Nova Scotia

IBM opens school program for Mi'kmaw students in Cape Breton

A new school program for Indigenous students in Cape Breton is tying together the elements of high school, college and the working world. 

19 students are studying from a campus based in Eskasoni

IBM Canada officially launched Unamaki P-TECH School on Tuesday enabling high school students to graduate with a college diploma in software engineering. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

A new school program for Indigenous students in Cape Breton is tying together the elements of high school, college and the working world. 

IBM Canada officially launched Unama'ki Pathways in Technology, Early College High School (P-TECH) on Tuesday, enabling high school students to graduate with a tuition-free, two-year college diploma in software engineering, along with work placements and interviews with the multinational corporation. 

The project is offered in partnership with the Nova Scotia Community College, which will confer the college diplomas, along with Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey, the Mi'kmaw Economic Benefits Office and is supported by the provincial government.

A first 19 students are studying at a campus based in Eskasoni, N.S. 

"With the skills shortage all over Canada, and frankly, in many places in the world, what a great opportunity to take a youth from these communities … and actually give them a chance to participate in the new digital economy," said Claude Guay, president and general manager of IBM Canada. 

"We'll have our own community members able to mentor them and that's incredibly powerful."

Igniting a spark

Some tech programming is in place at Indigenous schools in Nova Scotia to get younger students interested in a career in the sector, according to Alex Paul of the Mi'kmaw Economic Benefits Office.

But he said a gap existed in fostering interest for students who are about to leave high school. 

The idea for the Cape Breton school flourished after conversations with IBM employees in Halifax, although Paul said it took the partners nearly four years to get the program officially up and running. 

"This is not just lighting or igniting that spark with our youth, but having a program like this that links into that and keeps that spark alive shows them the pathway," said Paul.

"[Our first graduates] then become the role models for others, and they will play the role of mentorship with the next cohort."

This is the first P-TECH school for Mi'kmaw students and will incorporate aspects of the culture, such as two-eyed seeing as a guiding principle. 

Interviews from IBM 

Program participants in Cape Breton will be offered first-in-line interviews from IBM Canada and will get paid internships from the corporation, but Guay said that graduates aren't limited to working for IBM.

"Some of these kids may actually end up creating startups, going to work in technology for other industries, maybe the government in Nova Scotia environment, so it's an ecosystem that we created in technology, basically " he said. 

Paul said that there are many future students for the program as Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing population in Canada, and also the youngest

"Almost 50 per cent of our population is under age 25," said Paul. "We have to put a lot of focus on getting pathways to opportunity for them. And this really seemed like a unique educational opportunity.  

"We thought ... we had the possibility of turning out people job ready for a sector in the Nova Scotia economy that is really in need of  talent."

Under the P-TECH model, students can enter the program in Grade 9, however, Paul said that the first class of students in Cape Breton are a grade level higher. There are no academic requirements for entering the program. 

"We don't want to create barriers for our youth in making a decision like this for a program," he said. 

"And yet there are some academic rigours involved with it. We would rather build in the supports along the way for any challenges that there may be for students."

Paul said he expects the first cohort of students to graduate in two years. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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