Funds being raised for independent, urban Indigenous school on the Island

The Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre is raising funds to develop B.C.’s first independent school for urban Indigenous groups.

The goal is to raise $1 million for a facility that will combine programs already in place at two other sites — kindergarten-Grade 7 at the Nisaika Kum’tuks Learning Centre and Grade 8-12 at the Tsawalk Learning Centre.

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Standard diplomas and certificates would be provided, as they are at the Tsawalk centre.

An order from the Ministry of Education is directing that the two programs be consolidated with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District in September. They currently run on their own under the administration of the Vancouver Island West School District.

In the meantime, supporters of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre are working toward a separate location. They are concerned that students’ past struggles in the regular school system will re-emerge with the consolidation.

Joy Bremner, president of the Mid Island Metis Nation, said that the order to move the programs “has placed all of our progress in jeopardy.”

The ministry responded by saying it is aware of the fund­raising effort, and that the school district is working to accommodate the programs.

“We understand every effort is being made to continue the same programs with the same staff when the centres are managed by [the school district].

Meantime, the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre and the Mid Island Metis Nation have applied for an independent-school licence, which could lead to a new building or use of an existing facility. The goal is to be in a new home by September 2022.

“We would be looking across the city for a location,” said Bremner

Community feedback has been in favour of such a move.

For 19-year-old Shania Thompson, Tsawalk was instrumental in her earning a high-school diploma in 2020. Twelve students are graduating from Tsawalk this year.

“I was having a really rough time in public school,” Thompson said. Things changed when she began attending Tsawalk.

“They helped me a lot with being able to focus a little bit more,” Thompson said.

Staff also offered emotional support, she said. “I was able to have a connection with them personally. I definitely don’t see myself graduating if it wasn’t for them.”

B.C.’s six-year high-school completion rate — which counts students who finish school within six years after enrolling in Grade 8 — was 71 per cent for Indigenous students in 2019-20 and 90 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

The two learning centres have a combined total of eight teachers, three support workers, and two elders. There are cultural and academic classes along with work-experience opportunities and trades training.

Students are 85 per cent Indigenous, and about 30 per cent are in or have been in some form of care.

“The Nisaika Kum’tuks and Tsawalk learning centres were created to meet an acute need in the community to support ­students and their families who had fallen through the cracks of the traditional education ­system,” said Ian Kalina, the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre’s interim executive director.

“The vision of these ­centres is to create a learning­ ­environment that supports ­students in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development.

“We’ve served hundreds of learners over the past seven years and we’re hoping to ensure the future of even more with the infrastructure and stability of an independent school.”

Kalina said the goal is to create an environment “where learners never even begin to see the cracks in the system — let alone fall through them.”

To donate to the new school, go to bit.ly/NACgofundme

jbell@timescolonist.com

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