'A new beginning' as 3 Manitoba First Nations set to break ground on new schools

Three Manitoba First Nations are set to break ground this spring on new schools their leaders say will help improve graduation rates by keeping students going to classes in their home communities.

Extra space will keep students in communities longer, improve graduation rates, chief says

Students gathered in the gymnasium of Winnipeg's Southeast Collegiate for the announcement about the new schools on Thursday. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Three Manitoba First Nations are set to break ground this spring on new schools their leaders say will help improve graduation rates by keeping students going to classes in their home communities.

"For too long, our children have had to leave the community when they're like 13, 14 years old to pursue their high school [education]. They have no choice. If they want to continue their education, they have to leave the community," said Vera Mitchell, chief of Poplar River First Nation.

"People often wonder why our First Nations students don't succeed. That's the answer right there."

On Thursday, Mitchell — along with chiefs from Bloodvein and Little Grand Rapids First Nations — announced that construction on new schools in each community is set to begin in May — roughly four years after the partnership with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada was announced in January 2016. 

Project manager Sidney Seymour said he also thinks the new schools, which are expected to be open in August 2021, will help improve graduation rates among Indigenous students in Manitoba.

"That's important because then they don't lose contact with their family. There's more support systems," said Seymour.

Vera Mitchell, chief of Poplar River First Nation, said the new schools will help improve graduation rates by keeping students going to classes in their home community. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"It's easier when you're at home with your own family, [and] not worried about being lonesome and all that type of stuff. And then you can concentrate on your school studies and do better in school."

Manitoba's overall four-year, student-tracked high school graduation rate was 79.9 per cent in 2018. The rate was 87.9 per cent for non-Indigenous students and 48.5 per cent for Indigenous students.

Seymour said the current schools in the communities only offer up to Grade 9, which is why students are forced to leave home for high school — but the new schools will accommodate up to Grade 10 for Bloodvein and Grade 12 for Little Grand Rapids and Poplar River. Altogether, the schools will accommodate 917 students, he said.

Seymour said schools in all three communities are over capacity based on current school standards, and often struggle to find enough teachers to meet the demand — and he thinks the new schools will help combat both problems by creating more room and better working environments.

'Centre of the community'

It's a sentiment echoed by Mitchell, who said Poplar River's school has been seriously overcrowded ever since it was built 30 years ago.

Mitchell said many of the school's programs, like its resources for students with disabilities, suffer because of the lack of space for them. Right now, she said the school has more than 70 students with disabilities and about 18 educational assistants.

"We don't have the infrastructure to support those programs. We're just making do with what we have, and it's not very good," she said.

"So you can imagine how overcrowded our classrooms are, if you have a teacher, plus two or three [educational assistants] in the classroom, plus 20 to 30 kids. It's a nightmare."

Seymour said while the new schools are being designed with students in mind, it was also important to create spaces that could benefit the larger community.

"The school is the centre of the community," he said. "So we put a little bit more emphasis on community in the school than we normally do."

An aerial rendering of the new K-12 school on Poplar River First Nation, which will measure 4,465.3 square metres and accommodate 360 students. (Supplied/Sidney Seymour)

The new schools will have shared cultural teaching spaces and bigger gyms for students and people living in the community — something Seymour said the current schools are lacking.

"They struggle having enough educational space in terms of teaching the kids," he said. "So to have any extracurricular-type stuff, there just isn't room."

Seymour, who is a member of Bloodvein First Nation, said he thinks anything they can add to expand students' educational experiences is going to help them.

"The more you're exposed to, the more positive things that you see, you bring that into your life," he said. "If you don't see it and you're never exposed to it, you'll never incorporate it into your life."

He said he hopes the new schools will help encourage more students to go to university and come back and help their communities, like he did when he got his engineering degree more than 20 years ago.

"I keep on promoting that we've got to get more engineers out of these schools and going into getting their engineering, architectural degrees so that we can work on these schools together," he said.