Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

§ 5: Intrinsic Case Study 2: Prince Rupert School District

5.0 Intrinsic Case Study 2: Prince Rupert School District

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In this section of the report we provide a detailed case study of the AESN in the second school district selected for analysis, Prince Rupert.

5.1 General description of the district

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The school district website provides an excellent overview of the school district:

School District 52 (Prince Rupert) is located on the rugged northern coast of British Columbia, Canada and is situated in the traditional territories of the Ts’msyen people. The district serves families in Prince Rupert, Port Edward, Metlakatla, Gitxaala, Hartley Bay, Lax Kw’alaams, Dodge Cove, and Gingolx (Kincolith). We are situated on a 22.5 kilometre long harbour that is one of the deepest, natural, ice-free harbours in the world. The population, including the surrounding villages, is approximately 12,500 (Census Canada 2011)… School District 52 (Prince Rupert) has 2233 students attending 9 public schools with the latest in technological and learning resources. Our Aboriginal student population is approximately 60%. The district has recently reconfigured and now has elementary schools for students in kindergarten through grade 5; middle school for students in grades 6 – 8; and high school for students in grades 9 – 12. We also have Pacific Coast School that provides students and adult students with alternative styles of education including on-line learning. (summary taken from http://www.sd52.bc.ca/sd52root/content/welcome-school-district-no-52-prince-rupert)

As the above description makes evident, this district has a significant number of Aboriginal/Indigenous students, served primarily in the communities of Prince Rupert, Port Edward and Hartley Bay. Other independent schools exist in the region including a school in the village of Lax Kw’alaams operated by the Coast Tsimshian Academy; Lach Klan School in Gitxaala is a band operated school; finally there is a Catholic Annunication School in Prince Rupert.

There is a significant history in the Prince Rupert school district of working on addressing the needs and interests of its diverse communities; it has had a First Nations Education Council in place for a considerable time. Founded in the fall of 1989 as the Indian Education Advisory Council, this organization has had at the core of its work the mission of “creating a community of young people and adults who value First Nations culture, knowledge, and people as an integral part of the education system” (Wilson, 2007, p. 1).

In a written history of the work of the Aboriginal Education Council in Prince Rupert by Elizabeth Wilson (2007) the spirit of this work is captured by the words of its founding members:

“We want children to want to go to school, to have a sense of belonging, to see themselves in our schools. We wanted all of the things stated in “The Indian Control of Indian Education”… that First Nations people will have a clear say in what is important, what is success in school, and how all this ties to life experiences in the community, so that the First Nations worldview is reflected in the education system. We didn’t want these to be separate worlds… We want to focus on a curriculum that embodies First Nations culture and to bring it into the classrooms, to help First Nations students and also for other students to gain an appreciation of First Nations culture” (p. 1).

Documenting the full scope of this organization’s visionary work goes beyond the scope of this short case study. However, it is important to acknowledge that this group has acted as an advocate for First Nations children and the community at large, and that their persistent efforts can be attributed to creating a culture in which both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples have become connected to a common core purpose.

This core purpose is evident in many different ways, but firstly in the representation of its vision statement: “Sagayt Suwilaawksa Galts’ap”, which translates as “A community of learners”. More recently, the opening of the Wap Sigatgyet in 2006 has offered a visible symbol that realizes this vision by creating a physical space and the primary location for Aboriginal Education. Wap Sigatgyet means “House of Building Strength” and this site has indeed become the center of Aboriginal Education in the district. It houses all of the program staff who work in the district and resources to support the work of staff and teachers. It has become a shared space where collaborative activities are hosted and all educators and community members are welcome as they collectively seek to enhance the strength of their diverse community. The focus on community is no accident as is evident by the approaches the district supports and mandates within its schools. A primary means of realizing this vision is evident from the work being done by its Aboriginal Education programming, and governance measures such as the Aboriginal Education Council, The Aboriginal Education Committee and Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement. Brief descriptions of these structures and programs follow.

5.2 Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement

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While many school districts around the province have created joint agreements under the Provincial Government’s mandate to create local/regional Aboriginal Education Enhancement agreements, Prince Rupert is unique in that its community insisted on it being described and realized as a partnership agreement. They did so with the intention of conveying the importance of the shared responsibility between the school district, its staff and the Aboriginal communities it serves.

The first Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement was signed on October 29, 2001. The mission statement of the Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement stated—

Our school system is dedicated to creating a community of young people and adults who value Aboriginal Language, Culture, Knowledge, and People as an integral part of the education system.

