WAYWAYSEECAPPO FIRST NATION -- Everyone in the world of aboriginal education in Canada is keeping an eye on the amazing transformation so far of a 330-student school tucked away in a beautiful valley just off Highway 45 in western Manitoba.
With one deal struck among Ottawa, Waywayseecappo First Nation, Park West School Division and the Manitoba public school system, Waywayseecappo School went from classes of about 33 or more students to classes of fewer than 20, teachers' salaries skyrocketed, more teachers were hired and full-time resource specialists suddenly appeared. Overnight, an underfunded reserve school reached financial parity with the public schools in Binscarth, Russell, Rossburn and Birtle.
Already, there are signs it may be working -- kids sent to the principal's office are down by half, reading skills among the youngest children are improving. Educators who've argued for decades aboriginal kids need only equal opportunity to get an equal education are in line for an I-told-you-so moment.
If it works in Waywayseecappo, it might work elsewhere, giving First Nations children on reserves the same opportunities at a good education public school kids enjoy.
There's a wariness, even among the cordial and collegial partners, about the goodwill continuing; a worry the co-operation and equality that got the education deal off the ground won't last.
Some aboriginal leaders say it will take a lot of convincing before they'll concede control over their own education systems.
And perhaps of most interest to those in the aboriginal-education field, Ottawa may find itself in the hot seat if it has to explain why it believes $7,200 per student is enough to educate an aboriginal child, yet it ponied up the $10,500 Park West spends on each student.
Principal Troy Luhowy walks the bright halls of Waywayseecappo School and marvels at the changes since the days, not so long ago, he was the phys-ed teacher.
One wing was entirely empty before -- there wasn't enough money to have teachers in those classrooms.
Each grade had only one crammed class, or sometimes two grades had one class each and shared a third split class, all of them way too big.
"Grade 3, there were 33 kids. It was so crowded, they had to work on the side. It went to 17 and 18" in each grade's classes, said Luhowy. "I've seen our class sizes decrease because we're able to get more teachers in the school. We're able to get more instruction.
"Basically, it boils down to funding for the kids. Now we have equal funding with everyone in the area," he said. "I don't know how they can expect kids to get the same education" on less funding.
"Other communities are looking at us. They realize the implications it has for all other First Nations in Canada. It puts pressure on us to succeed," said Waywayseecappo's Jackie McKee, finance officer for the arrangement between the band and the school division.
Colleen Clearsky, Waywayseecappo's director of education, pointed out the school has both a nursery and a full-time kindergarten. The reserve has had an adult-training deal with Park West for a decade and industrial arts on the reserve predated the partnership -- though vocational programs and facilities are growing by leaps and bounds.
Teachers saw immediate pay raises of 30 to 40 per cent when Waywayseecappo joined Park West and they became part of the Manitoba Teachers' Society.
"Legally, on paper they're all Park West employees," said Park West superintendent Tim Mendel, but Waywayseecappo does its own budget and makes its own staffing decisions.
"The strength of it is more the people" than what's on paper, Mendel said.
"We basically run two separate budgets," Mendel said -- whatever comes from Ottawa goes directly to WFN, with the feds matching whatever Park West spends per student.
Mendel and assistant superintendent Stephen David both used to work for Frontier School Division, which has contracted to run several reserve schools.
Those Frontier agreements with reserves are strictly management deals, David said. In Park West, "The basic premise is co-governance," including monthly management meetings.
Talk of management partnerships and co-governance models may excite the adults, but within Waywayseecappo School, the kids delight in the daily experience of smaller classes, more courses, greater individual help from teachers and other specialists. They're now full members of Park West School Division and able to take part in pretty much every extracurricular activity you want to name.
In the year and a half the new system's been in place, "The students have better quality activities, they have more events," Waywayseecappo elder Norbert Tanner said. "They get more attention, more time. There's not so much turnover in teaching staff."
Tanner's granddaughter was the reserve school's first student to take part in the Park West School Division spelling bee, he said with a beaming smile... a spelling bee, something every public school student takes for granted, and in which Waywayseecappo children had never before participated.
