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This article was published 24/2/2020 (576 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Solomon Harper is teaching both himself and his classmates hip hop as a way to motivate them all to graduate, one dance move at a time.
The Grade 11 student is one of two junior choreographers leading a dance class of 24 students after school hours for curriculum credits at Southeast Collegiate.
It’s the first year the Winnipeg high school for teenagers from First Nations across the province has tested out the classes, which are part of the Canada-wide Outside Looking In program (more commonly known as OLI).
"I was a shy kid, in my own little bubble until OLI came. I began to believe in myself; I gained all the confidence," said Harper, 16, reflecting on his introduction to the program five years ago at St. Theresa Point First Nation. (He has since transferred to Southeast Collegiate.)
Confident, he is, directing a class of grades 11 and 12 students, sporting sweat pants and sneakers in their high school gym on a recent evening. All eyes are on Harper as he bounces and slides during his homemade routine to All I Do is Win by DJ Khaled.
The group will perform the number at a grand showcase of all OLI chapters on a Toronto stage at the end of the year. There will be dancers from schools across the country, many of them programs in First Nations, such as Manitoba's St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack, and Pinaymootang.
The accredited hip-hop program has been ever-expanding since founder Tracee Smith came up with the idea in 2007, when she was running casual dance classes for children on reserves in Ontario.
Smith wanted to boost Indigenous graduation rates, and realized dance could be the answer, since students genuinely enjoyed it and their communities were proud to see them perform.
Here’s how it works: students must attend at least 90 per cent of rehearsals, 80 per cent of academic classes and maintain a 60 per cent average in school in order to obtain a credit and get their ticket punched for the annual Indigenous Youth Dance Show. Both OLI staff and volunteer choreographers (such as Harper, who started off as a participant five years ago) teach the classes.
"A lot of our kids drop out of school after Grade 8 and a lot of them don’t have a connection to education because their parents didn’t have a connection to education," said Smith, a member of Missanabie Cree First Nation, located near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"Giving them more of a cultural connection to come to school — like dance and music, gives them a reason to come back through the door of school."
Thirteen years later, Smith’s hypothesis has proven accurate.
The four-year high school graduation rate for Indigenous youth in Manitoba was under 50 per cent in 2018, while the non-Indigenous student graduation rate was 88 per cent.
Between 2007 and 2017, OLI conducted a survey of its own students, and found drastically different results: a total of 96 per cent of participants in the program obtained high school diplomas.
"I’ve danced my whole life; I knew how transformative dance could be," Smith said, adding students begin to exercise more, eat healthier foods and become invested in their academics once they join.
By the end of 2020, there will be approximately 500 alumni. Bradley Monias, 19, is one of them.
Monias is currently a second-year humanities student at the University of Manitoba — something he never could have imagined saying out loud five years ago. Like Harper, Monias grew up in St. Theresa Point First Nation, and that’s where he was introduced to OLI.
His younger brother and a fellow dancer, Jerett Monias, recalls his sibling was a "mischievous" child, and Monias admits it himself. The 19-year-old said he was hanging around people who were more interested in drugs than textbooks before he started dancing. Now he helps out with Southeast Collegiate’s program.
"It feels good to feel like I’m an inspiration for some people, that whatever I’m doing is influencing a lot of peers and people who look up to me," he said.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.