This new high school program offered through Winnipeg School Division aims to both improve access to the teaching profession for Indigenous students, and to foster and hire more Indigenous teachers in order to improve the education experience of future Indigenous students.
Indigenous student high school graduation rates are lower than the rest of the Canadian student population. In addition, the field of education continues to enroll proportionately fewer Indigenous students than non-Indigenous students. The resulting teaching workforce suffers from a lack of Indigenous teachers and role models, which perpetuates the challenges faced by Indigenous students in school. The Ozhitoon Onji Peeniee (Build From Within) program, launched in the 2018/19 school year, increases the equity in access to post-secondary opportunities in the field of Education to our current Indigenous students, and will benefit our future students by increasing the representation of Indigenous insights, expertise and experience in the teaching profession. Currently, our first cohort is entering their second year in the program.
Build From Within is an Indigenous-focused path to a career in education for Indigenous high school students in the Winnipeg School Division (WSD). The program is offered through a partnership with the University of Winnipeg (U of W) and Indspire. It supports Indigenous students to complete their education within a culturally framed program. We aim to increase students’ education achievement and life-long learning connections, and prepare them for smooth transitions from their senior high school year through the U of W to their successful teaching careers.
The primary goal of Build From Within is to build on Indigenous students’ unique strengths and experiences to create competent and motivated teachers who are passionate about their work and want to contribute back as teachers in the school division they graduated from. We believe what we as a division will contribute, the WSD community will get back ten-fold.
The program is rooted in the Circle of Courage educational framework, which grounds teaching in the development of a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.1 Indigenous high school students are selected after a rigorous application process to embark on a journey from high school student to educational assistant to teacher with WSD. In the program, they earn their Educational Assistant Diploma (EADP) while they complete their high school credits, and will graduate from Grade 12 with both their EA and high school diplomas. Next step, the students will be enrolled at the U of W’s Integrated Bachelor of Arts and Education program and will work half-time every morning for WSD as Interns utilizing their EA training. Finally, after graduating from the U of W, the students, who now have earned their BA and BEd, will be hired as teachers with WSD.
How it works
Indigenous students are recruited from Grades 10 to 12. They complete an application and attend an information session with a parent or guardian, who will be their family support throughout the program. The program is reviewed with the student and their support person and an interview is scheduled to take place at the student’s home school. The program coordinator, along with another teacher from the WSD Indigenous Education Team, interview the students to identify a fit for the program.
On interview day, the students wait anxiously for their turn. For most, if not all the students, it is their first time experiencing an interview. They have put on their best clothes and have practiced interviewing with teachers and guidance counsellors. They openly admit they are nervous; this program could be life changing for them. While it is technically an interview, we see it as more of an opportunity to meet and build a relationship. It’s a chance for the project manager to learn more details of the student’s life and aspirations, who they are, where they come from, and where they are going.
After the candidates are selected into the program, we hold a feast to honour and start the successful students on their education journey in a traditional way. The feast last year was hosted at R. B. Russell School, whose culinary program prepared a traditional meal of stew, bannock and rice pudding. It was an intimate event with 70 attendees: just a few staff directly involved in the program, the student candidates, and their immediate families. A fire was lit in the school’s cultural area (Tipi and Sweatlodge) and after supper the students offered tobacco. This allowed the students the opportunity to make an offering for whatever reason they felt was important or needed by them personally. An interesting and emotional request came from a parent. They wanted to offer tobacco for the family member they were supporting. Other parents and caregivers lined up to make that commitment of support by offering tobacco; an event that was spontaneous and had such importance and meaning.
The next phase of the students’ journey was to create a sense of belonging amongst them. To accomplish this, students left their home schools for second semester and regrouped as a cohort at the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre (WAEC) in downtown Winnipeg. At this location, students take courses in the morning toward their diploma in the EADP (Educational Assistant Program offered by the U of W), through the U of W Professional, Applied and Continuing Education program (PACE). The courses are taught in blocks of six or 12 days by PACE instructors hired specifically for this cohort. In the afternoons, students are enrolled in high school courses.
On a cold February morning, the program began with 26 nervous and excited future teachers ready to begin their journey. The first week was spent orienting the students to their new school. Their high school courses were scheduled for the afternoon and the students started them the first week. Their EA courses were slotted in the mornings starting the second week. In their first semester, students complete the first six of 12 EA courses. This completes Part 1 of the EADP. In their second year, Semester 1 Grade 12, students complete part II of the EADP. They will finish the EA program by the end of the first semester in January, and for their final semester in high school, they will return to their home schools to complete their credits and graduate with their peers.
After graduating high school, the students will be hired as half-time EAs with WSD and attend the U of W full time from September to June. They will complete a five-year integrated Bachelor of Arts and Education degrees (Grades K to 6) in four years with a Major in English and a Minor in History. Both the major and minor will have an Indigenous focus. At the U of W, they will remain a cohort, taking the same classes and supporting each other as they complete their degrees. We often say to the students, “We are not training you to be master EAs, we’re training you to be master teachers!”
The students will gain invaluable experience working with a variety of teachers at various elementary schools and classrooms during their education journey. Once they have completed their degrees, WSD is excited to offer each graduate of the Build From Within program a teaching position. By experiencing different schools and different grade levels (K-Grade 6), the students will have a better idea where they would like to apply for those positions.
One of our first challenges was to ensure all the students were on track not only to graduate high school but also to earn their Educational Assistant diploma. To make this work, the project manager sat down with each student and their school’s guidance counsellor to plan their high school courses for the next two years. The next challenge was to have the coursework the students completed for the EA program recognized as dual high school credits to ensure students completed the required 30 credits to graduate.
A common challenge has been the workload for the students. The rapid pace and the frequent instructor changes has presented a wonderful example of what university will be like. One student reported, “The challenge of this program is the workload of all the courses, because you have to keep up with both your university and high school work.” Another common challenge has been leaving their home school and friends. Joanna said this was her biggest challenge, but that “I now have made some really good friends that are in the same classes as me… they understand how I feel.”
The students have completed their first half of the EADP. September will bring another set of celebrations and challenges. The cohort is strong and the strength comes from within the group. Soon the group will graduate. Meanwhile, the project manager will be busy identifying schools that will best support and promote the students’ growth becoming teachers. Teacher mentors will be key, as selection of a master teacher and supportive principal are imperative to the development of student teachers. This will bring on the next set of celebrations and challenges.
Photo: Shane Bostrom
First published in Education Canada, September 2019
1 L. Brendtro, M. Brokenleg, and S. Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our hope for the future, rev. ed., (Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service, 2002).