EdTech & Design, Indigenous Learning, School Community

Manitoba’s Frontier Division

Building capacity across the school community

As the chief superintendent of Frontier School Division, I love to tell people about the work our division is doing across Manitoba in the area of community development. To understand our efforts to develop the leadership capacity of residents in the communities Frontier School Division serves, it is important to gain some insight into the nature of the Frontier School Division.

A common term used to describe our division is “unique,” defined as “being one of, being distinctive and being without a like.” This certainly fits Frontier.

While we share similarities with other school divisions, our unique characteristics are clearly apparent. Our geography covers over 440,000 square kilometers and we are mandated to provide educational services to all children wherever they live, no matter how remote.

We encompass 40 communities spread out across Manitoba. Each of the communities we serve has unique characteristics. While most are populated with peoples of Aboriginal ancestry, there are vast differences between the aspirations, cultural identities and often the languages of each community. For example, our division encompasses the Cree, Dene, Oji-Cree, Saulteaux/Ojibway, Dakota and Metis people.

I can say with some certainty that we are the only division in Manitoba that operates a formal bus route with a snowmobile and sleigh (Stevenson Island). In Disbrowe, Ministic and Stevenson, community residents are hired as boatbus drivers to transport our students. Frontier is often perceived as a northern division and we do gain a great deal of our identity from the North. What surprises those unfamiliar with our geography is that we have schools as far southeast as Falcon Beach in the Whiteshell and the Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation in southwest Manitoba.

Our 42 schools range in size from five students in Disbrowe (Red Sucker Lake) to 1,100 students in Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre (Norway House). We provide housing in many communities, operating over 300 housing units, as well as water and sewage treatment plants.

Frontier provides educational services to 14 First Nations, with each partnership governed by an Education Agreement reflecting the First Nation’s aspirations. Our services require the participation of both the federal and provincial governments because many of our communities include children who fall within both funding jurisdictions. Approximately 54 percent of the division’s revenue comes from the federal government, while school taxes provide around 2.5 percent. We employ approximately 600 education staff (teachers, principals, vice-principals and consultants) and 900 support staff.

Home-grown staffing

Historically, our division has faced the challenge of attracting the necessary staff to maintain educational services and in some instances, our teacher turnover rate was as high as 25 percent. For many years we received minimal interest in advertised positions.

Another challenge facing Frontier is building a teaching population that is reflective of the people we serve. Thirty years ago, only a few teachers of Aboriginal ancestry worked in our division. The communities demanded more teachers who were reflective of their population. Responding to this imperative, in cooperation with Brandon University, we pioneered the Program for the Education of Native Teachers (PENT) program.

PENT students work in divisional schools from September to April, then attend Brandon University from May to July, in a repeating cycle lasting six to seven years. To date, more than 400 local community members from across Manitoba have graduated as teachers. The PENT program, which is ongoing, has made our teaching population much more reflective of the makeup of the people we serve, significantly reduced teacher turnover and has built leadership capacity within our communities.

Our school division also faced the challenge of finding qualified support staff from within our communities for a whole range of positions. It became apparent that if we wanted staff with particular qualifications we would have to take on the responsibility of providing the training.

As the need for counselors grew within our schools we established a counselor training program, with the result that the school division now has fully credentialed counselors. We followed a similar model for librarians, bus drivers, and to some extent, educational assistants.

In all of our training programs, our focus has been on identifying community members who have the desire and raw potential to be successful. We support and enhance applicants’ initial educational levels and concentrate more on their desire, character and potential to do the job. Critical to the success of our job training model is that once an individual is hired, the division continues to give as much support as possible to ensure their success. Our expectation is that, in a reasonable period of time, candidates will gain the full academic qualifications for the job. We call our approach to hiring “building our own.”

Frontier is the main employer in many of our communities. Our division can take a great deal of the credit for training hundreds of people to become certified teachers, counselors, librarians and administrators. We have “shared our wealth,” contributing significantly to many other organizations and school divisions that have hired people in whom we have invested. For the most part, we do not begrudge providing this service and sharing with the rest of the province!

Frontier School Division covers most of Manitoba and serves 42 schools ranging in size from five to 1,100 students. The question for Frontier is: how do we ensure the unique voice of each community is heard?

Ensuring community voice

In addition to adding enormously to the training levels of people within our communities, we have had a significant influence on developing the leadership capacity in thousands of individuals throughout the division. To a large extent, this has been the result of our three-tiered model of governance.

Respect for the aspirations of each community lies at the heart of our school division. The question for Frontier is: Within our vast geography, how do we ensure the unique voice of each community is heard and the wishes of the people are respected?

The answer lies in the three-tiered governance model established in The Public School Act (PSA). Being founded in legislation gives the school committee real authority, real responsibility and a strong voice of local control from the community. It also lies in our continual emphasis on building the leadership capacity of the hundreds of community members elected to provide community leadership for the local education system.

Every four years, while divisions hold school board elections for, on average, 10 trustees, Frontier conducts an official election for approximately 229 school committee positions throughout all of our communities.

Tier One: The Local School Committee of Trustees

At the heart of our model of governance is a group of five to seven elected members in each of our communities, called the Local School Committee. Approximately 229 individuals serve on 40 school committees across the division. Their role is established in the PSA, which gives the committee authority and responsibility for their mandate. Each committee operates under an approved constitution, terms of reference and code of conduct.