With the signing of the Agreement, the Aboriginal Education Council and the Board of Education, as well as community and school partners entered into a partnership designed to:

  • Acknowledge the lack of success of Aboriginal learners
  • Focus on increasing the academic success of Aboriginal learners
  • Acknowledge the language, culture, and history of Aboriginal people whose traditional territories were served by the school district
  • Report annually on progress towards specific student performance goals

Since this original agreement annual reports have been created to mark the progress of the district and its partners in achieving their shared goals for improving the “school success of all First Nations learners in Prince Rupert School District”(2001, p. 1). A renewed partnership agreement was signed on November 30, 2010, which will run until 2016. The renewed agreement clarifies the goals of the Partnership Agreement, and draws attention to the need to enhance the success of Aboriginal students through what it calls “Culturally responsive programs” (2012, p. 7). There are some important amendments made to the original agreement that include:

  • A focus on school success “by providing engaging, relevant curriculum”
  • A focus on enhancing “life opportunities of all Aboriginal learners”
  • A focus on “the engagement of families in their children’s education”
  • A focus on “greater community understanding of Aboriginal culture and history” (2012, p. 7)

The words italicized above shows the shift in thinking that has occurred over the years since the original Partnership Agreement was signed. In later parts of this report this change in thinking about Aboriginal education—a shift from thinking of Aboriginal education as a type of correctional program for a specific class of learners, i.e. Aboriginal students—to being a concern for all learners and the broader community, will be explored in greater detail. Suffice it to say that these carefully crafted words signal a fairly significant shift in thinking about Aboriginal students, from a deficit/corrective model to a more inclusive way of thinking about Aboriginal knowledges and culture as valued components of school learning.

5.3 Aboriginal education programming

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Debbie Leighton-Stephens is the District Principal of Aboriginal Education in Prince Rupert. She works with a small number of professional staff—both teachers and educational assistants/resource personnel—in supporting the goals of the Aboriginal Enhancement/Partnership Agreement and the success of its Aboriginal student population. Given the high percentage of Aboriginal students in the district, it isn’t surprising that there are a considerable number of Aboriginal education programs offered in the district. As their website notes:

Aboriginal Education Services is committed to building understanding of Aboriginal history and culture throughout the school district as a way to develop positive relationships among all students and staff.

Aboriginal Education Services continues to plan and implement successful initiatives, programs, and materials including the Sm’algyax Language Program, the LUCID Research Partnership, First Nations Cross-Curricular Units, the Role Model Program, Family Resource Workers, Full/All Day Kindergarten, PALS (Parents as Literacy Supporters), POPS (Parents of Primary Learners), Helping Our Children Learn family workshops, Summer Read and Play, and other programs (Aboriginal Education Website, n.d. ¶1).

5.3.1 Aboriginal Education Council

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The Aboriginal education council was originally formed in Prince Rupert in 1989. Its goals include:

  • providing Aboriginal people an effective voice in determining relevant educational programs and services for learners of Aboriginal ancestry and,
  • increasing all learners’ knowledge, awareness, understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal people and their history and cultures (Aboriginal Education Council webpage, n.d.)

The Aboriginal Education Council includes a broad membership of community members as well as school district personnel. It provides the overall direction to the work of the school district as it relates to Aboriginal Education. The Council also has a working committee, called the Aboriginal Education Committee. The members of this committee include the school superintendent, Lynn Hauptman, as well as the District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Debbie Leighton-Stephens. Other teachers and support workers are represented in this working group. The Aboriginal Education Committee provides a primary mechanism through which the work of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN ) in Prince Rupert is coordinated and supported.

During the site visit to this district, the degree of cooperation and coordination among all of the district staff became readily apparent, as did the degree to which there is a strong commitment to improving the life chances of all students, but particularly for its Aboriginal student population. A description of all of the tools the district uses to support its Aboriginal learners goes beyond the scope of this report; in the next section I have summarized how district personnel and Network members describe their involvement in the AESN and how it is supported in the school district.

5.4 The role of the AESN in the Prince Rupert School District

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The AESN has been operating in the Prince Rupert school district since the Network’s inception in 2009; as noted in the introduction to this report, Prince Rupert teachers, and in particular, its District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Debbie Leighton-Stephens, have been foundational players in the design, development and early launch of the AESN . We also became aware of the lead role several prominent educators have played in this district, among them Lynn Hauptman, School Superintendent, Judy Zacharias, Principal, Elizabeth Wilson (former Network regional leader, now retired but still actively supporting Aboriginal Education initiatives), and Christine Franes, District Helping Teacher, and current NOII /AESN Co-ordinator.

