Community school aims to close gap in graduation rates in Nanaimo

Closing the gap on Nanaimo’s aboriginal graduation rate means supporting children beyond the classroom.

That’s the idea behind a new school proposed by the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, where the responsibility and care of students would go beyond six-hour classroom instruction.

According to Chris Beaton, executive director of the centre, 85 per cent of children’s lives are spent outside the classroom.

Without understanding the dynamics of what’s happening at home and the needs of families, school instruction can be ineffective, he said, adding a child isn’t going to focus on learning if he’s hungry or worried about finding a place to live.

The new school, called the Nanaimo Learning Centre, would follow the B.C. curriculum, offering early childhood education up to Grade 3 for close to 160 public school students. It would also focus on culture, understanding educational needs of students and providing “wrap around” services like childcare to support families, Beaton said.

Not-for-profits and organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Vancouver Island, would have a chance to move under one roof, reducing overhead costs while making sure families don’t have to travel far to tap into a wide variety of services.

The goal will be for the centre to see the child as a whole, not just between the hours of nine and three, and give youngsters a good foundation to be successful in the mainstream public education system, Beaton said.

In 2012, 49.9 per cent of aboriginal students graduated from high school, compared to 71.6 per cent of the general student body.

The Nanaimo Learning Centre aims to open in September, but has yet to create any formal agreement with the Nanaimo school district. It is also still in talks with potential community partners, and plans community consultation.

“There is truly no community-based school in B.C. [like what] we are envisioning,” said Beaton.

“It would have those three key elements of early childhood education, kindergarten to Grade 3 and a wrap around of community services and programs for all ages under one roof, all integrated and working together.

“[But] what it looks like at the end of the day, that’s what these conversations and consultations are leading to.”

The not-for-profit Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre launched last June with a mandate to see every aboriginal student graduate. It promised fresh ideas and solutions and while it has set up some programs to help tackle education challenges, the goal has always been to create a new community school.

Members say the traditional education model doesn’t seem to be working and instead of criticizing from the sidelines, it’s up to the community to help find solutions.

David Drakeford, president of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre board, believes a new learning centre could be one answer to help more students make the grade.

Research shows children struggle with the transition from home to early childhood education and the public school system, which is often an “abrupt  change” without consistency. Under the proposed model, teachers and caregivers will be in constant communication about children’s learning needs so they aren’t lagging behind by the time they head back into the mainstream, he said.

It will also offer connection to culture, like instruction in the Hul’qumi’num language, and sit within a ‘community centre’ of year-round recreational activities, education programs and social services for the entire family.

“If it’s not successful then you look for something else, but ... doing nothing is really not an option,” said Drakeford.

Those behind the new model anticipate questions from the public about why the school district would close down some schools, only to support a new learning centre. It would be a choice school for students, which would bring government funding to the program.

But Beaton argues it would utilize a public asset already sitting vacant and give students more options to learn.

In an e-mail to the Nanaimo Bulletin, school district superintendent Dave Hutchinson said the district supports enhanced early learning support for aboriginal children and looks forward to hearing more details.

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