Thunder Bay

Dryden considers new First Nations school

School board officials are hoping Dryden will soon offer First Nations students a place to prepare for high school.

School board and First Nations work together to create 'transitional' school

School board officials are hoping Dryden will soon offer First Nations students a place to prepare for high school. 

Jack McMaster, the Keewatin-Patricia District school board's education director, said students from remote communities are, on average, two or three years behind academically.

"And any student who walks in the front door of a high school in Grade 9 — and is two to three years behind — generally doesn't last very long in the school," McMaster said.

The board wants to convert a vacant public school into a live-in transitional school for students entering Grade 9.

It's working with Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a council that represents six remote First Nations, on the project.

The plan

  • Convert the former Pinewood Public School in Dryden.  One wing will become dormitory accommodations for students and the other wing will be for classrooms. 
  • The transitional school would work very closely with Dryden High School. They are located a couple of blocks apart.  
  • The approach to prepare each student for high school would be tailored for each student in the transition school.
  • Activities outside of school will be very important to help the teens adjust. Sports and activities at the local Friendship Centre will play a big role.
  • It is hoped adult supervisors from some of the students' home communities will come and work at the transition school to help provide a sense of home.

The council's executive director, Geordi Kakepetum said creating a safe place for the 14- and 15-year-olds to live is a priority — and it's the only way they can further their education.    

"The fact ... is that ... there's no resources in the community, so the parents don't have any choice," Kakepetum said. "People in Dryden have choices."

The school board said making the teens feel welcome in Dryden is vital to the project's success. 

City councillor and teacher Mary Trist agreed.   

"These kids do deserve ... an opportunity, just like my own children," Trist said. "And I certainly hope that we, as a community, will rise to that challenge."

'Negative' stereotypes

But some people have major concerns about the transitional school. 

At a public meeting on April 30, more than 100 people came out to the meeting to discuss the issues at hand.

Kakepetum said people openly talked about some of the negative ideas and stereotypes people had about what the students, who will live at the school, might be like.

If approved by Dryden town council, Pinewood Public School would be converted into a First Nations transitional school. (www.eqao.com)

"There is a lot of stereotyping about ... native students and people hear a lot of bad things about what's going on with our youth in the North, about the sniffing or taking (substances)," Kakepetum said.

"But you know, I just went in there ... telling them that there are a lot of good kids out there — kids that are career-minded and … want to ... do things with their lives."

Trist said, during the meeting, she found herself thinking back to some of her former students from remote First Nation communities who would have benefitted from this kind of support transitioning into high school — not only from an academic standpoint but in terms of adjusting socially.

"With any kid, going to high school is big," Trist said. "And it's big if you're living at home ... it's a huge transition. So you can only imagine what kind of transition it is if you're having to leave home and stay with people who aren't your family ... I can see how that would be very, very difficult."   

Before the school can proceed, Dryden council must approve the zoning amendment needed to convert the old school. The vote on that is scheduled for May 15.

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