New $15M 'temporary' school opens in Kashechewan First Nation
New school is built to be taken apart and moved along with rest of community
When he first walked through the doors of the new school, Ashton Solomon could not wait to see the hallway.
For the Grade 6 student in Kashechewan, it's a luxury after going to school for years in a drafty, old portable.
"We're not cold walking to the washrooms," says Solomon. "There's a fountain you can drink out of."
The children of this fly-in Cree community on Ontario's James Bay Coast became a national news story last fall, when the First Nation declared the existing St. Andrew's School to be "unsafe and "unhealthy."
"Actually had an office that had a two-inch gap. You could see the outside through the floor of my office," says school principal Michael Sutherland.
The elementary students were moved out of the portables and shared the community's high school for the past year, with the younger kids using the classrooms in the morning and the teenagers going to school into the evening.
James Wesley, the director of education for the Hishkoonikun Education Authority, says an educational assessment showed that the students had fallen two grades behind doing these partial school days.
Standing outside the new elementary school he never expected to see in his community, Wesley says that the student marks have rebounded just a couple of weeks after moving into the new building.
"It is showing that they are improving, not to the Ontario standards yet, but it's working," he says.
Wesley says he had originally asked the federal government for $30 million, based on a consultant's report saying the 400 elementary students needed 28 classrooms, including space for about 50 special needs students.
But he says the government was hesitant to provide any funding, since planning was already underway to move the entire community off the flood plain of the Albany River and to a new location 30 km up river known as Site 5.
Wesley says in the end, the government provided $15 million for a 24-classroom school that is being built in pieces, so it can be taken apart and trucked to the new Kashechewan.
"Even though it was cut in half, I'm still happy," says Wesley.
"You take what you can get, because you know we were desperate for a school for our students and we had no choice. And we tried to make the best situation of what we can get. And that's what we did."
Right now, all grades are crowded into one wing of the school with 16 classrooms, while the remaining eight classrooms are still under construction. The entire school is expected to be complete by early December.
But Wesley is already lobbying for more funding.
He says he's hoping the federal government will spend $3.2 million to add a gymnasium to the new school, but he's also worried about what the school atmosphere will be like in the next few years.
With a baby boom in Kashechewan, the elementary school gets 70 new kids every September.
Wesley says at that rate, the new school will be dangerously overcrowded in just five years.
"If we cannot accommodate our needs, like what the growth rate is, we will be back on square one," he says.
Wesley fears that children will "slip through the cracks" in an overcrowded classroom, turn to alcohol and drug abuse and a vicious cycle that's very familiar in Kashechewan and other isolated First Nations will begin all over again.