The elected members of the school committee provide direction and advice to the principal in six main areas. School committees are involved in all staff hiring and evaluation, recommending capital projects and facility improvements, and budgets. Committees also help develop policies, procedures, programs, and activities at the local and divisional levels.

As a school division, we have complete commitment to the local committees and expend significant time and resources strengthening this system. School committees are trained on interviewing, school assessment instruments, record keeping, basic accounting and the legislation that governs the school system. Committees are required to conduct business with formal meeting procedures. We employ four governance support officers (GSOs) to provide necessary training to support committee members in fulfilling their responsibilities effectively. GSOs are an important resource to help school committees resolve internal issues and to support their crucial relationship with school administration.

Through committee participation, thousands have discovered their leadership potential while influencing the education of children and adults within their communities.

Tier Two: The Area Advisory Committee

The Frontier School Division is divided into five regions based largely on geography. Once a school committee is elected for each school within a region, a member is elected to represent the community on their Area Advisory Committee (AAC). The Division has five AACs made up of 50 members.

Area Advisory Committees meet three or four times yearly, helping to provide communication with the Frontier School Board of Trustees. Similar to school committees, AACs operate under a legislative framework, an approved constitution, terms of reference and code of conduct. AACs play a major role in the development of policies, procedures and programs, and are responsible for regular reports about their local schools and communities. They are forums for important regional issues to be identified.

Tier Three: The Central School Board of Trustees

Once school committees have elected representatives for the Area Advisory Committees, each AAC elects two members to sit on the Frontier School Board. The Board is comprised of ten members and operates under the same legislation as all other provincial school boards.

Expectations for the individuals who sit on the Frontier School Board in terms of their personal commitment are very high. In addition to two days of board meetings per month and committee work, trustees actively participate on the AAC and their local school committee. Given the geographic location of many of our trustees, attending a one-day meeting often involves two or more days of travel. Participation on the Frontier School Board has been a life-changing experience for many of the trustees who have served our division.

Each February, the Frontier School Division Board hosts a School Committee Conference. Local school committees participate in a range of sessions and professional development activities to support them in their governance responsibilities at the local level. The conference also showcases programs taking place across our division. Here, our hundreds of committee volunteers can meet and be inspired by colleagues doing the same kinds of work throughout the province.

“Let’s do it and see what happens”

In the many conversations I have had explaining the importance of our governance system, a common comment is, “How do you accomplish anything?” Despite the complexities of carrying out our mandate, our experience has not been of paralysis but one of innovation, community commitment and loyalty to the division.

As a division, we believe the individuals who have the biggest stake in the local schools and communities are the people who reside there. The legislated requirement that the system be responsive to local input has enabled us to be highly active in community development, because that is what the local communities have demanded.

Local communities have wanted training programs for local people. They were not content to see outsiders being brought in to take away jobs when jobs were scarce. The division responded to the demands of the communities by shaping programs reflective of the aspirations of each community. Many of the division’s flagship programs, such as our student fiddling program, started because one community wanted something done and their requests were respected.

When ideas come forth, our response as administrators is, “Let’s do it and see what happens.” Is everything successful? Of course not – but we have been successful enough to receive recognition from the United Nations for our gardening program, to have had our student fiddlers play for Her Majesty the Queen of England, to have trained hundreds of teachers of Aboriginal ancestry, to have given thousands of our community members opportunities to realize their leadership capacities, to have enabled communities to develop local community histories used in the school curriculums and most importantly, through our collective engagement with the communities, to have generated hope where hope had been in short supply.

As I lie awake at night, I weigh the challenges our system presents and agonize over mistakes made. I ask myself, is it worth it? Does the system deliver what we promise?

I then have to put our many successes on the other side of the scale: I have to put the Elders there, who never thought they could have a meaningful role in their school; I have to add the individual who left school in tenth grade and is now a qualified teacher; I have to put the single parents who became professionally trained counsellors.

I have only to remember the look in the eyes of the hundreds of local governance volunteers who have enormous pride in the contributions they are making to their community, and then I can feel at peace with the work we do. Once I weigh all these things, I can sleep at least for a few more hours… until my phone rings again!

This article was first published in the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents Journal 14, No. 2 (Fall 2013). It has been edited to fit Education Canada’s editorial requirements.

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, September 2014

EN BREF – Couvrant plus de 440 000 kilomètres carrés, la Frontier School Division du Manitoba est chargée d’assurer des services éducatifs à tous les enfants, où qu’ils vivent, même dans les lieux les plus éloignés. Administrant des écoles d’entre 5 et 1 100 élèves et desservant des collectivités comprenant six peuples autochtones distincts, Frontier a mis au point une structure de gouvernance unique en son genre et des programmes d’apprentissage locaux grâce auxquels chaque collectivité peut exprimer ses aspirations, les écoles peuvent répondre aux besoins des collectivités locales et les membres des collectivités peuvent obtenir la formation et le soutien requis pour exceller comme dirigeants et membres du personnel. Tant par l’offre d’hébergement que d’usines de traitement des eaux usées en passant par l’établissement d’un parcours d’« autobus scolaire » par motoneiges et traîneaux, Frontier a suscité un modèle créatif et localement adapté de ce que peut être une communauté d’éducation.

Meet the Expert(s)

Ray Derksen

Ray Derksen, MEd, holds bachelor degrees in Psychology, Theology and Education and has been a junior high teacher, school principal, and superintendent of schools. He has been Chief Superintendent of Frontier School Division for four years.

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