House of the Future: Inside B.C.'s first public Indigenous-centred school

A look at B.C.'s first public Indigenous choice school, located in one of the most challenged areas of Prince George.

CBC Series Beyond Beads and Bannock takes an in-depth look at Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools

Pam Spooner, principal of Nusdeh Yoh (House of the Future) Elementary until spring 2018, said she was drawn to the job out of a desire to do more to improve outcomes for Indigenous students than other teaching opportunities provided. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

When B.C.'s first public Aboriginal-choice school opened in Prince George in 2010, it was "chaos," in the words of senior secretary Bonnie Bowe.

"Complete chaos," she said. "The on-call staff, the EAs [educational assistants], they didn't like to come here."

Her memories are echoed by Sonya Rock, the kindergarten Grade 1 teacher.

"I was exhausted. I was tired," she said of those first months. "But I was very determined, because I wanted to see our children succeed."

Teacher Sonya Rock is hugged by one of her students at Nusdeh Yoh Elementary. 'The children that come into my life, they are like my own,' she says. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Like the rest of her family, Rock attended residential schools, an experience she described as "traumatic." But she grew up to be a teacher, determined to make a difference in the lives of the next generation of Indigenous learners.

That drive is why she jumped at the chance to take part in a pioneering project in B.C.: Nusdeh Yoh (House of the Future), an Indigenous-centric elementary school in a challenged inner-city neighbourhood.

A school 'rooted in Aboriginal world views, culture and language' 

Choice schools are institutions with specialized programs and philosophies operating within B.C.'s education system.

Nusdeh Yoh — which means "House of the Future" in the Dakelh language —  touts itself as being "rooted in Aboriginal world views, culture and language." 

Its creation was part of Prince George's School District 57's strategy to improve graduation rates for Indigenous students in the city.

The school district's most recent numbers indicate it has more than 3,000 self-identified Indigenous students  — more than 23 per cent of the student body total. 

Nusdeh Yoh focuses on the holistic well-being of its students, working with parents and other community groups to provide best outcomes. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

And in 2010/11, the high school completion rate for Indigenous students in the district was just 44 per cent, far below the 71 per cent completion rate for all students. 

Eight years on, staff agree the "chaos" of the early days of Nusdeh Yoh is gone.

As well, completion rates for Indigenous students in the district is up to 57 per cent for 2016/17.

The completion rates for self-identified Aboriginal students in Prince George's School District 57 has been steadily improving over the past decade as schools incorporate more Indigenous perspectives in the classroom. (B.C. Ministry of Education)

A community of respect

Though it's tough to say how much of that improvement can be credited to Nusdeh Yoh, former principal Pam Spooner said she saw significant improvements during her tenure.

"We're hearing from [high schools] that our kids are coming way more prepared," she said during her final days at Nusdeh Yoh in May 2018 (Spooner is now the Aboriginal education principal for Penticton's School District 67). 

"They're more social, emotionally-bound. They're better regulated."

Mr., Mrs.  Spooner  — it's authority, right? ... It was a sign of the church, of colonialism ... When you're trying to form a relationship, you don't want to have a 'I'm higher' kind of thing- Pam Spooner , former principal, Nusdeh Yoh elementary

The focus on the social and emotional well-being of students is no accident — it's a core part of Nusdeh Yoh's operating philosophy of creating a community of learning in and outside of the school grounds.

Spooner said parents — many of whom experienced residential schools or trauma in the public school system — need to be welcomed into taking part in their kid's education.

To aid in that, most of Nusdeh Yoh's staff go by their first names in the classroom, ditching the standard "Mr." and "Ms." in favour of a more personal relationship.

Students who are late at Nusdeh Yoh aren't punished. Instead, they are welcomed with a snack and a note of encouragment for arriving. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"Mr., Mrs. Spooner — it's authority, right?" Spooner said. "It was a sign of the church, of colonialism ... When you're trying to form a relationship, you don't want to have a 'I'm higher' kind of thing."

The goal is to help develop trust between teachers and students, which translates into students opening up about problems they may be having in their private lives.

"We do deal a lot with the Ministry of Children and Family Services, RCMP," Spooner said. "We do a lot of restorative practice with the community, as well."

That "restorative practice" means if students tell a teacher that they've shoplifted, they'll be taken back to the store to apologize, or if they engage in vandalism, the school finds a way for the kids to help repair the damage.

Parent support programs also take place inside classrooms, community gatherings are held, and a network of past graduates is set up to help students navigate high school once they leave Nusdeh Yoh.

The name 'Nusdeh Yoh,' which means 'House of the Future' in the Dakelh community was chosen with input from the community it serves. So too was the artwork on the school's exterior. Former principal Pam Spooner says since the art was added, vandalism to the school dropped because the community "respects" its presence. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Nusdeh Yoh also incorporates Indigenous language and knowledge inside the classroom: Dakelh words are taught at all levels, and there's a "makerspace" where students do everything from learning beadwork to designing communities incorporating meeting spaces and localized food sources.

But the underlying philosophy of community and respect is what staff focus on when talking about what makes Nudseh Yoh succeed.

"The children that come into my life, they are like my own," said Rock. "They know that I love them. I adore them, and I want them to know that they belong."

The CBC's Andrew Kurjata visits Nusdeh Yoh, a public elementary school in Prince George centred around Indigenous philosophy, language and learning and the concept of community. 8:32


Beyond Beads and Bannock is an in-depth look at indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools. The series runs on CBC B.C. radio, TV and digital Sept. 3-8. 

Read more from CBC British Columbia

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the 3,000 students identifying as Indigenous in School District 57 comprised more than 33 per cent of the student body. In fact, that number comprises more than 23 per cent of the student body.
    Sep 07, 2018 8:20 AM PT

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.