Enrolment doubled going into the second year of the Vancouver School Board's Aboriginal Choice school on East Hastings, "The plan was to start small and grow slowly," says Vonnie Hutchingson, principal, "although we've doubled our enrolment." The majority of the new enrolment is in kindergarten. The VSB called the school-within-a-school an 'Aboriginal Focus School' and established it as the school year began at 1950 E Hastings Street in 2012, an open door to Indigenous Education.
"It's a great location, big classrooms and students in them from kindergarten to grade 4," says Hutchingson. The school started as K to 3, this year is K to 4, and next year will be K to 5." Students will be able to progress through their elementary years within the Aboriginal Focus School. New students will be coming from different agencies, and Hutchingson has been working with remarkable success with Headstart in East Vancouver as an example.
The Aboriginal Focus School is located at Sir William Macdonald Elementary School. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students from Metro Vancouver are welcome to enroll in this unique and innovative school.
The curriculum continues to expand to accommodate the new grades and growing number of students, "It continues as designed," she says. "The school district allows autonomy for some of the program and the development of some curriculum features the Aboriginal culture and theme. We worked with federal government and local school authorities, we comissioned some artwork and purchased paintings, we have a Salishan artist's work at the entrance, doors have been redone, carving is represented."
It's urban education that is new in B.C. Enrolment stood at six after the Vancouver School Board approved opening in the spring of 2012. Registration materials were distributed in the hope the school would open with a minimum of 12 students, which it surpassed in it's initial opening. “The focus has to be on parents, family and community, and what it is that they want for their children,” said Hutchingson, an educator from Haida Gwaii with Haida and Tsimshian heritage and growing success in the education system to be awakened to the needs of Aboriginal students.
Hutchingson has an education degree from Simon Fraser University in the early 1980s and taught elementary and secondary school in Prince Rupert. She rose to principal of a new school but knew success for Aboriginal students was not happening, "I thought, we have all the bells and whistles, the physical envelope was beautiful, but we still weren't having the kind of success that I would like to see for Aboriginal students.” Hutchingson took a job in the provincial Ministry of Education as Aboriginal Coordinator then Director of Aboriginal Education through the 1990s where she put an emphasis on analyzing and reporting Aboriginal graduation rates. “What we know from research is that if you focus on an area, that area will grow,” she said. “The performance levels of aboriginal students has grown and they are doing better, but it seems to have plateaued.”
The history of education in Aboriginal life is presently being written by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC records the message from generations that attended Residential Schools in Canada from 1920s to 1970s. Few argue statistics on education in modern-day Aboriginal life are abysmal in a direct cause-and-effect aftermath of the Residential School system. What else explains the reality that in the City of Vancouver, for example, only 32.1 percent of Aboriginal youth will achieve their Dogwood Diploma, whereas the percent for non-aboriginal students is 82.5?
It remains a system that is failing kids and Hutchingston is joined by others searching for ways to improve Aboriginal graduation rates in the province. School District 57 in Prince George put together an Aboriginal Education Task Force in 2008 to report to the Aboriginal Education Board (formed in the mid-1990s). The priority was to increase academic achievement levels (that are at critical lows similar to Vancouver). The task force succeeded in stepping toward a solution when the 'Aboriginal Choice School' -- Nusdeh 'Yoh House of the Future -- began operations in Prince George in 2010, the first Aboriginal choice school within the public school system in the province.