High school arrives in Old Crow

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.

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


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The primary goal of the new relief package for tourism operators is to support the tourism sector, whether they’re private industry or not-for-profit organizations, said Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie McLean. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Relief program offers funds for businesses that rely on tourists for more than half their revenue

Two new streams of funding, in addition to the accommodation relief program, were announced

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: Climate emergency, lite edition

Back in September 2019, Whitehorse City Council declared a climate emergency, to… Continue reading

Yukon Employees’ Union says a lack of staff training and high turnover at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is creating a dangerous situation for underpaid workers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Employees’ Union says lack of training at emergency shelter leading to unsafe situations

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said the staffing policy “is evolving”

Justice Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
All-female justice roster ‘a good step’ for diversity in Yukon Supreme Court

Karen Wenckebach is the third woman appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in history

The Liberal government blocked a motion by Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers that would have asked the federal government to provide the territories with more than a per capita amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses during initial distribution. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Party says a per capita distribution of vaccines would leave Yukon short

The opposition is also asking the government to release their plan for vaccine distribution

A sign outside the Yukon Inn Convention Centre indicates Yukoners can get a flu vaccine inside. As of Dec. 4, the vaccinations won’t be available at the convention centre. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse Convention Centre ends flu vaccination service early

Flu vaccinations won’t be available at the Whitehorse Convention Centre after Dec.… Continue reading

COMMENTARY: Land use planning must include industry

Carl Schulze Special to the News This commentary is a response to… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White River First Nation to run for councillors in the 2021 election. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News File)
White River First Nation to elect new chief and council

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White… Continue reading

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new councillor in a byelection held Dec. 3. (Wikimedia Commons)
Watson Lake elects new councillor

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new… Continue reading

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Most Read