Luhowy doesn't have near as many unhappy kids sitting outside his door these days; now, kids come to the principal's office for positive reasons more often than not.
"We've noticed literacy and reading levels in K-4 showing an increase," he pointed out.
Teacher turnover has all but disappeared -- only one teacher is leaving this summer and another is taking a leave.
Waywayseecappo used to have to wait for specialists to come out from Winnipeg, a four-hour drive. "Full-time speech and language was created in the school after the partnership. Next year, we'll have two full-time resource staff," Luhowy said.
What's now the wood shop used to be a storage area, Luhowy said. Now the school has woodworking and cosmetology, and there's talk of offering building construction and culinary arts.
"Before the partnership, there was no industrial arts teacher even available," Luhowy said. "The cosmetology space was built after the partnership, (formerly) a multi-purpose home economics area."
Luhowy previously taught in Bloodvein and Cranberry Portage. "I grew up in Rossburn, so I know everybody here."
Tanner said students who excel in music, the arts and athletics now have the chance to develop those skills and interests.
Waywayseecappo School teams have always played in Park West, but, "Now when we go to the table, we have a say. We host events here now," Luhowy said.
Four schools are coming this month for a festival of nutrition: "We have moose drying. We'll show the kids how to make bannock."
For the first time, the school has a parent advisory council, and it's working on a school plan. The staff have teaching teams for the first time. Getting back to the language of the bureaucracy, the stakeholders see evidence of positive learning outcomes -- or, one could also say, it's all good.
"We added resource and student services. We have a full-time speech-and-language pathologist in a school of 330 kids," David said. "The majority of teachers were retained. We had to hire more teachers."
That jump in funding Ottawa covered of $3,300 per child wasn't gobbled up just by raises for the teachers -- there was lots of money left over to hire additional teachers.
There's a full-time Ojibway language teacher at Waywayseecappo, and the division has an aboriginal facilitator to develop cultural history. "It's for every school in our division, all 15," said David.
The facilitator isn't into holding multicultural days, he's into implementing curriculum for every student, said David: "He expects you to start with curricular linkages -- what does this mean for the curriculum?
"(Ottawa) had huge expectations from the start that it was outcome-based," David said.
Ottawa will look at graduation rates, literacy and numeracy at the end of the three-year pilot, he said.
Bryan Cloud was once the education director at Waywayseecappo and he's now the band's trustee on the Park West school board. He definitely didn't want a Frontier-style management contract: "Theirs is a total takeover. Our partnership consists of us talking about things together. We're working on building that with (education minister) Nancy Allan -- it's a very positive relationship," Cloud said.
It's enormous to Cloud town kids come to the reserve for shop classes in cosmetology and woodworking. "We have kids being bused from Rossburn -- you won't find that anywhere else in Canada," Cloud said.
However, he said, full-day kindergarten predated the deal with Park West. "Full-time kindergarten came about because of (federal) underfunding -- it cost more to run the kids home twice a day" than to run kindergarten all day.
Mendel said Park West and other divisions could always recruit Waywayseecappo's best teachers away because they were able to pay so much more.
The Waywayseecappo teachers also now have access to far more professional development. Two division currriculum-support staff are doing professional development with the kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers, the sort of support Park West teachers have enjoyed for years. Waywayseecappo teachers used to get four or maybe five in-service days a year; now they get the full 10, with all the choices and resources of the public school system.
And Park West has reinforced aboriginal education, said Tanner.
"They're learning the language and the history of Waywayseecappo. They come home and talk to me in the language -- they're bring it back home.
"We have to make education a priority for our kids and get involved. People my age, we had a hard time in school and didn't like school."
The parents and grandparents need to be involved in the decisions, Tanner said.
Echoed Mendel: "That's a piece we still have to work on."
Park West is getting a lot more out of this project than just wiping out a decade of declining enrolment, said school board chairman Don Cochrane.
