The Stz’uminus Community School held its official grand opening last Wednesday (Sept. 26), signifying the historic beginning of holistic, K-12 education for the Stz’uminus First Nation.
Formerly designated as the new Stz’uminus Secondary School, the Community School will offer education to Grades 4-9, while Grades 10-12 will continue to run out of the recently-renovated Stu’’ate Lelum Secondary School until a new intermediate school can be built within the next few years.
“We really want today’s children to be tomorrow’s adults who have careers, not relying on a system to give them money, not depending on Indian Affairs,” said Community School co-principal Pearl Harris. “The reason we created our own education was for the success of our children. We’re focusing on what’s better for our Stz’uminus children.”
According to Harris, chief and council, along with the director of education, felt that there was a huge gap in education being offered by Stz’uminus. Prior to the start of the school year, the Nutsumaat Lelum Child Care Centre and S-HXIXNU-TUN Lelum Primary School were taking in children up to and including Grade 1, but from there, they would have to enter the public system.
“When they got to public school, they feel the shock that all of a sudden they’re not hearing their language, they’re not singing their songs, and they feel out [of place],” she said.
Harris, a former residential school student, said they are already seeing the benefits of educating the children using their own culture, language and protocols, while still keeping academics in the forefront.
Tim Harris, acting chief and Community School principal, said, “Our kids from the primary school (Grades 1-2) that started last year are a higher [level] than our Grade 3s coming in from the district.”
There are currently 98 students enrolled at the new Stz’uminus Community School. About 80 per cent of the students are Stz’uminus First Nations children. There are also students being bussed in from Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo) and Cowichan Tribes. Numbers are being capped to prevent classes from exceeding about 20 students to ensure a successful first year in the new school, said Pearl Harris.
“Our other schools are bursting at the seams right now with high numbers,” Tim Harris said. “We had to turn around last week and buy a brand-new $100,000 bus.”
During the grand opening, students and teachers started the day with traditional drumming and singing, and school leaders were given the chance to thank those involved with the project from start to finish. Two totem poles carved by Luke Marston were also unveiled.
“We’re proud, and education is always going to be our main focus, along with health,” Tim Harris said.
Preliminary numbers released by the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District indicate that 174 fewer students than district staff budgeted for entered Nanaimo and Ladysmith classrooms — in contrast to the numbers released Sept. 6 that indicated there were about 70 more students than projected.
Last spring, the district predicted it would lose about 46 students, with 7,496 elementary students and 5,599 secondary students returning to classrooms. Preliminary numbers are 7,467 elementary students and 5,454 secondary students — 220 students fewer than were in classrooms last year.
School district spokeswoman Donna Reimer said one factor in the decline is that about 60 Ladysmith-area students are now attending the Stz’uminus Community School instead.
“In general, however, enrolment across the district is declining because of demographics — fewer school-aged children. This is happening in most places across North America,” she stated in an e-mail.
Updated numbers are due to be released this week.
Pearl Harris said the majority of students transferring to Stz’uminus Community School have been those of First Nations descent from North Oyster Elementary School and Ladysmith Intermediate School, although there is a higher percentage of non-native students in the primary school.
“The majority of our students are Stz’uminus. If anyone jumps on board with us and brings their children here, that’s their choice; we’re not trying to pull anyone from any other schools,” she said. “We’re raising the bar for the education of Stz’uminus children because we want them to be able to get a good education.”
— with files from the Nanaimo News Bulletin