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'I'm scared for my future': Students petition to leave Lutselk'e for education

High school students in Lutselk’e are petitioning the N.W.T. government to send them to Fort Smith or Yellowknife to finish their studies, arguing that school renovations are disrupting their education.

Teenagers in the small N.W.T. community see better prospects in Yellowknife and Fort Smith

Dacho Poole desperately wants to finish his education outside the community. He is described by community members as an important role model for young students, and some say his loss will be felt by the younger generation. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Less than four months after celebrating its first-ever graduating class, high school students in Lutselk'e, N.W.T., are petitioning the territorial government to send them to Fort Smith or Yellowknife to finish their studies.

They're arguing that "dysfunctional" school renovations are disrupting their education. 

Lutsel K'e Dene School's 25 high school students have been attending classes at the Denesuline Corporation, the community's arena, as well at the old Aurora College building because of a school renovation that began in August.  

The situation was further complicated on Sept. 8, when the N.W.T. government evacuated 40 elementary students from the school due to mould that was discovered during renovations in August.

Since then, students have been housed in different buildings across the community — and community members say it's been affecting morale, academics and attendance.  

'We're all crammed in these little rooms'

"We're all crammed in these little rooms," said 15-year-old Lillian Lockhart, "but if we're lucky, some students don't go so it's not as crammed."

Lillian Lockhart started going door to door with her petition last month. She's since gathered about 150 signatures. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Lockhart started the petition last month, and has garnered about 150 signatures — roughly half of the community's total population.

She says the petition, and its momentum, is mainly a response to the "dysfunction of moving from one place to another.

"I don't like how we have to be in a board room, and not in a school with everyone else. It makes it hard to learn"

'I'm scared for my future'

Grade 12 student, Ethan Rombough, agrees that "the disorganization of the situation" is seriously affecting academics.

"I'm scared for my future education, and of how this is going to affect me later on in life."

But for Rombough, signing the petition was bittersweet.

"I would like to graduate in my community, but it's just a sacrifice I have to make for myself."

Ethan Rombough is worried the renovations will continue to disrupt his education. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Grade 11 student, Dacho Poole, didn't hesitate to put his signature on the list.

"The lessons have been progressing really slow so far, and it's really exhausting.

"For recess we just come to the community hall, and then go to math class in the arena, at the other side of town."

Poole says the students need to be in a structured school setting, but argues that the lack of a proper gym facility is especially difficult. 

"The whole day we just sit through the classrooms, but of course everyone needs their physical education. Recreation plays a big role in this community."

The Lutsel K'e arena and its asphalt rink is where students are presently getting their exercise, but Poole says that's a poor substitute.

"When they took the gym away from us and put us in the arena it wasn't good at all, kids starting getting hurt. All we could do is play soccer really."

Lutsel K'e students attend gym class and recess in the arena. Students and community members say accidents and injuries, caused by falling on the asphalt, are common. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

'We have to ensure they get the best education'

Florence Catholique, Poole's grandmother and a former principal of Lutsel K'e Dene School, fully supports the students and the petition.

"Being put in buildings that don't have classrooms together, and having to go from one place to the other, and all he construction noise — there's lots of disturbance, and I do think that will have a bearing on how well they will do."

'We have to ensure they get the best education within the period when there is no adequate facility for them here.' (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Catholique acknowledges that there are downsides to relocation, like the financial and emotional strain it can put on families. 

"As a residential school survivor, I have emotional effects and feelings on the way things could go and may go."

She fears the influence of drugs in larger communities, and the loss of positive role models for young students still in Lutselk'e.

"Two of our students who were highly respected, had very good academic standards and athletic skills left this year to go to school out of the community, and it left a void."

A way forward? 

The territorial government says the situation should improve later this month. 

A spokesperson for the department of public works said the mould discovered during construction will not pose a health risk. He added that remediation work should be complete by Oct. 9, and elementary students should be able to return to school by Oct. 11. 

The N.W.T. government anticipates that K-12 students will be accommodated between just two buildings by that time — the Community Learning Centre and the school.

Renovations to Lutsel K'e Dene School have been in the works for years, but many community members say they're extremely disruptive and potentially dangerous for students going to school in the construction zone. (Submitted by Stephanie Poole)

Lockhart, Poole, Rombough, and Catholique all say that won't make enough of a difference — arguing that resources need to be concentrated within one location. 

Many community members have also said they won't move their children back into the school, fearing the mould could cause health risks down the road. 

The territorial government, including education minister Alfred Moses, is scheduled to meet with the community Friday afternoon.

Government officials were scheduled to host a community meeting on Friday Sept. 30, but cancelled after learning weather could potentially prevent the charter from leaving the community that evening.

Students plan to present the petition to the education minister at this Friday's meeting. 

About the Author

Rachel Zelniker is a current affairs radio associate producer with CBC North in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @rzelniker or email rachel.zelniker@cbc.ca.