A review of the case studies underway or completed and filed with the AESN principals and/or the District Principal of Aboriginal Education reveals the following:

Figure 4: AESN Projects in Prince Rupert School District

Conrad Street Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading

2008-09

4

Roosevelt Park Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading

2008-09

4

Conrad Street Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading

2009-10

4

Hartley Bay School

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Aboriginal Culture and Traditions

2009-10

5

Pineridge Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Aboriginal Art and Reading Comprehension

2009-10

4

Roosevelt Park Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading

2009-10

4

Conrad Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading comprehension

2010-11

4

Hartley Bay School

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Building upon last year’s inquiry – Aboriginal Culture and Traditions

2010-11

7

Pineridge Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Year two of Inquiry – Aboriginal Art and Reading Comprehension

2010-11

3

Roosevelt Park Elementary

#52 Prince Rupert

AESN

Reading

2010-11

4

No inquiries completed due to job action; however many inquiries launched in 2010 were continued without formal reporting.

2011-2012

Charles Hays Secondary

NOII *

Students Owning Their Own Learning (partnered with Hartley Bay School) (using strategies such as Aboriginal cognitive tools & differentiated instruction)

2

Conrad Elementary

NOII *

Integration of Aboriginal literature (year three of original inquiry)

4

Hartley Bay School

AESN

Building upon last 2 years inquiry – Aboriginal Culture and Traditions (year 3)

7

Pineridge Elementary

NOII *

Integrating Aboriginal Knowledge into Science and Social Studies.

2

Prince Rupert Middle School

AESN

Integrating Aboriginal Knowledge into Gr. 8 SS

4

Roosevelt Park Middle School

AESN

Integrating philosophy of Restitution

4

Pacific Coast School

AESN

Project based learning to improve achievement for Aboriginal students

4

* In these cases, the inquiries were begun under the auspices of NOII , although they were primarily concerned with Aboriginal student success and are therefore included here.

In interviews and focus groups with the teachers involved in the AESN , it was also reported that teachers participated in the formal structural components of the Network, including participation in school, district and regional meetings. As part of their Network activity, these teachers reported on some of the ways in which they became more aware of the Network activity of colleagues in the region via the formal year-end ‘showcase’. A former regional Network leader interviewed for this study estimated that approximately 50 teachers from the region meet at the end of each school year to discuss their inquiry questions and share their learning and results. This process generates intensely focused discussions among participants about both how goals were achieved and pathways/routes to future inquiries. Earlier in the document, the notion of developing “hunches”, “new professional learning” and “checking” as a part of the process of inquiry were described; conversations with AESN members who attended these showcases highlight how these processes become integral to the showcase process of sharing inquiry results. And, in keeping with effective professional learning literature, AESN members frequently report the ways in which their inquiry questions led to deeper and more frequent forms of collaboration, professionally focused, learning centered conversations, and in deeply engaged reflection on one’s own teaching practice.

Christine Franes, the district’s Literacy Support teacher, has been involved in the AESN since its inception. During the site visit to Prince Rupert, she was able to provide detailed evidence of the degree of teacher involvement in the Network. After reviewing the summary of inquiry reports, she was able to document that 55 teachers have been active in the Network in Prince Rupert. In a total teaching population of 150, this is a significant number of teachers—more than 30%– who have become, or are currently members involved in inquiry work.

5.4.1 Exploring one school’s inquiry journey: Conrad School

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As an exemplar of the work of AESN members, we interviewed the teachers and school principal involved in one of the Prince Rupert inquiry questions. Conrad school’s inquiry began in 2007, prior to the official launch of the AESN . However, as has been described in this case, Prince Rupert was a lead district in initiating the AESN as a subset of educators within NOII , so documenting their initial work provides strong evidence of the emergence of the Network, while also illustrating critical components of the AESN process that would become central to the thinking of the wider AESN community.

Conrad elementary school enrolls approximately 300 students from kindergarten to grade 7. About 75% of the students enrolled in this school have Aboriginal heritage/ancestry. The school also serves about 25 students from the village of Metlakatla, a small community on the coast of Prince Rupert. Other initiatives this school engages in that support its Aboriginal student population include: StrongStart (a provincial early childhood education initiative), Sm’algyax Language Programming, and all day kindergarten programming.

