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Native teens turn their lives around thanks to school

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  • Native teens turn their lives around thanks to school

    Made-in-Hamilton program prevents urban aboriginals from dropping out
    By Sharon Boase
    The Hamilton Spectator
    (Mar 15, 2006)

    For the past few years, Courtney Skye has spent more time cutting classes than actually going to school.

    By second semester of Grade 10, Skye was walking the downtown streets with her friends every day, smoking dope and hanging out. She would get home in time every afternoon to intercept the automated telephone call from school reporting her absence.

    After missing school for a month or more, getting caught up would prove too difficult. So she would head back downtown, becoming further entrenched in a downward spiral that threatened to derail her life.

    Skye, 19, had fallen into a lifestyle common for urban aboriginal teens. While 74 per cent of Canadians her age have a high school diploma, only 52 per cent of aboriginal young adults living off reserve do not.

    Skye's life is further complicated by housing issues and poverty. Hamilton's poverty rate of 20 per cent is one of the highest in Ontario, but 48 per cent of the city's aboriginals live in poverty.

    Yet Skye herself is not typical.

    Last September, she took a look at her life and decided she didn't like what she saw. She started going to her classes at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School, where she is enrolled in Nya:weh, a unique program designed to keep aboriginal teens in school.

    "This is the first year I've actually done good," says Skye. "I'm very proud of myself for the school work I've done."

    Skye is one of 53 students in Nya:weh at Sir John A., while another 35 students attend the program at Cathedral High School. The students themselves came up with the name Nya:weh -- "thank you" in Mohawk and an acronym for Native Youth Advancement with Education Hamilton.

    Sir John A. Macdonald principal Mike Rehill points to a 20 per cent jump in credit accumulation for Nya:weh students during 2003-04, its inaugural year. The second year saw an additional 25 per cent increase.

    Of the six students who have graduated through Nya:weh, three are enrolled at Mohawk College.

    The number of suspensions and disciplinary issues has dropped to one or two per semester.

    "First of all, they wouldn't be in school at all," says Rehill of the number of disciplinary issues before Nya:weh. "They would act out because they thought no one was listening to them, let alone willing to meet their needs. Aboriginal kids are traditionally nonattenders."

    Today, aboriginal youth advisers at the two schools are changing that. Whether it's defusing a conflict with a teacher, finding students a place to live or helping them with their homework, Brandon Hill (at Sir John A.) and Melissa Cabezas (at Cathedral) are helping young aboriginals find a place in our education system.

    "People don't realize it, but to a lot of these kids, Brandon is their parent," says Rehill.

    Nya:weh was started with a grant of about $222,000 from Hamilton Community Foundation. That funding is about to run out. So Rehill and members of the Hamilton Executive Directors Aboriginal Coalition (HEDAC), which oversees Nya:weh, have gone to the city's two school boards. They need $80,000 a year to keep Hill and Cabezas and to pay a half-time outreach officer to hook up with likely Nya:weh candidates.

    "The investment of $80,000 versus what it's yielding -- not only with individual students but with social and educational impacts across the community -- is staggering," says Taunya Laslo, chair of the committee overseeing Nya:weh and past co-chair of HEDAC.

    "There has been an entire generation of our community lost to the intergenerational effects of residential schools," Laslo adds. "This program has re-engaged the aboriginal community by allowing them to embrace both traditional and Western education styles. I've seen so many initiatives that cost three, four, even 10 times as much that haven't yielded the results this has."

    The federal government has estimated that one in six aboriginal children was physically or sexually abused by school staff in government boarding schools run by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches across Canada.

    From 1892 until 1969, aboriginal children were taken from their homes and forbidden to speak their own language, follow their beliefs or even use their own names.

    Rehill says the damage done by residential schools is expected to echo through at least five generations. Stripped of their language, culture and dignity, many natives didn't learn how to be parents or grandparents.

    One of the Nya:weh students' best field trips was to the former residential school in Brantford, says Kendra Burns, 17.

    "I didn't really know that much about residential schools because my family never went to them," says Burns.

    "But when you walk in, you can just feel the spirits. It just hits you."

    Wearing the bear clan amulet she made on a trip to Algonquin Park, Burns says Nya:weh has made going to school a pleasure.

    "Like, you look forward to going to class," adds friend and fellow Nya:weh student Billie-Jean Bourgeois, 17.

    As Skye nears graduation, she has discovered a gift she never knew she had. At a workshop last month, she tried singing for the first time. Now her classmates refer to her as their "lead singer" during drumming and singing sessions.

    "I would never have dreamed I could sing in front of people," says Skye, whose talent is obvious even to the uninitiated. "I can just feel myself being lifted up and going to another plateau. It feels amazing."

    Rod Nettagog, who teaches aboriginal arts and culture, says it took him years to develop his voice and the courage to tackle native drumming when he first investigated his aboriginal culture.

    It took the Nya:weh students just a couple of days.

    It wasn't until the late 1960s, Nettagog recalls, that aboriginal Canadians were able to once again practise their own beliefs and attend powwows.

    "So I teach drumming and dancing and I encourage them to go to powwows and learn their culture so they can teach it to their kids and it won't be lost."

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