In 2006, the ambitious Model Schools for Inner Cities program (MSIC) was implemented by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). It provides supplemental funding in neighborhoods afflicted by higher rates of poverty, violence and other socioeconomic challenges, and has provided a big boost for that city’s First Nations students, who have benefited from community-oriented after-school events, Native language classes, health-and-wellness programs and multicultural instruction.
One of the city’s seven model schools is the Bala Avenue Community School, located in the community of Weston, in northwest Toronto, which currently has about 260 students, kindergarten to fifth grade, with 10 percent identifying as First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit. Those 260 students collectively speak 20 languages, so it is appropriate that the school motto is, “Children, Our Future; Diversity, Our Strength.”
It’s also appropriate, then, that one standout feature of the school is its International Language Elementary Program, which gives students the opportunity to learn a language other than the standard (for Canada) English and French. The school’s Ojibwe language class has 50 students, and half are not aboriginal. Bala’s principal, Lisa Beischlag, says that many of the students who have been enlightened by the school’s efforts to introduce multiculturalism want to delve even further. “Some students have told me that they are also interested in learning about aboriginal traditions.”
Beischlag also says that MSIC funding has been critical in the development of her school and its instructors. “We have spent a great deal of our model-school money by purchasing a variety of books and resources that reflect the diverse culture of the students we serve. We recently purchased a number of books that show First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and their families in a modern context,” she says. “We have created an inclusive and community culture within the school. We want each child to see himself or herself represented in the curriculum. We have worked especially hard to infuse an aboriginal perspective into the curriculum with resources, activities and programs. This has made it a safe environment for our First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to feel proud of their heritage and identity.”
Beischlag works closely with TDSB’s Aboriginal Education Centre, which has provided professional development for the school’s staff and essential services for aboriginal students and their families. That includes the 2010 Arts for Children and Youth mural project, in which a multicultural group of children painted animal murals with the guidance of an aboriginal artist; The Arts for Children and Youth Project, in which artist-educator Shannon Thunderbird taught children traditional song and dance; the Aboriginal Community Kitchen program, in which aboriginal and non-aboriginal families came together for traditional aboriginal cooking instruction, led by an aboriginal cook. (The school used $250,000 in MISC money to build a restaurant-grade community kitchen to benefit students and the outlying community.)
Bala offers many other programs to help students and their families, including a Parent and Family Literacy Centre school-readiness program for preschoolers; a Stop Now and Plan (SNAP) program, in which a trained facilitator promotes and teaches positive peer relations and problem-solving skills; Canadian Children’s Opera Company choreography and performance workshops; and Carabala, a celebration of countries, customs and traditions represented among the student population.
Catherine Pawis, Shawanaga First Nation, Deer Clan, has worked for TDSB for more than 20 years as a classroom teacher, special education consultant, instructional leader in Native Studies and Native Languages and as a vice principal and principal. She also worked for the Aboriginal Education Office at the Ministry of Education and has recently returned to her role as central coordinating principal of aboriginal education within the TDSB. She says the Ministry of Education is working to create “a province where all students in Ontario will have the knowledge and appreciation of contemporary and traditional First Nation, Métis and Inuit traditions, cultures and perspectives.” Pawis says her school board is working to fulfill this commitment with help from the model-school program and is proud that the Bala Avenue Community School has created an environment beneficial to First Nations students. “The staff at Bala is sensitive to the specific needs of aboriginal students, recognizing the unique place that First Nation, Métis and Inuit people hold in Canadian society,” she says. “Creating a school where students learn about and experience diversity helps them to develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable and caring citizens in a cohesive society. When aboriginal students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, their physical surroundings and the broader environment, they feel welcomed in school and engaged in their learning.
She says the teachers and other educators are also learning from the program how to better serve their students. “[We] provide regular opportunities for staff to collaborate, to compare experiences and to discuss best practices in aboriginal education to meet the learning needs of First Nation, Métis and Inuit students. Families may choose to enroll their children in the program because they wish for them to gain a deeper understanding of the ongoing and evolving relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada. Anishinaabe students may also seek to learn more about their own culture and their identity and develop skills for communicating in the Ojibwe language.”
And while it’s important that the grown-ups like the MSIC program, the most important “critics” are the kids, Native students like Cierra-Sky, 10, who says, approvingly, “We get more programs like drumming and singing”; Julien, 10, who enjoys the “mural-making, drumming and Ojibwe,” and Margret, 9, who says, simply and definitely: “Bala is the best school.”