The Conrad staff chose to investigate the question “Will using Aboriginal content literature improve reading comprehension for Aboriginal students”? Their case study documentation as well as their interview transcripts describe an organic, emergent process through which the AESN participants came to narrow their focus from that of reading comprehension to making connections, questioning and visualizing as tools for enhancing comprehension of texts. They spent considerable time compiling and testing different local and regional Aboriginal literature sources as a part of their inquiry. The teacher team worked with different age groups of students in the school; and while it was clear that their original work was focused more on the resources they had gathered, they soon started to understand that it was in effort to establish deeper connections with their students as they read these texts that they became more aware of the ways in which Aboriginal content could and did transform their students’ learning experiences. At this point in our conversation one teacher said simply: “Content isn’t enough, we want to make this [inquiry] bigger.” There were enthusiastic nods all round. This need to re-define, deepen and engage with their own approach to working with their Aboriginal and non Aboriginal students might be described as a kind of turning point. It is certainly clear from the conversations we held that they had a great enthusiasm and eagerness to share what they had learned. But it also demonstrated the ways in which working together had provided them with scaffolded learning opportunities, opportunities to develop skills in learning focused leadership, and strong inter personal and professional relationships created, as they built an inquiry together around a common purpose. We also heard these teachers describe the ways in which they used the Wap Sigatgyet education center as a physical site for their ongoing work. As its name suggests, they used this site to “build strength” together: they held not only AESN planning meetings here, but actually shifted one of their regularly scheduled staff meetings to this site in order to become more aware of how they might integrate the resources from the Wap Sigatgyet into their current and future work. The school has plans to continue this process of using the Center as a site to enable their continued learning. Finally we noted that these individuals were all non-Aboriginal teachers; it was particularly interesting to hear how they characterized their shifting understandings about the relationship between Aboriginal content, culturally responsive teaching practice, and their own beliefs about their role as educators.

As a result of this turning point in their inquiry, the team decided to trace their continued efforts and go more deeply into exploring their question by extending their study. They created a cohort of students and sought to refine and re-develop their question over the subsequent two years. Their report was reviewed for this case study; this report also emphasized their efforts to collect pre and post data about their students’ levels of comprehension, which were reported to have increased substantially over the course of their inquiry. Yet while their written report suggests that teachers were significant learners throughout their process of inquiry, it was the deeper oral reflections on their learning journey that captured the ways in which the inquiry process altered their trajectories as teachers, learners and learning centered leaders.

In the next section of this case study I want to elaborate on five observations identified within the Conrad Elementary school case study described above in order to tease out how the Network provides the context for engaging teachers in deeper learning. This includes: inquiry as a mindset, the role of leadership, shifting teacher beliefs about Aboriginal learners, networked teacher learning, and the role of conceptual/big picture thinking.

5.4.2 An inquiry mindset

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Four of the members involved in this inquiry were interviewed; they included two classroom teachers, the school librarian and the school principal. Each described in different ways how critical the concept of an inquiry and learning centered mindset was to their work and approaches to enhancing student success. For example, one teacher described the more typical way of doing curriculum in her class was to “just get through it” but that through her focus on this inquiry, she was able to realize the importance of ‘walking slowly’. “Hagwil yaan” is the Ts’msyen word for ‘walking slowly’; it brings attention to the importance of patience, taking time for relationships and engaging in collaborative work. This teacher said that by focusing on “Hagwil yaan” as she worked with her colleagues and her students she could focus in more fully on “how can we make this [teaching and learning] better?” To use this language signals a way of conceptualizing practice differently: to become less oriented to immediate results, and more engaged in caring, thoughtful and mindful relationship building with their students.

Another interviewee talked about how working with colleagues on a shared inquiry created the opportunity to learn more deeply and get new ideas; the inquiry process provided the means through which to “get more comfortable with being able to ask questions”. In other words, inquiry provides a very necessary professional learning space for teachers themselves in which to move from the role of “expert knowledge holder” to “inquirer”. This might seem like a relatively simple statement, but more typical teacher professional development activities put teachers, not student learning, at the center of their efforts. Throughout the interview with these teachers, their comments illustrated that they had moved significantly away from this conception of the teaching and learning relationship; collaboration, cooperation, questioning and investigation into how students are experiencing their efforts has replaced their earlier emphasis on lesson content and teacher delivery. The school principal summarizes this point well in her description of how her involvement in the Network has evolved over time. “Inquiry” she said, “has changed the way I do things.” It has clearly changed the way these teachers work together and focuses on how to better engage students in relevant and engaging learning opportunities.