Cochrane recalled he was walking and chatting several years ago with a former Russell trustee one day, discussing the low graduation rate of First Nations students and much lower funding their schools received from the federal government.
"How tragic is that, and what can we do about it?" Cochrane said. "This isn't right, and there must be something. Can we put something together that will equalize funding, at least?"
They were unaware similar discussions were going on at Waywayseecappo.
"What's been truly remarkable is the unexpected things that have happened," Cochrane said. "We've almost engineered a culture shift... It was a really bold move."
Cochrane is learning about First Nations culture, something he says he should have been taught in school.
"I'm a little angry about that; we should have had that."
Now, the local Hutterite colony is asking for information about First Nations studies for their children.
Now people are looking at what-ifs, thinking about Interactive instructional television, more vocational, said Cochrane. "There was no dreaming before, much. People in different departments are dreaming together now."
Town, reserve narrowed the gap
ROSSBURN -- Rossburn Collegiate and Waywayseecappo are still eight kilometres apart, but they're no longer worlds away from each other.
Reserve students used to make up about 20 per cent of the student body, but now they're half, and they could move into the majority if the new system helps more students graduate from high school.
"For us, it's a bigger impact," said principal Bob Ploshynsky. "Those students were a minority -- they're no longer a minority."
Everyone knew the reserve school was underfunded compared to the town school, said Ploshynsky. "All you had to do is compare the schools, and it was very obvious."
Ploshynsky hesitated, choosing his words, declining to get too specific. Some people in town feared what would happen when the aboriginal students became half the student body, he said, but, "They've blended well."
There was "resistance" to sending collegiate town students to the reserve for shops, the principal conceded.
"I'm not going to say too much about the resistance -- some of the students were very apprehensive," he said. "The community was, 'What do you mean you're sending my kid to Waywayseecappo School?' "
The two partners just plowed ahead and made it work.
"How do you send provincial students to a federal school?" the principal wondered. There was no jurisdictional policy in existence; no one had done anything like it anywhere else in Canada as far as anyone knows.
Park West put money into the cosmetology program at the reserve school. "That's unique -- that's a show of faith," Ploshynsky said.
Park West did not have to pay tuition to Waywayseecappo, he explained, because Park West spent money on the reserve. "We provided the teachers and the equipment and the classroom -- they provided the space."
Now there's discussion of culinary arts at Waywayseecappo.
At Rossburn Collegiate, Ploshynsky is making symbolic but crucial changes.
"It's important to keep a balance," he said. "There's two major cultures in one school."
The medicine wheel that now adorns the gym stage, along with depictions of Ukrainian culture, will move into the school foyer and dominate the entrance.
The hallway -- there's only one -- will show both Ukrainian and aboriginal culture. "It'd be the first thing you see," said the principal.
He was able to arrange a fruit-and-vegetable pilot program. "One of the most important things in our school is the breakfast program. A lot of kids get on the bus at 6:50 a.m."
Rossburn Collegiate added aboriginal studies this year in Grade 11, and so far has had eight takers: "I hope it's not just the First Nations kids who are taking it," said Ploshynsky.
Reserve, school division have a partnership that works
Public school divisions are already running reserve schools in Manitoba -- Frontier School Division has been contracted to operate eight reserve schools -- but the parties insist Waywayseecappo and Park West School Division have a true partnership. That is, a partnership in which the reserve school becomes a full member of the public school division, and the chief and band council have authority over the education the students receive.
Talks between Waywayseecappo and Park West started in 2009. But things did not run smoothly at first.
"It took a lot of meetings. We failed twice with (Ottawa) to get its approval," said Waywayseecappo's Jackie McKee, finance director for the partnership deal.
Chief and band council were adamant they wouldn't give up local control over their education system -- and they haven't.
"Park West didn't come into the partnership thinking they're going to save us," McKee said.
Finally, a deal was made that saw Ottawa not cutting back the band's funding in other areas to cover off the vastly increased education funds, she said, but Waywayseecappo had to forfeit using the resources of the Manitoba First Nation Education Resource Centre.
