Following Their Voices is showing great signs of success
Vince Ahenakew has been at this for awhile and in many ways he is a pragmatist, and equally he would probably also admit to being impatient when it comes to new initiatives to find their way to the education system, and specifically to northern Saskatchewan.
Ahenakew, who is the principal of Rossignol High School (Grades 7 to 12) in Île-à-la-Crosse, has frequently been on the road to talk with his provincial counterparts about the Following Their Voices initiative.
“I would say it’s slowly catching on with our staff and students. Overall things are coming together and it’s having some impact for sure. We still have a ways to go and continue to work on implementation.
“It’s not where I would like it to be, but it’s one of those things where you need to have buy-in from everyone for it to be really impactful. The foremost thing we have to focus on for many of our students and families in the community is the healing aspect,” he said, alluding to some of the injustices of the past such as residential schools.
“When you’re promoting and talking about Following Their Voices, the key is relationships and that has been the missing piece for too long. So that’s the barrier we have to break through. I particularly like the idea that the program is paying attention to getting parents and the community involved. For a lot of us in the north, that is exciting. It takes time, but it would be nice if this could be a provincewide thing. That would show real progress,” he added.
Since it was first field tested in five provincial schools and one First Nation school early in 2015, the Following Their Voices initiative has now grown in number to 39 schools across the province.
Designed to raise the educational achievement and participation of Saskatchewan’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, there is widespread consensus that this program continues to have real potential. That optimism is based largely on the commitment to enhance relationships between students and teachers. From the outset, the buzzword was to co-construct teaching and learning interactions with students by creating safe learning environments.
Each school participating in the program has a strategic change leadership team who is responsible for school-based implementation. As much as consistency has been stressed since the outset, there is also an allowance for each school to find its own way and thereby avoid the one-size-fits-all model.
This has been, and continues to be, a foundational piece in the Government of Saskatchewan’s ambitious goal to lead the country in graduation rates and to reduce the graduation disparity between First Nations and Métis students and their non-Indigenous peers by 50 percent.
Another of the participants at this gathering was Sandy Pinay-Schindler, who indicated she has been seconded to be the director of education for Cowessess First Nation from Prairie Valley School Division and previously spent two years as the provincial facilitator for the Following Their Voices initiative. She also somehow finds time to work with five schools in Northern Lights School Division who are also committed to Following Their Voices.
“This is my fourth year being involved with Following Their Voices and I can say pretty much every school that has committed has had a great amount of success. A lot of that is down to the wraparound service that is provided. Overall I would say it’s helping teachers become better during the process because they are looking in the mirror. In several cases it has been a matter of them [teachers] changing their practice, and they are showing real flexibility in helping give their students voice.”
Sue Carriere is a consultant with Northern Lights School Division and has had experience in both provincial and First Nations schools.
“By moving to have Indigenous culture embedded in the curriculum it’s made a real difference. A lot of our teachers, they are seen as role models for our students, which is a big help,” Carriere said.
Pinay-Schindler echoed those sentiments, adding that the vast majority of the teachers in Cowessess are Indigenous. She said that’s a huge built-in advantage when it comes to striving for the sought after higher graduation rates among First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.
“Students see their teachers in the community outside of school and so that’s one of the advantages you have in a First Nation school. Students see that education is important to them and to their future.
“We have the cultural aspect already intact, and we have access to Elders and use that resource a great deal because you can have those deep conversations and it’s reflected in the learning. It’s good for the students and for the teachers too. It’s really exciting to see how the relationship piece opens a whole new world to our students. We know Following Their Voices is a priority and so we devote a lot of time in order to be able to make it work.”
From her perspective, Carriere has experienced many of the same things, underscoring that having the voice of students genuinely included has made a noticeable difference.
“It’s a real help in establishing a sense of comfort for our schools. Through the process, some of our schools have had to have some difficult conversations because with the student involvement they bring honesty. So it’s key to be open and willing to change and incorporate some new ideas.”
Ahenakew, meanwhile, spoke of the importance of involving communities and families. By reaching out and involving them through the enhanced inclusion of culture and language, he has noticed a genuine sense of pride emerge.
“I have heard and seen how this can be key in helping our families come around a bit in terms of becoming more involved in the school and their kids’ education. That’s encouraging, and we need to keep that at the forefront and improve as we move along,” he noted.