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Academic achievement a focus at Nusdeh Yoh

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May 15, 2019 --

Nusdeh Yoh, which means House of the Future, became the first Aboriginal Choice school in B.C. when it opened its doors in 2010.

The Prince George-based elementary school – part of School District No. 57 – follows a plan for student success that is rooted in Aboriginal worldview, culture and language. Aboriginal stories and lessons are taught throughout the curriculum. At the same time, academic achievement among the students is an overarching objective of the Nusdeh Yoh staff.

"I think what makes Nusdeh Yoh fantastic is that the students coming to our school, they feel safe and, they feel welcomed – we offer them all the supports that they might need so that they're able to be successful when it comes to their learning at school," said Liza Arnold, the school's Principal. "Our goal is to do our best to reduce any and all barriers or struggles that they may be having so that they can be successful with their math, their reading and their writing, with the same goal as all students in the school district – to get to the place where they can graduate and find their way into the workforce."

For Arnold, that means finding creative ways to provide additional interventions. 

"We are doing everything we can to offer additional academic support above and beyond direct classroom instruction," she said. "Our classroom teachers are teaching reading every day but in addition to that we have our English Language Learner teachers – our ELL teachers, as well as learning assistance teachers – providing additional reading instruction to our students. And it's a school-wide initiative. We've built our schedule specifically to address the fact that we know our goal is to improve our reading instruction. That's a big piece of our school plan, to improve our reading results."

Arnold is seeing evidence the plan is working.

"Absolutely," she said. "Especially when it comes to our students that are getting the targeted, small-group instruction, whether it's one-on-one or one teacher to three or four students, we're seeing improvements in those reading outcomes."

Dawn Doran is a Grade 1-2 teacher and has the distinction of being the first teacher hired after the school officially became Nusdeh Yoh in 2010. She recalls the first year being "super challenging" for the students as they adjusted to a new staff.

"For kids who have trust issues, it was like the carpet got pulled out from under them," said Doran, who has Manitoba Cree heritage and grew up in Prince George. "It took a really long time to build relationships with kids and families."

A key part of establishing trust and building relationships was – and continues to be – the concept of Restorative Practice when student behavioural issues arise.

"When something happens, you go through the steps (of Restorative Practice)," Doran said. "'What happened? What were you thinking? Who did you affect? What would you do differently next time? And why do you think you did that?' So you can hopefully get to why it happened, how it affected others, and (students can) think and reflect and learn from that and move forward knowing that it's a clean slate now, we've dealt with it. It's a new day, but it's also for them to take responsibility and ownership. That's the other thing – it's a clean slate but they have to take responsibility too."

It's in this type of environment the chance for positive learning outcomes is heightened. When it comes to maximizing student success, one of the Nusdeh Yoh educational philosophies Doran values is staff reflection.  

"When we see something's not working, we change it," she said. "We did school-wide reading groups, we did pod groups, we've done Joy for Literacy groups. We're always trying to change to meet the kids where they're at so that they can feel successful. The reality is that a lot of them are struggling and the best way to make them feel unsuccessful is to give them work that's not going to reach them."

Another member of the Nusdeh Yoh team is Daphne Laboucan, the school's Aboriginal Education social worker. As part of her job, Laboucan – an Alberta Cree – interacts not only with students but also with parents and grandparents. She has a bigger-picture frame of reference and, because of that, sees great value in the educational strategy employed by Nusdeh Yoh teachers.

"It's student-focused learning," she said. "It's geared for the individual student as well as the whole but I think that's another bonus for us is that we're able to make that time – not just take the time but make the time – to try and give each student individual learning. We know that every child is different and their home lives are different."

Immersing students in Aboriginal worldview and culture is a major part of the academic success story at Nusdeh Yoh. One example of offering instruction within the context of Aboriginal worldview is the utilization of a Seasonal Rounds Calendar.

"We're just starting to develop it and connect it to the academic parts of our day," Arnold said. "So the kids are learning about things that happen in each of the different seasons. At the beginning of the school year, for example, when it was the Time of the Salmon, we had a group that went out salmon fishing and then they came back and did the harvesting of the salmon together as part of what they learned at school connected to Social Studies and Science.

"They get to have a hands-on experience with it," Arnold added. "They love it. That's when we see them most engaged and excited about their learning – when they can be outside and be doing those things first-hand."

The Seasonal Rounds Calendar at Nusdeh Yoh is linked to the Lheidli T'enneh seasons.

"We've just started conversations with the Lheidli about developing it even more and embedding it into what we do throughout the school year to further define us as an Aboriginal Choice school," Arnold said.

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