good reason for people to be skeptical of a focus school that’s run by [the]Vancouver School Board,” explained Schmitt. “Given some past experiences with Aboriginal education and residential schools that have been extremely negative [. . .] it’s really critical [that] the VSB builds a relationship of trust with members of the Aboriginal community here.”

Hutchingson, who has been an educator for 30 years and is a member of the Haida and Tsimshian First Nations, said that none of the results of the report surprised her. There have been concerns raised for years regarding Aboriginal education and Indigenous academic content.

Hutchingson, Schmitt, and Neufeld are calling on the VSB to consult with the community and take another look at  having the school move forward.

“The model that would make sense to me,” explained Hutchinson, “would be to have Aboriginal content throughout every school in this school district and maybe have one that specialized in it.”

This critique of the school board’s approach is echoed by a vocal critic of the project, Scott Clark — executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society. He says that even with the new findings, he is still opposed to the school.

“We’ve always maintained the position that we need to start educating everybody,” he said. “The premise of taking such a small number of students and putting them away in a little school doesn’t begin to address any of the systemic issues.”

He maintains that the focus school still segregates Aboriginal youth and attests to the VSB’s unwillingness to incorporate Indigenous topics into their larger educational framework.

Neufeld, however, is optimistic that the report can change the future of the school for the better. “I think the report speaks to this — part of the trick is figuring out how to not make it a segregated program,” he explained.

The researchers say that the report — and the VSB’s renewed five-year commitment to the school’s operation following an outcry over its potential  closure  last October — might give the school a chance to meet its full potential.