by John Copley
(ANNews) – Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic High School is one of the newest high schools (2002) in the Edmonton Catholic School District. About 650 students attend. Of the 54 who have self-identified as being of First Nation, Metis and/or Inuit (FNMI) ancestry, 22 are in Grade 10, 15 in Grade 11 and 27 in Grade 12. An Aboriginal Studies Programs is available to all students, an initiative that brings in guest speakers and facilitates online communication, knowledge and interactive sessions that embrace tradition, culture and lifestyle.
“We also have the Braided Journeys program,” explained Principal Simon Pryma. “The program involves a graduation facilitator and a graduation counsellor that work with students to help ensure that they progress and continue through to high school completion.”
“We have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the province,” noted Pryma. “We are very excited and proud of the efforts of our team, both the Aboriginal Learning Services within the Catholic School District and those employed here with us as teachers, facilitators and counsellors.”
One of the key people involved with the school’s Aboriginal programming is FNMI Graduation Coach Elyse Wood, who became involved at the school after moving to Edmonton from her native Australia several years ago. Her role at the school was enhanced because of the experience she gained while working with Indigenous students in Australia. As a result, noted Pryma, “she is respected throughout the school and loved by her students; we are all very fortunate to have her here with us.”
“One of the programs we run is called Braided Journeys,” explained Elyse Wood. “It’s an holistic program that is designed to target the whole person. For example, we have recreational opportunities such as three day camps, special ceremonies, guest speakers that come in and talk about history and relate stories of their experiences in life. We do a lot of tutoring, career counselling, and we visit post secondary institutions, apply for bursaries and also invite post secondary students and recruiters to come our school and talk about university life and the transition process from high school to post-secondary institutes. University students and recruiters talk to our soon-to-be-graduates about their futures and what it takes to achieve success.”
Outreach programs, smudges every Tuesday and visits by local Aboriginal Elders are among the other initiatives designed to enhance educational opportunities for FNMI students.
Statistics indicate that the biggest percent of Aboriginal students who drop out of high school do so in Grades 9 and 10. To combat that statistic Wood said she “engages our junior high school students by visiting with them once a month and conducting group activities that embrace the transition from junior high school to senior high school.”
There are various changes and differences when a student moves up to Grade 10. One example is that while students are used to taking a subject for the whole year in junior high, they take it for just one semester in senior high school.
“There are quite a few differences between junior and senior high so we talk about high school, what it is, what you have to do to graduate and what courses are available in senior high,” noted Wood. “For example, we reach out to the junior high students at FX (Sir Francis Xavier) and work with their grad coach – they have a similar program to ours. We talk openly and honestly about what the two schools offer and what changes they’ll experience upon moving up into Grade 10. We let them know what is available at Oscar Romero and we help them to improve or enhance their leadership skills, build their academic skills and build their personal development skills. This continues between grades 10 and 12 and then later we try to help with the transition from Grade 12 to post secondary or to a trade or even to a job.”
Beginning in Grade 9 and continuing throughout the personal development training, students participate in “interest surveys” and then match those interests with possible career opportunities.
“We then explore those possible career opportunities,” explained Wood. “If students have a career in mind that doesn’t come up on the survey we will also explore that career. We do a lot of career exploration and we do a lot of evaluation about who you are, what drives you, what you value and what you want your future to look like.”
An added activity known as the “vision board” adds even more dimension.
“We do a lot of talking about values, beliefs, future aspirations, what you are grateful for now and what you look forward to down the road.”
Elyse Wood also talked about other initiatives that Blessed Oscar Romero undertakes to ensure cohesion and embrace Aboriginal history and culture. One of these is a Blanket Exercise developed by KAIROS to foster understanding of the current relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and explore what action is needed to work together.
One of the highlights of the FNMI Family Night gathering came early in the program when Elder Joe Pahpayken conducted a Pipe Ceremony for the students, teachers and principal who attended and participated in the sacred ceremony. It was a first-time experience for Principal Simon Pryma.
“It was both enjoyable and educational,” he said as the fading aroma of sweetgrass swept across the room. “This kind of interaction is just another way to ensure that we continue to find even better ways to work together.”
Elder Pahpayken, who introduced those in attendance to a pipe that has been used in hundreds of ceremonies over the past 200 years, was assisted by his son Clint and Saskatchewan Red Pheasant First Nation Elder Morris Nicotine.
“It is always an honour to be asked to participate in these types of ceremonies and information sessions,” assured Elder Pahpayken.
The ceremony begins with the helper placing the sacred tobacco into the pipe and lighting it in front of the pipe carrier. The pipe carrier, who is the host of the ceremony, says prayers to seven cardinal points: the Four Directions; the Above or Spirit World; the Below or Mother Earth; and the Centre or all living things.
Cammie Bull is member of the Alexander First Nation near Morniville. The 17 year old Grade 11 high school student has been attending Blessed Oscar Romero High School for the past two years and is an active participant in cultural events and studies. She is a member of the school’s Rainbow Spirit Dance Group and was one of the students who worked on making the FNMI Family Night event a success.
“I thought it would be a good way to get the students and families together for some relaxation and fun. I am very happy to be attending this school because of the programming and the fact that I have received more help here than I ever have at other schools I attended. I get a lot of help from Elyse and from Matthew; they are almost like a second set of parents to me when I am at the school.”
Matthew Kleywegt is a member of the Catholic School District’s Aboriginal Learning Services and he’s also a part time teacher at the school. Rumour has it that he will be moving into a Graduation Coach position at one of the area schools sometime in the near future.
“There was some talk of me moving on to another school this year but it may be put off until next year,” he noted, saying that “it will be a step ahead if and when it happens but I’ll probably be here at least until the end of the school year.”
FNMI Family Night at Blessed Oscar Romero High School was an enjoyable and rewarding experience that brought about 100 people together in the spirit of friendship and community in a traditional way. The evening concluded with a mini-round dance and several performances by the Rainbow Spirit Dance Group.
For more information about the programs, initiatives, goals and mandate of Blessed Oscar Romero High School see the website at: ecsd.net