How do you keep First Nations children in school?
Kevin Chief, a former University of Winnipeg basketball star, has a plan and a program.
Focusing on sports and youth role modeling, Chief’s programs help First Nations children in Manitoba to stay the course until graduation.
“We’re not worried if they become better athletes,” said Chief in Whitehorse last week.
Success for the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Association’s youth programs is measured by how many students graduate each year.
“Are they getting their high school diploma?” he asked at a public meeting held at the Yukon Arts Centre.
Executive director of the association, Chief was invited to speak at an NDP forum on public education Thursday.
Keeping First Nations kids in school requires both concrete and philosophical changes on the part of governments, schools and individual teachers.
The approach the association uses, which provides free programs to 2,500 First Nations people in the Winnipeg area, is called the circle of courage.
The circle of courage fosters a sense of belonging in school and in the community, generates a sense of mastery in academics, arts or sports, encourages generosity and builds independence.
Having children interact with young role models from their community is one of the main ways the association implements the circle of courage, said Chief.
“Young people have the ability to create and influence change in a way none of us can,” he said.
“You can’t do it without role models.”
A summer sports camp, run through the association, hires local teenagers to look after and lead children from their own community through sports and games.
“The reason (the sports camp) is effective, is because we realized role models had to be young people,” Chief added.
A love of sports, and having high school-aged mentor, helps to give First Nations children the confidence and drive to stick with school, he said.
Teachers are also crucial to educational success for First Nations youth.
“What we are trying to do as teachers is to break down those barriers, to help them do what they have the natural ability to excel in,” said Chief.
“As teachers you can either take the lead or be led.”
While “barriers,” like racism, poverty, substance abuse and gang activities, can be daunting, teachers can make a substantive difference.
“It is important to increase the confidence of teachers by making them feel that they can make a difference,” he added.
“When we look at the challenges facing us, we also look at the unique opportunities we have.”
Like youth role models, teachers can change lives.
“Teachers have an enormous amount of influence on children to make positive change,” said Chief.
Giving teachers freedom to tailor curriculum to suit students is one way of showing support and fostering inspiration, said panel member, Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater.
Land-based learning programs, which would teach students biology by dissecting a caribou after a hunt or geometry by pitching a tent, is one method Old Crow is developing to better fit education to their children.
“I quit school,” said Linklater, noting he remembered the day he realized it was not relevant to the kind of life he wanted to live.
“Experiential learning is relevant, in Old Crow, to the kind of life we live. It’s relevant to the kind of lives our parents and our grandparents lived.”
Bringing education back to the land also provides parents, who are not highly educated, with a doorway into their children’s schooling.
Involving families and communities in education is another strategy to keep schools vibrant and students involved, said Chief.
“Then parents, and grandparents, are able to contribute to their childrens’ and granchildrens’ learning,” said Linklater.