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Positive strides for Central Okanagan Indigenous student equity journey

Rise seen in graduation rates, integration of Indigenous culture and history into local schools

The idea of Truth and Reconciliation is more than a political statement for Central Okanagan Public Schools.

Adoption of Indigenous culture and traditional values within the local school curriculum is a project that began more than 20 years ago, spearheaded by many local educators under the stewardship of Central Okanagan deputy superintendent Terry-Lee Beaudry.

A significant achievement from that process was the signing of the Equity in Action Agreement for Truth and Reconciliation on Feb. 20, 2020.

Holding an Indigenous ceremonial paddle are Kevin Kaardal, superintendent/CEO of Central Okanagan Public Schools, and Moyra Baxter, chair of the Cental Okanagan Board of Education. (Julie Fraser photo)

At the Sept. 15 Central Okanagan Board of Education meeting, Beaudry delivered the first annual report of the agreement outlining equitable opportunities for the school district’s Indigenous, First Nation, Metis and Inuit K-12 students.

In the 2011-12 school year, 2,308 Central Okanagan students claimed Indigenous ancestry. In 2020, that number climbed to 3,077 students, representing about 13.3 per cent of the district’s student population.

The graduation rate for Indigenous students in 2000 was 31 per cent; this past school year, the graduation rate was 84 per cent.

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That is coupled with a 100 per cent graduation rate for students enrolled in the Westbank First Nation school system, a mark achieved for each of the last five years.

“That is history-making,” Beaudry said of the upswing in graduation rates. “It takes a village to achieve that.”

The impact of the agreement has led to ongoing revitalization and presence of Indigenous language and culture in the classrooms; involvement of elders as a history teaching resource; stronger Indigenous cultural presence in school classrooms, entrances and common areas through artwork and student projects; and commitment to Jordan’s Principle that declares any public service available to all other children also be made available to First Nation children without delay or denial.

Among other projects were the Central Programs and Services Canoe, an initiative launched in January to carve out a canoe from a 20-foot cottonwood log, with the assistance of master carver Frank Marchand.

Six months later, the canoe was officially launched in a special ceremony led by William Poitras.

The school district is also part of a research partnership created after UBC Okanagan received a $1 million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to establish a collaborative initiative for the next five years to seek respectful ways for educators to align their teaching practices toward reconciliation.

Participants in the research project also include the UBCO School of Education, IndigenEYEZ, Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna Museums Society and other universities in Alberta and Ottawa.

Initiatives planned for the 2021-22 school year, including targeted interventions for Indigenous early learners, implementing an Academy of Land-Based Learning for Indigenous middle school students, broadening the elder-in-residence program and expanding culturally responsive interventions as an alternative to students on suspension.

For Beaudry, a child of mixed Indigenous and European family histories – her mother was a residential school survivor – she finds great optimism of what the future holds in the journey to integrate a quality education to Indigenous students that also recognizes and celebrates their own cultural heritage.

“We can take a lot of pride in how far we have come,” Beaudry said.

Kevin Kaardal, superintendent for Central Okanagan Public Schools, acknowledged Beaudry’s leadership has brought national recognition to the reconciliation efforts of the school district for the past two decades.

He said Beaudry is often invited to speak to other groups on these issues, and what the Central Okanagan School District has done is a platform that other school districts across the province are following.

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