Do aboriginal focus schools help or hurt students?

Scott Clark, the executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, argues focus schools segregate aboriginal students.
The Aboriginal School Focus program at Sir William Macdonald Elementary school is now in its fourth year. (Vancouver School Board)

This week, the Vancouver School Board considered closing its only aboriginal focus school before voting to keep it open until at least 2020. The school is designed to support aboriginal students by delivering education through a First Nations lens, though students of all backgrounds are allowed to apply. 

Many parents and staff at the school are relieved, but Scott Clark, the executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, argues delivering aboriginal programming through focus schools is the wrong approach. He believes focus schools segregate aboriginal students and wants school boards to concentrate on improving aboriginal education across their districts instead.

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

What's wrong with the idea of a separate school designed to give aboriginal youth an education through a First Nations lens? 

There's a couple things that are wrong. One is the research - is there any research that says that segregating aboriginal kids in the urban context is actually good? The second thing is...where is the opportunity for the non-aboriginal population to start learning about aboriginal issues? If we're committed to the concept of reconciliation, then I think we need to start working with all our students in the classrooms and stop segregating aboriginal people into separate programs and alternative schools.

This aboriginal focus school has been running for a couple of years now. What do you feel aboriginal students aren't getting from this school? 

Well, it's a small school, with a small enrolment, and from what I doesn't really have the resources that it needs to have to support kids. To me it looks much more like a band-aid approach to trying to address the crisis situation we have here in Vancouver. We need a much more systematic approach, and I think what we need to do is really look at how we build inclusive communities throughout all of Vancouver, and that starts with schools and community centres. 

I think it's safe to say that there's a strong sense that aboriginal children and aboriginal youth aren't particularly well-served by the education system in this country. If this isn't the answer, what alternatives do you suggest? 

What we're seeing with recent research, the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, a national study, is that [urban] aboriginal children and family and youth feel very confident, very strong in who they are, and they come to the cities for opportunities, for education, for training, for jobs, housing - like any other person who wants to come to the city. So we need to start opening up opportunities in the broader community... That is a reconciliation process that we advocate for here in Vancouver. 

In the urban context - I'm not talking about land-based First Nations, I'm talking the urban context - I don't think academically, in the academic institutions and in government, that we've critically analyzed how we've been operating with off-reserve aboriginal people for the last 50, 60 years. We've just been taking the on-reserve model and posing it in the urban context and just put a bunch of money over there. And what we've done here in Vancouver, and I would suggest elsewhere in large cities, is we've created ghettos for aboriginal people and families, and that's why we see so many negative statistics. Here in Vancouver, we have a pipeline from all over Canada to ultimately end up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside... We have to start getting in front of these issues, and we need to realize that the model we've been using for the last 50, 60 years shows some results, but I think we can do a lot better. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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