Waywayseecappo had always sent its high school students to Russell and Rossburn public high schools, but had no say over their education -- and no control over what were usually abysmally low graduation rates.
Band officials want that to change.
"I want to see improvement. If I don't see any progress, I pull the pin. I want to see more graduates at the end," said Waywayseecappo First Nation Chief Murray Clearsky.
The chief is very, very clear: Waywayseecappo is perfectly capable of giving its children just as good an education as any public school division -- perfectly capable, that is, if Ottawa gave reserves the same funding as public school children receive.
"It's like everything else we try to provide in our communities; it's a lack of funding," Clearsky said. "Our children aren't getting the full service, as a provincial school would.
"I'm not saying we can't operate our own schools, but we have no alternatives," no source of revenue comparable to property taxes, the chief said.
All along, McKee was suspicious of what was in it for Park West.
But Waywayseecappo isn't the only partner in the arrangement who wants to see more aboriginal students finish high school. Park West officials are just as keen to see it.
"It's in Park West's best interests that it does well, because those nursery to Grade 8 students will eventually come to our high schools," Park West superintendent Tim Mendel points out.
It's clear the new system is making some political bodies tense.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak declined to be interviewed, referring all inquiries to the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, a non-political body that is exactly what it sounds like -- a resource centre for reserve schools.
An aide said Nepinak declined to comment because AMC is not involved in the community-education process.
"It's fair to say Murray is taking some heat among the chiefs," Mendel said, but ultimately, "It's about the kids."
Staff in the office of federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister John Duncan promised a telephone interview with Duncan in late April, but it never materialized. Duncan, they said, was too busy over a three-week period to discuss the project.
But Jan O'Driscoll, Duncan's political aide, said the Waywayseecappo model isn't the only one. There is a partnership between one aboriginal school and the public system in both B.C. and Saskatchewan. "The partnership works because Park West School Division and Waywayseecappo First Nation have set measurable strategic goals and objectives to help all of the students achieve success," O'Driscoll said.
"It may be unique that the students from the public schools are taking secondary school technical and vocational classes in the school on the reserve. However, many aboriginal students attend school off-reserve, and there are several instances of off-reserve (aboriginal) students attending on-reserve schools."
But the question of why on-reserve schools are so short-changed when it comes to funding had O'Driscoll dancing around. He would only say Ottawa invests $1.5 billion annually in aboriginal education. "The exact amount will vary by school and region depending on the various needs and particular circumstances."
Bryan Cloud, Waywayseecappo's former education director, now a trustee representing Waywayseecappo First Nation ward on the Park West school board, has little confidence in Ottawa's sincerity in seeing this deal work.
"They're still talking about the same things and what they're going to do about it. Nothing's changed. It's my personal opinion that apartheid is alive and well in Canada. The only difference is, it's a little more subtle in Canada. It's time Canadians treated their First Nations properly," Cloud said.
On the provincial level, Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan deferred to the bureaucracy.
"We're very supportive of it; right from the get-go, that's been the case," said deputy education minister Gerald Farthing, who's already visited Waywayseecappo School twice this year.
Farthing has heard federal officials talk of the partnership as a pilot project with national implications.
"One of the things we like about this arrangement is students are going both ways, not just one way," he said. "People feel motivated by it, they feel encouraged by it. That has an impact on student learning."
Farthing cautioned while Manitoba is considering putting a "very modest" amount of funding into the partnership, most likely for technical-vocational equipment, there is no change in federal jurisdiction for First Nations education.
"This is a voluntary partnership that people can get out of at any time," Farthing said. "This is not meant to take over any responsibility the federal government has."
And First Nation officials have little more faith in the province's sincerity than they have in the federal government's.
Waywayseecappo education director Colleen Clearsky said provincial officials knew for years there was an education-funding disparity and did nothing to correct it.
"If the provincial government was genuinely interested, they would have done something about it," Clearsky said.
She believes the province's sudden interest in working with reserve schools is because of declining enrolment in public schools and the ready source of new students sitting in reserve schools.