Traditional ceremonial blanket is presented to representatives of the EdCan Network. Photo Credit: Barry Gerding/Black Press

National recognition for West Kelowna school’s Indigenous student academy

Program helps drastically reduce Mount Boucherie’s Indigenous student dropout rate

“You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have come from.”

—Westbank First Nation elder Grouse Barnes

Mount Boucherie Secondary School’s Academy of Indigenous Studies has received a national award that is accompanied by a $5,000 grant.

The acknowledgement came from the school district’s contest entry of the academy program in the EdCan Network Innovation That Sticks initiative.

A jury of scholars are chosen to look over indigenous entry initiatives by school districts across Canada, and the Central Okanagan Public Schools entry was chosen as the best.

Sean Lessard, a member of the jury and associate professor of education at the University of Alberta, was on hand Monday to make the award presentation at the West Kelowna secondary school.

“I can say the decision was unanimous among all the judges on the jury,” said Lessard, a member of the North Saskatchewan Cree nation and the first of his community to achieve a masters degree and doctorate post-secondary education.

“I am humbled by this, what this school has done, and to listen to the students talk about what the academy program has meant to them. This just shows that identity really matters.”

What Lessard was referring to was the academy credited with raising the high school graduation rate for Indigenous students from 55 per cent in 2011 to 78 per cent in 2017, the highest six-year Indigenous completion rate in the province.

In the academy program, classes are offered to students in Grades 10 to 12 in Indigenous history, literature, leadership, culture, art and Okanagan language, which incorporate the knowledge of Westbank First Nation elders and band members.

The school currently has 45 students in the program, and Mount Boucherie principal Raquel Steen said she expects to shake the hand of all of them at graduation ceremonies next June.

In a video presented at the award ceremony, current students talked about the value of the program for teaching them about their own culture, restoring their own sense of identity and culture and empowering them to pass it on to future generations and non-Indigenous people as well.

“Our culture for us is a type of medicine,” said one student in the video. “You feel better about yourself and are more alive, and you make better life decisions.”

“Our academy connects educators interested in decolonizing our educational system for all students,” said Kyla Winacott, teacher of Indigenous leadership with the academy.

“If we are able to come together and allow our students to feel valued, hopeful and worth, we can help them see graduation as a meaningful pathway to a confident future.”

For being chosen as the winner, the academy program will also be the subject of a documentary being shot this week by a film crew for the EdCan Network, an independent national organization with more than 75,000 members dedicated to ensuring that ll students discover their place, purpose and path in life.

The ‘Innovation that Sticks’ award was started in 2015, with the case study topic this year being alternative dropout prevention programs geared to indigenous youth.

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