5.4.3 Leadership

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The topic of leadership was exemplified throughout my interview with the teachers involved in the Conrad inquiry question. First, the idea of emergent leadership through shared engagement was strongly evidenced by the conversations between these professionals. At various times in the conversation teachers referred to the lead role an individual might play as the inquiry unfolded; one teacher might lead on making connections to Aboriginal community members; another might take a lead role in data collection; another in assessing resources to be used. Yet it was not just the distribution of tasks that seemed central to their description of their work; rather their role as shared leaders was exemplified in how they described the contributions that others had made to their emerging learning and how such leadership built a committed team of inquirers. In other words, the shared nature of the work helped scaffold teacher learning and deepen it.

The role of formal leaders in supporting and deepening the inquiry process was also an important idea that was evidenced through these teachers’ reflections on their inquiry. The school principal Judy Zacharias described how the inquiry approach gave her inroads into new conversations that widened teachers understanding of the multiple contexts in which their learners were situated, and how these contexts needed to be addressed in order to deepen their engagement with literacy texts. This school leader described how she sought to have teachers engage through these ongoing professional conversations, with their own values, beliefs and assumptions. And as these conversations were recursively cycled through subsequent iterations of their questions, the inquiry moved from one focused solely on cognitive performance to one that embraced students’ cultural knowledges and experiences. While not explicit in this leader’s words, there is clearly a level of trust that has developed among the AESN members and this leader. As a lead learner, this leader provided a powerful, safe support system for continued cycles of inquiry and learning as is evidenced by the increasingly more focused efforts to re-structure their inquiry over a three-year period.

5.5 Shifting teacher beliefs about Aboriginal learners

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As is evidenced in the Prince Rupert Partnership Agreement, culturally responsive teaching is understood to be a powerful pedagogy through which teachers should engage their students in deepened forms of learning that acknowledge the significant contributions Aboriginal peoples have made to Canada, BC , and the Prince Rupert region. This is particularly important in the context of school districts that have largely non-Aboriginal educators working with Aboriginal learners. Dismantling pre-existing beliefs, including those that characterize Aboriginal learners as “deficit”, is a central purpose of the AES Network . Throughout my interviews with teachers from Conrad school, there were references to thinking about their students differently—more positively and with an emphasis on care and understanding—as well as references to their own need to uncover and learn more about the historical past of residential schooling and its impacts on Aboriginal communities. Repeated references to the “richness” of Aboriginal literature, the historical contributions of the Ts’msyen nation as part of “our story”, the importance of connecting with community members, leaders and Elders in shared knowledge creation; and how connecting to Aboriginal knowledge and culture provided a means of their students’ “connecting to a bigger story” permeated our conversation. While overt references to the colonial history of schooling were absent from their conversations, it was evident that these teachers were becoming engaged with and responsive to the goal of creating culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy in their everyday practice. In this school, Aboriginal education is not an add on: it is widely integrated into how educators think about their role as teachers and learners.

5.6 Networked teacher learning

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Another theme that became evident was that these teachers wanted to develop ties with other schools, regions or districts around the province to share what they had learned and to learn more from others. There was an intensity to descriptions of their work and how much value they placed on the opportunity to share with and learn from others. For example, references were specifically made to partnerships they had made with two teachers attempting to use culturally responsive practices in their own school but who had little in the way of professional learning support. Sharing was also credited for their renewed focus on their inquiry question; they used AESN case studies completed by other teachers in other schools to consider how they might incorporate more hands-on or experiential learning components to their subsequent inquiry. Again, the theme of scaffolding and laddering learning is evident here; yet the point is not that one group helps another learn, but rather how networked learning can alter trajectories, create alternative pathways for thinking, and accelerate learning in shorter cycles. And as one would expect, as the network grows, new connections and even more collaborative professional learning activities occur, there is a growth in both enthusiasm and interpersonal relationships. Such activity naturally attracts other teachers or participants, as teachers in Prince Rupert identified in the focus group discussion. This theme of enhanced relationality and building a learning centered culture exemplifies the ways in which networked learning empowers and amplifies the magnitude of change.

