Kristina Alexis has a dream to go to university and become a lawyer, but her first challenge of getting through high school is already more complicated than she expected.
Funding challenges at the Alexis First Nation, about 90 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, mean most classes at the school are split between two grade levels.
Concentrating can be tough when two teachers are teaching two different things in the same room at the same time.
"You get mixed up in class because you’re hearing the other thing, there’s another teacher. It’s kind of hard," said Kristina, 16.
Now in Grade 12, she’s always enjoyed going to school in her own community. She has a strong bond with the staff, but feels the students and teachers deserve better — better than they’re currently being funded for each of the 200 students who go to school.
School management at Alexis say the First Nation receives about $9,500 per year from the federal government for each child who attends. The school says that number has gone up about 20 per cent this school year thanks to new money provided by the Trudeau government.
Still, the Alexis school administration says neighbouring provincially funded schools are sometimes receiving thousands of dollars more per child.
Since Alberta Education doesn’t calculate overall per student rates, leaving school boards free to decide how to allocate funds, it’s hard to nail down exactly what the funding difference is.
Information from Statistics Canada estimates an average per student per year total of about $14,000 in Alberta’s provincially funded system.
"Well, that’s not fair, but I would like for them to give us money too, so that we’re all equal because we do need more classrooms and we need textbooks," said Kristina.
Her classroom used to be a janitor’s office.
And it’s not just classrooms and textbooks the school needs.
Principal Alethea Wallace said years of chronic underfunding have meant the school has been unable to offer a number of programs she says would be automatic in provincially funded schools.
"It’s just really sad to see that the kids are missing out," said Wallace.
She said the funding levels mean the school at Alexis has no science lab and is forced to use the library as a classroom.
In addition, she said, there’s no way to offer things like music, art or drama, all programs she said would be good for the students.
Wallace also said her teachers are paid much less than those who teach in provincially funded schools.
Kristina’s mother Robin Roan-Alexis, who also has two other children in the school, said the teachers are dedicated and loyal to the kids achieving success in spite of the barriers they face.
But Roan-Alexis sees it as unfair that children in the school aren’t funded to the same levels as kids off reserve.
"As a parent of a first nation’s child it’s very disheartening," she said.
Roan-Alexis said it has always concerned her that the kids lack basic things like computer labs and are forced to learn in overcrowded classrooms.
"We should be giving them all the essentials that a First Nations child deserves like any other child," she said.
The federal Liberal government has promised an injection of $2.6 billion in First Nations education and $500 million in infrastructure funding.
Justin Trudeau made First Nations education is first funding promise in the 2015 election campaign, in a pledge he said would help improve the current situation with less than half of students on reserve graduating from high school.
It’s money that’s also supposed to help First Nations children improve in reading, writing and numeracy.
Alexis Chief Tony Alexis said he’s grateful the promised federal money has started to flow.
But he said there’s still a long way to go.
"We’re still short easily 25 per cent," said Alexis adding that in spite of the situation, the school celebrated an impressive 58 high school graduates last year.
Chief Alexis said the increases to First Nations student funding are a good start, but what the band really needs is a new school to replace the ageing building.
That’s another request the school is currently working on.
It’s just really sad to see that the kids are missing out.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said her government is committed to fairness and is showing that by making pledges in its budget.
"In this budget there was money to build education systems, and that’s where we know we’ve got to go in terms of listening to educators to develop those systems," she said.
Even if money is approved for a new school at Alexis it might be too late for Kristina Alexis.
But she’s hoping the additional money available will result in changes that will make for a better school experience for those following in her footsteps.
She hopes they will get an education with the kind of programming that can harness chidlren’s passions and help them thrive.
"I like music. I really enjoy music or drama or a computer room — we don’t have one," she said.
But without those things, Alexis is committed to continuing her studies in a converted janitor’s office hoping to graduate with the sort of grades that will get her into university, and maybe one day to law school.