New Brunswick

Tobique school prospers as it gains 'the confidence of the community'

Another bump up in student numbers is expected Tuesday at Mah-Sos School on the Tobique First Nation, five years after the school almost closed due to lack of enrolment.

Darrah Beaver said she hopes for a boost in enrolment figures as another school year starts on Tuesday

The Mah-Sos School on the Tobique First Nation has gone from nearly closing down due to low enrolment numbers to growth. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Another bump up in student numbers is expected Tuesday at Mah-Sos School on the Tobique First Nation, five years after the western New Brunswick school almost closed due to lack of enrolment.

Each September Tobique parents have the option of sending their children to the band's school, or driving them to the provincially-run elementary school in nearby Perth-Andover.

Until recently the majority of the parents were choosing to send their children to Perth Andover for school.

Darrah Beaver, the director of education for Tobique First Nation, said the decision of many parents to send their children to Perth-Andover meant the local school was facing a tough decision.

"We had a big, beautiful school, that was well equipped, but it lacked the confidence of the community. And we were at risk of closure, based on our numbers," Beaver said.

"We had probably around 55 students, from [kindergarten] to Grade 5, in a school that was built to go to Grade 8, and not a lot of will, at that time, for parents to pull their children from the provincial system."

The school brought in groups to help with literacy programs, improving school lunches, and Maliseet language training, but it wasn't enough to sway most parents.

Still 75 out of 130 students were going to the school in Perth-Andover.

New education director tasked with turnaround 

Darrah Beaver, the school's director of education for the Tobique First Nation, said she expects to see higher enrolment numbers again at the school. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)
Beaver was hired by the band council 18 months ago to turn that around and save the school.

The council was so serious about fixing the problem it hired her through a process designed to prevent any political interference. 

In a rare move no member of the community was permitted to sit on the hiring board.

In Beaver, Tobique chose an education director who believed in action.

She's from Tobique, but lived away for more than a decade. When she took the job, she enrolled her daughter at Mah-Sos School.

She's worked closely with Phil Fontaine at the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa and said she believes strongly that indigenous communities need to take control of the education of their children.

Going door-to-door

Tobique First Nation's Director of Education Darrah Beaver managed to grow enrolment by convincing parents Mah-Sos school would be a less political environment. This meant creating a number of policies, codes of conduct and handbooks. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)
One of Beaver's first tasks was to find out why parents weren't choosing Mas-Sos. 

Armed with a master's degree in conflict studies, and with the help of summer students, Beaver crafted a survey, targeting parents who were sending their children to Perth-Andover elementary school. They took it door-to-door.

"The top reason overall, was that [parents] felt that in past years the school had been very political," she said. 

They were assured things were going to be different. That fall, the number of children at the school almost doubled to 102.

"I think it was the home visits that allowed parents to clear the air, to air a lot of their concerns," says Beaver.

She said people decided to give the school a chance.

Changes win over parents 

Kainen Nicholas-Pyres came to Mah-Sos after finishing second grade in Perth-Andover. He said it's cheaper for his parents because they no longer have to pay for lunches. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)
Beaver has since developed polices to govern the school, sanctioned by chief and council, a personnel policy, a staff code of conduct, developed with the help of staff, and a student handbook.

She even created a communications strategy and began sending a newsletter home.

The changes have won over Trisha Moulton. She sent her daughter, C'anna, to the village school five years ago.

"At the time they didn't have a music program and they didn't have the library program and they didn't have a set gym teacher," says Moulton.

"But now the school actually does all of that and I have a younger child who will be attending."

Kainen Nicholas-Pyres, 10, was in the Perth-Andover school until Grade 2, before attending Mas-Sos school.

"Mah-Sos school, it was a lot nicer than town. It was a lot cheaper for my parents because they didn't have to pay for lunches," Kainen said.

Challenges remain

This year Beaver expects, or at least she's hoping for, yet another bump in enrolment.

"On average we had about 13 students per classroom. And I was just chatting with teachers and it looks like the average has gone up to about 15 per classroom for the new year," she said.

There are still many uphill battles including improving literacy rates and attendance.

Both are compounded by poverty and lack of community housing, but Beaver said at least one battle is getting a little easier.

"I don't think I had to try as hard, or plead as much this year with parents to get them to bring their kids back," she said.