5.7 The role of conceptual/big picture thinking

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A caution among some who examine inquiry-based learning is that the specificity of the inquiry can focus on the particularity of a case or situation or reinforce folk theories (personal learning theories based in beliefs) about why certain interventions work or fail. In other words, a focus on the singular case may preclude consideration of how larger contexts or ideas might inform teacher and student learning.
Yet an examination of the experiences of the AESN members at Conrad school illustrate they have engaged in a matrix of learning experiences that focus closely on their specific inquiry question supplemented by regional or local discussions with other teachers in the wider district AES Network , but that they also seek out other types of professional learning opportunities related to their inquiry. For example, one teacher described attendance at a provincial conference on literacy development; another described how they were working with professionals in their Aboriginal Education department who supported their learning more about culturally responsive pedagogy; a third member described attending provincial symposiums where big ideas about teaching and learning were discussed. This “to-ing and fro-ing” between the micro context of inquiry and the macro context which informs the inquiry seems an important observation for those organizations who seek to deepen teachers’ professional learning

5.8 Key features of the AESN in Prince Rupert

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As reported in the methodology section of this report, three focus groups were conducted in Prince Rupert; one was conducted with a mixed group of Network members. The second focus group was with Network leaders—both those who have formal roles within the AESN and other district staff who support the work of the AESN . The third focus group was among the AESN team at Conrad Elementary school (discussed above). Interviews with key leaders, including the District Principal of Aboriginal Education and the Superintendent of Schools were also conducted. In this next section of the case study, I summarize the key themes emerging from these interviews and discussions.

5.8.1 Nested, interconnected learning systems

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In exploring how the AES Network operates in Prince Rupert what becomes clear is how the Network is nested within and amongst pre-existing and parallel systems of support for teachers and district personnel involved in educating Prince Rupert youth. Inquiry is ubiquitous: there is a seamlessness to the ways in which the Network members work within existing district initiatives, and members are able to draw from and among different initiatives and resources to enable a rich and deep engagement in their classroom or school inquiries. This can be described clearly using the metaphor of the Network as “a flexible container, not a constrainer”. In other words, the Network serves as an enabling tool that can be drawn upon and used to advantage in all district level planning, resource development and/or program implementation.

Interviews with the District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Debbie Leighton-Stephens and the school Superintendent Lynn Hauptman, made clear that this commitment to nesting the AESN within the district infrastructure is a priority. For example, district funds are provided to AESN members to support their inquiry work both within their school and for travel to regional/provincial Network meetings. District meetings incorporate reporting from AESN leaders and members on a regular and ongoing basis. Discussions in this district among inquiry teams emphasize the interrelated nature of local and provincial programming initiatives (such as the Early Reader project or their POPS and PALS programs), as well as other partner groups (such as the LUCID program partnership with Simon Fraser University). There is also an important emphasis on leadership: Network leaders are publicly recognized as change agents within their district. As a result, one strong impact the Network is having is to create strong levels of coherence, coordination and purpose.

As earlier sections of this report documented, inquiry now informs many of the ways in which teachers and district leaders organize their other programs and professional learning initiatives. For example, the District Principal of Aboriginal Education described in some detail the ways in which inquiry is being used with Aboriginal Education support workers she supervises. Modeled after the AES Network , each individual support worker is being encouraged to take on his/her own inquiry as a part of the work they do in the schools in which they work. Each is encouraged to work with other members of their school—including the formal school leader or community members—to design and investigate inquiry questions. In other words, they form learning teams that amplify the effectiveness of the work they have been assigned to do as a part of their work supporting Aboriginal learners.

Inquiry is also a part of the language of the governance structures within the school district. Earlier the work of the Aboriginal Education Council and Committee was highlighted; here references to inquiry is focused at a strategic level, and is used to frame the ways in which this way of thinking should be used to consider how progress towards achieving the goals of their Aboriginal education initiatives can be both measured and reported publically. As the Superintendent stated, “the inquiry approach is more widely understood [in our district] including by the Board. They are very used to hearing about inquiries and how it raises achievement levels, particularly of our Aboriginal learners”. Inquiry, as stated by Debbie Leighton-Stephens, is simply “our way of being.”
This way of seeing and describing the work of their school district, as centered in student success, inquiry and learning for all, is clearly evidence of what is meant by a learning centered culture. As the literature review produced for this report emphasizes, this is an important enabling feature or characteristic of successful learning organizations. It also speaks to a significant impact of the AESN .

