By Mary Laronde
Pic Mobert First Nation is making its education its number one priority, and it shows.
It shows in the clean and tidy Netamisakomik Centre for Education that overlooks White Lake and a community of about 350 people, roughly one third of Pic Mobert’s total population.
It shows in the halls and in each classroom where students’ work is prominently displayed and each good deed is recorded on the Tree of Kindness. It shows in the staffroom where teacher, teaching assistants and Principal, Jacky Craig, share a cup of tea during recess and welcome unexpected visitors to their vibrant school.
Mostly, it shows in the children’s faces.
Like their teachers and their principal, the students obviously are proud of their school and their achievements. A visit to each classroom is met with a chorus of “hello” from engaged students who happily show off their current lessons and projects.
Craig said she has worked to create a sense of community in the school and a sense of family. In the four years since returning home to Pic Mobert to lead the Netamisakomik School, only one teacher has left. There used to be approximately a 90% turnover of teachers. But now trust is being built. “The students need continuity, consistency and stability,” Craig said. “Now there is comfort in the children. They are more relaxed.”
Craig is a veteran high school teacher and a principal with 16 years experience in the provincial system. The teaching staff at Netamisakomik School is “fabulous” and “young” and Craig intends to hang on to them. Many of the staff has additional qualifications pertaining to Special Education, Reading, Math, and Counselling. There is a dedicated Literacy teacher who supports reading intervention for the 54 students enrolled in classes from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8.
Anishinaabe culture and Anishinabewmowin are naturally part of the learning environment at Pic Mobert. Elder, Martina Gaudette, instructs cultural activities such as skirt making, dream catcher making, beading on a loom, and hide wraparounds. The school skirts have tags sewn in, labelled with their own school brand: Netamisakomik. Craig is seeking to add a Native Language (Ojibway) Teacher to her staff: “In recognizing that the Anishinaabemowin language and culture are gateways towards strengthening our students, school and community the Netamisakomik Centre for Education is seeking applications for a part-time Native Language Teacher”, the advertisement reads.
Craig is very clear about the future of Netamisakomik Centre for Education. Her immediate plans include integrating the day care program into the elementary school as part of a comprehensive literacy and numeracy program. “My goal is to close the gap between the province and Pic Mobert in reading, for every student, 100%. We need to get the children at 2 years old into a program where they will begin to learn letters, sounds, and numbers.”
Like the majority of First Nations, Pic Mobert is tackling the intergenerational trauma of the Indian residential school system and continuing government policies that marginalize and impoverish First Nations people. Craig acknowledges that the community continues to struggle with the aftermath of broken families and individuals. “We continue to struggle with social issues.”
“Give me 20 years, one generation, and I will make a difference,” Craig predicts. “Mobert is my home. I love it here and I love teaching.”
Pic Mobert pulls out the stops to keep youth in school
Grade 8 graduates from Pic Mobert’s Netamisakomik Centre for Education will find themselves riding the bus 30 minutes to Marathon next September to attend Grade 9. And they will find Nicole Simpson there, in the halls or in the mall, looking out for them.
Simpson is the coordinator of the Student Success Program, now going into its third year. Simpson explains that this is a grassroots, hands-on initiative that Pic Mobert put in place to keep their secondary students in school, whether they live at home in Pic Mobert or in Marathon.
“We have about 24 students in secondary school each Fall. Before the Student Success Program, by the end of the school year, there would be 8 or 9 left. This year we have 18. We had 2 graduates last year and will have another next year.”
Simpson explains her program’s success. “The teen-age years are tough enough. Our students need to know that someone cares and they have someone they can count on.”
“I have one major contact in the school that I work with to discuss our students’ progress. I am in the halls and I take them to lunch once a week. We have a cultural room at the school. I assist our students with their attendance, homework, and applications for summer jobs. It took time but our students are now comfortable talking to me.”
Simpson also acts as a bridge between the teachers and parents, bringing teachers from Marathon to Pic Mobert to familiarize with the community, especially the parents. A co-op program and distance education have also been put in place by Simpson with success.
Pic Mobert post-secondary student setting an example
Nicholas Duplessis, 20, is a third-year student at Lakehead University in a concurrent Honours Bachelor of Education with a Major in History. This summer Duplessis is the Summer Student and Program Coordinator for his home community, Pic Mobert First Nation.
His first task was coordinating an orientation program consisting of health and safety training, drugs and alcohol awareness, and health and fitness for eight high school students that will work in two crews “to work on various community projects such as the pow-wow, environment, and anything to help the community.”
Duplessis knows the value of giving back to his community and hopes he can provide a role model for Pic Mobert’s youth to stay in school and lead a healthy lifestyle. He works in conjunction with Nicole Simpson, Student Success Program Coordinator who accepts applications from only those students that are currently attending school and maintaining passing grades.
Pic Mobert is serious about education and is walking the talk.
Duplessis sums it up this way: “Education is the key to a better life and all future successes.”
Creating a stable learning environment and school culture is a major difficulty for First Nation schools generally. Funded through the federal Indian Affairs department (now called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada or “AANDC”) First Nations schools have been underfunded since First Nations began operating their own schools in the early 1970s. Per pupil amounts and teachers’ salaries can be 40% to 50% less when compared to rates in provincial schools. Indian Affairs will pay Ontario school boards up to twice as much in “tuition fees” for the same student, if he or she leaves a First Nation school to attend a provincial school. The same underfunding applies to teachers’ salaries in First Nation schools, making the creation of a successful, stable school culture extremely difficult.