Alternate education program shows promise for northern Alberta hamlet

A northern Alberta hamlet has struggled with education for years, but now the First Nations and Métis local have gotten together to create their own alternate school program which has graduated 10 students in the first six months.

'They can actually see themselves going past high school now. They can see the college,' councillor says

Fort Chipewyan's new alternate school program has graduated 10 students in the first six months. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The northern Alberta hamlet of Fort Chipewyan has struggled with education for years, but a new alternative school program has shown early success.

Although the local high school hasn't had any graduates the last two years, the new program has graduated 10 students in the first six months. 

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Métis Local 125 started the Fort Chipewyan Alternate Education program in January. 

It's a school based out of the community's Keyano College campus, where students complete modules at home, at their own pace. The school has courses for students Grade 10 to 12. There are about 100 students currently in the program.

"We've taken down the barriers to education," said principal Kerri Ceretzke. She said the alternate school lets students study on their own schedule, and the school offers wellness and mental health packages.

"We're also seeing lots of intergenerational, where parents are finishing off their high school diploma with their child," said Ceretzke. 

She added that the school has avoided putting the studies online. 

"We saw way more success with… pencil and paper," said Ceretzke. "We didn't have to worry about whether or not our internet would be out."

One recent graduate, Shaye Chapdelaine, 21, said she tried to graduate in 2016 through the Athabasca Delta Community School, run by the Northland School Division, but she was short  on credits and classes. 

She isn't alone —there have been no graduates from the Athabasca Delta Community School for the past two years. 

Chapdelaine said it was easier to get her diploma through the alternate school, because she could do it after work on her own schedule. 

She struggled in the traditional school setting because there was low attendance, few kids in class and limited class options. 

Chapdelaine is eight months pregnant and she said if the school system doesn't improve in Fort Chipewyan, she'd consider moving so her child can get a better education.

Chapdelaine said now that she has her diploma she wants to further her education. 

Mikisew Cree First Nation councillor Calvin Waquan said the nations wanted to give people who may have slipped through the cracks a chance to get an education. 

He said alternate school gives the students "the ability to see their future in their own hands." 

There have been no graduates from the Athabasca Delta Community school in 2 years. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"They can actually see themselves going past high school now. They can see the college. They can see what they need to be to be a doctor or a lawyer." 

In June 2019, Wood Buffalo councillors voted to send a letter to the provincial minister of education, Alberta Indigenous Affairs minister and federal minister of Indigenous Services about the "education crisis" in the area's rural communities. 

This came after there were no graduates out of Fort Chipewyan and 12 teachers left the community.

Minister of education Adriana LaGrange visited Fort Chipewyan and said her priority was improving the teacher housing to help retain teachers. 

LaGrange's press secretary Colin Aitchison said in an email that Lagrange has been "in constant communication with Northland School division." 

"Our understanding is that under the leadership of their recently appointed superintendent, Northland School Division is actively working to address the concerns," Atchison said. 

The Bill Woodward graduation ceremony in Anzac. There were 6 graduates in Anzac this year. (Northland School Division)

In an email, Northland School representative Curtis Walty said COVID-19 has been a catalyst for the division to implement teaching using more technology, and students who didn't have access to technology were given paper work packages. 

He added the division celebrated the graduation of32  students from Anzac, Calling Lake, Conklin, Wabasca and Paddle Prairie. 

"We are proud of all our grads and are looking forward to celebrating more graduates in the future."