5.8.2 Partnerships with community

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Another important observation about how the AESN operates in Prince Rupert is how it encourages collaborative practices with members of its wider community, particularly Aboriginal communities. This work was well underway in Prince Rupert prior to the start of the AES Network , as the description of the Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement makes clear. Community leaders are regularly and routinely involved with the planning, monitoring and assessment of Aboriginal education activities. The work of inquiry teams however, has helped highlight a shift in how teachers can engage local community members, Elders and others, in their learning plans in order to highlight how educative partnerships nurture and grow the scope of talents and successes of their Aboriginal student population. This work centers on a strength based approach, while also emphasizing the holistic ways in which Aboriginal ways of learning/knowing can be represented as part of the school experience. In other words, the school classroom and the work of the teacher now share the responsibility for creating success for all learners. The work of the Hartley Bay School inquiry team is an exemplar of this approach. Hartley Bay is a very small school of approximately 25 learners, approximately 90 miles south of Prince Rupert that is only accessible by boat or float plane.

The inquiry question at this school sought to ask “When using traditional First Nations methods of teaching and learning, will providing opportunities for students to teach their skills to others have a positive academic, social and personal impact upon achievement levels?” As part of this inquiry, teachers and students alike focused on traditional Ts’msyen teaching methods including observing, imitating, mastering and teaching. As the case study produced by this inquiry team summarized, the students “internalized success criteria and were able to connect their learning to real life situations”. Formative assessment strategies, coaching, metacognitive and self-regulated learning strategies, and experiential, place based learning were emphasized throughout.

The Hartley Bay inquiry relied extensively on the engagement and involvement of local Elders and community members. Students were immersed in opportunities to learn traditional practices and then share them with their younger peers. As the result of this work, student engagement among the Elementary/Junior secondary school was enhanced; the Hartley Bay inquiry team traced improvements both in school attendance and late arrivals. Students were reported to express higher degrees of satisfaction and interest in school experiences because of the connections made to their local culture and histories.

During the collection of data for this study, many references were made to how this team of teachers has shared their inquiry and experiences with many other teachers in regional and provincial AESN seminars and showcases. And while the importance of teacher learning and efforts at enhancing student engagement were not underestimated, it was the engagement with First Nations community members, the learning of local protocols, and making a commitment to Aboriginal ways of knowing and being that became of greatest interest to the other teachers who participated in their presentations. The creation of an Aboriginal Role model program was a core component of their approach. And as is evidenced by the number of times this inquiry project has been cited by teachers from around the province (including interviewees from Arrow Lakes, Nanaimo, and Vanderhoof) this inquiry has become a primary means through which non-Aboriginal teachers have learned about how to approach and engage First Nations community members in their own inquiries. These models and exemplars of place based and community engaged learning which are prominent in Prince Rupert are now being used in other school districts around the province. This speaks to another impact of the AES Network : its work amplifies that of exemplary teaching professionals and effectively operates a mechanism which scales up the implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices while simultaneously shifting conversations from deficit to strength based models.

5.8.3 Leadership

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There is no doubt that leadership has been a key component of the work done in the Prince Rupert School District. The work of key personnel—including the School Superintendent and District Principal of Aboriginal Education have been key components of how change has been initiated and sustained in Prince Rupert. There is evidence that funding has been targeted to the Network and related inquiry initiatives; yet it is not funding alone that provides the means through which to sustain positive change. It is the persistent voices of these leaders, exemplifying a passion for and shared commitment to the work of enhancing student success that seems to be critical. These voices have created a space in which other teacher leaders can embrace and be supported in their efforts towards change. It is a case of “walking the talk”, listening carefully and deeply to the concerns and issues raised by the community and/or its teachers, as well as inclusive practices of building a collaborative culture. As contemporary educational leadership literature has demonstrated, leadership practices that support learning are foundational to effecting local and systemic change. In this district, there is strong evidence that these conditions exist. The sheer number of teachers and leaders involved in the AES Network suggest a tipping point has been reached and that the changes initiated are likely to persist. Therefore another deep impact of the Network has been to create opportunities for purposefully centered educational leadership to emerge.

