During the long weekend before school started this year, Tracy Rispin’s daughter and husband went out on a caribou hunt in Old Crow.
With Grade 12 fast approaching, this was a last chance for Rispin’s daughter to get a caribou before she had to head back to school.
They came back successful – the young woman got her first caribou, ever.
After she split up and shared the meat among family and community members in Old Crow, Rispin made her daughter breakfast and asked her a question.
“I said, ‘OK my girl, what do you think: Old Crow or Whitehorse? Where would you rather be this morning,’” Rispin recounted. “She picked home.”
For the first time, high school courses are being offered within the Yukon’s northernmost, fly-in community.
Between the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, the territory’s Department of Education and Yukon College, high school courses are being offered, along with job training and certifications, on-the-land skills and cultural training for the students who wish to stay within the community, rather than head to the residence for F.H. Collins in Whitehorse.
Eight students decided to stay in Old Crow this year. They vary in age and grade – Rispin’s daughter is going into Grade 12, while some other students are starting high school this year.
“We’ve had a lot of young people leaving the community at ages, like, 16 to go to Grade 10 in Whitehorse, and sometimes leaving home at that very young age can cause high emotions of being homesick and not being near their family and the peer pressures of going into the city. It just wasn’t working for them,” said Rispin, who is the Vuntut Gwitchin’s director of education.
“We do have an education support worker in Whitehorse to support our students, but some students are just not ready for that city life.”
Old Crow has called for local high school courses since the 1980s, said Frances Ross. She’s the new high school teacher in the community of about 250 people.
“Lots of people in the community had wanted it for a while,” she said of her new job. “There was an elder, Alfred Charlie who actually just passed away in the summer – so he had just found out about the program before he passed, which was really good. He had been fighting for it for years, because he had said how his children had gone away and come back different people. He wanted them to have an education, that wasn’t the issue, but he also didn’t want them to lose their identity.
“So there was a strong sense of wanting to offer something unique, so that students would have the opportunity to get these courses and to graduate and go on and have the skills to have these jobs in the community, but at the same time still keep their relationship with their family and their parents and their culture.”
Around last June, a petition circulated Old Crow, and six months later the territory said it could afford one teacher’s salary.
Because the community’s Chief Zzeh Gittlit school has joint grades (Grades 1, 2 and 3 in one classroom, Grades 4, 5 and 6 in another and Grades 7, 8 and 9 in a third), Rispin knew there was one empty classroom left over.
The high school courses now being offered in that room are flexible, said Ross. They are tailored to the students and draw on experts in the community and visitors sent by the college.
Right now, because all eight students need to get their Grade 10 science credit, the class is working together. Other times they may be split into different groups or work individually on the credits they need. Many of the students attend part-time because they work within the community, Ross added.
The courses are offered during a regular school day, as with other Yukon high schools, but instead of having multiple periods, students only work on one or two credits at a time, for a shorter period. So instead of taking a whole semester to finish this Grade 10 science credit, students will be ready to write the provincial exams in only a few months, said Ross.
It’s a system borrowed from some First Nations in the Prairies, which found higher success rates with students working on fewer subjects, in a more condensed period of time.
“We are offering a rigorous program that follows the same learning objectives as everywhere else. We’re just delivering it in a slightly different way,” said Ross.
This is not “school-lite,” she added.
But the curriculum is designed to be relevant to the community and its culture. This could mean including elements of the Gwich’in language, or relating science theory to the local environment, said Ross.
This way, students stay rooted in Old Crow while being groomed for the jobs offered in their home.
“The community wants students that walk well between all these different worlds that they’re challenged to walk between,” said Ross. “They want them to have very strong English literacy skills, they want them to be good communicators in that sphere, to understand the land claim agreement, to have that and to be able to be on the land and be comfortable and understand their Gwich’in heritage and culture.”
Even just staying physically closer to their families and their community makes a big difference for a lot of students.
For example, Rispin’s daughter would have already been moving into her dorm in Whitehorse, rather than being out hunting, said her mother.
“Instead of being in Whitehorse, on Main Street, hanging around, she was up river, she shot her first caribou and after she brought it down to the community, she gave it out – it’s her first caribou so she gave out meat to family and friends and it was a highlight for her – and an opportunity missed if she was in Whitehorse,” said Rispin.
Even if students stay in Old Crow for their first few years of high school, they could still head to Whitehorse for their last few years. That’s assuming that the project – currently a one-year pilot program – continues to receive territorial support. The government plans to evaluate the program’s effectiveness before making a longer commitment.
Rispin hopes territorial officials see the program’s value.
“Being a First Nations student – and I say this for myself and our background – what is Shakespeare going to do for my daughter in Old Crow?” asked Rispin. “To see the students get their credits here, they’re happy, they’re at home. Right now, we’re taking care of our children here, in the community, if they choose to stay here.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at