Aboriginal Choice School (formerly Carney Hill Elementary) Prince George, B.C. opened this year, 2012-13, for K-7 students, and this happens to be a ground-breaking event in urban education for Aboriginal students in the province of British Columbia.
It came about as the result of the efforts of people like Marlene Erickson who was vice-chair of an Aboriginal Education Task Force and chairperson for the Aboriginal Education Board in School District 57, which runs schools in Prince George, B.C., and surroundings, “We reported on the task force findings Feb 26 08. The report was delivered to the school board and the Aboriginal Education School Board. Erickson was working for over a decade to bring about the fundamental changes required to make education an acceptable opportunity to these youth from First Nations. It took a few more years to achieve this breakthrough.
She began to work to bring about change in the previous decade when Erickson volunteered for Native Student Services Committee in the school district, which was a precursor to the Aboriginal Education Board. The Aboriginal Education Board was formed in the area in the mid-1990s and Erickson joined as a board member, then two years ago she was appointed to the chair. The recommendations made by the Aboriginal Education Task Force, which Erickson vice-chaired, “will take several years and we certainly hope to get started right away.” For Erickson the priority was simple, “The biggest issue is to increase the Academic Achievement levels to open the doors for First Nations kids to enter post-secondary institutions and get higher learning.”
The process of designing a program and building relevant curricula has taken advantage of research done by other jurisdictions where Aboriginal education engages students with cultural acknowledgements and practices within a protected learning environment. ”We are discussing a ‘choice’ school and eventually it will deliver an Aboriginal-specific curriculum,” said Erickson in a visionary statement. “We think we can make rapid progress because the initiatives have SD57 trustee support and results of the task force indicate strong community-level and grassroots support for program changes and design.”
Erickson said a city like Prince George needs to work as a community to help struggling kids, “We want a choice school so other kids from non-Native families can access the program. We want the program to emphasize cooperative learning techniques, which seem to benefit the First Nation student more than the learning model that demands high grades and forces ambition into a fiercely competitive mode.” All students in this particular choice for Aboriginal-oriented education will benefit from added levels of support, and, no, “this is not a return to Residential Schools,” which Erickson said has been one of the criticisms. As Aboriginals, “We are already at 25 percent of the school enrolment and it is increasing every year. We have some schools in the city of Prince George already at 75 percent Aboriginal students in the population,” and, she said, this will make the development of a ‘choice’ school a reasonable alternative.