5.8.4 Aboriginal pedagogies: culturally inclusive practice

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Teachers, Network leaders and members all describe the ways that the AESN has enhanced their ability to incorporate and promote culturally inclusive practices among all teachers in the district. It accomplishes this in several ways; first, the Network builds and supports the creation of professionally focused relationships both within the district and outside of it. It also provides a powerful venue through which Aboriginal/Indigenous educators can profile their approaches to working with Aboriginal students, Aboriginal communities, and share Aboriginal ways of knowing/teaching with their non-Aboriginal colleagues interested in incorporating culturally responsive teaching practices into their own work. One good example of how this work has engaged non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal teachers in shared resource development is the “Canoe Journey for Resilience” (Resource Appendix) developed by three AESN team members who are counselors at a Prince Rupert Middle School. This same resource also shows evidence of how “big idea” conceptual understandings offered by Network leaders (through its annual provincial conference) are being integrated into approaches to working with Aboriginal students. In the case of the “Canoe Journey” student planning document, the references to resiliency and self-regulation are most in evidence. This echoes the themes of self-regulation and social-emotional learning that have been a focus of the Network provincial seminar over the last 3-4 years.

As this review has illustrated, one powerful impact of the Network has been to lever, nurture and support deepened teacher learning in culturally responsive teaching practices. By recognizing and documenting the work of its members, it provides exemplars and models that teachers and leaders have used to create new pathways and strategies, suited to their local context, to emerge.

5.8.5 Perseverance and grit

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An important context that readers should understand is that this learning centered, inquiry based culture was constructed upon a pre-existing commitment and long history of being concerned with Aboriginal student success. One Network leader, in reflecting back over her career in the district, described what she understood as a 20 plus year history of working on effecting change to benefit Aboriginal learners in the school district. She described the district culture as “appreciative… This region is our home. We offer hospitality and show genuine interest in one another… We want to take care of each other. We are relationally situated and motivated.”

The work has taken perseverance and time. But it has also taken grit. It hasn’t been easy work; the historical racism and framing of Aboriginal peoples as deficit, needing rescue or as dependent peoples relying on government handouts has been a dominant discourse in this region of the province that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders in the district have had to address on an ongoing basis. Teachers were not cognizant of settler biases or the marginalizing impact of traditional Western schooling practices and so district leaders have had to struggle with how to make visible the biases that were naturalized in discourses and approaches to education, among them, beliefs about how to deliver Aboriginal education—in discrete, pull out programs rather than systemic approaches that would benefit all learners. The education system remains a colonial artifact that continues to shape its operation and discourses. Throughout the interviews and focus groups, there was an implicit recognition among the AESN members in Prince Rupert that this must change if success for Aboriginal students is to be achieved. There is also a well-articulated acknowledgement that culturally responsive teaching practice is the means through which all student learning can be enhanced.

One should not conclude that it is solely the AES Network that has achieved this goal; there are a series of interrelated factors that have accelerated an interest in the Network in this school district that have been nurtured and supported through the work of district and community leaders. The Network’s priority and focus on Aboriginal ways of knowing has built upon the emerging local and political contexts in which changes to public discourse are occurring. Events such as the Federal government’s public apology for residential schooling and increased funding for Aboriginal education are also critical events that have added momentum to support this culture of change. Yet it is the voices of lead teachers, Aboriginal community members and district personnel in Prince Rupert who have created the conditions necessary to support and nurture this shift within the public schooling system in this region of the province. Together they have built powerful connections between local Aboriginal education programming and enriched the services they offer to all students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

The AES Network has, however, also created a persistent culture in which change to teacher practice—with a shift to learning centered thinking—can effect change in particular local contexts. Building from these micro investigations, the Network has created new ways of thinking about and conceptualizing the ways in which deeper teacher learning is supported. Changing the everyday practices of teachers is a critical component of systemic change. A review of the Prince Rupert school district illustrates how ongoing, coordinated, and nested forms of inquiry can alter practices in both micro (classroom and school) and macro (district) settings. Such work has led to enhanced learning and success for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in this district.

5.9 Summary of AESN impacts

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We have attempted to provide rich detail about how the Network operates in the Prince Rupert school district. When considering overall impact, we thought it could be useful to try and represent impact using a basic scale. For the purposes of our summary then, we consider impact in three categories: as sustained, initiated, and as potential.

Figure 5: Summary of Impacts, Prince Rupert School District

Impact Category

Potential: the AESN has provided an inviting pathway through which to consider change

Initiated: the frequency of engagement is shifting context, process or practice

Sustained: the AESN has transformed the context, process or practice.

Leadership

 ✔

Culturally inclusive education

 ✔

Nested, inter connecting learning systems

Partnerships with community

Perseverance & Grit