A program, still in its infancy, is beginning to pay big dividends this school year at John Arnalukjuak High School in Arviat.
Principal Romeo Fournier said the Empowering Students Through Elders Education and Mentorship (ESTEEM) program is a collaborative effort between both Inuit and non-Inuit staff members at the school.
The program was conceived when staff members were devising methods to increase school attendance and began reflecting on why a student would want to be in school, he said.
“The approach gave us food for thought and a chance to reflect upon what we’re offering our students,” said Fournier. “If I were a student, would I want to come to this school? What kind of programs would help me if I had anxiety issues or challenges with my reading or my math – or would this school be able to support me if I were experiencing some challenge outside of the school?”
“We really started focusing on the needs of our students, rather than just trying to come up with ways to push them all back inside,” he continued. “We started to identify our students need to feel empowered; that they belong, that they’re connected to their culture and elders – and, most importantly, what we want from our students when they leave high school is to become leaders within the community and at the territorial and national levels.”
The unique student-centred and trauma-informed ESTEEM program has produced a spike in overall attendance and has had a positive effect on a number of individual students with the introduction of initiatives such as as the Pilimmaksarniq centre, which Fournier said is like a living room space in the school.
The centre is named after the Inuit value of skill acquisition and refinement.
“It was actually our vice-principal, Nancy Uluadluak, who came up with the name because she felt very strongly that this alternative space should be a place where students can acquire the life skills they need,” said Fournier. “It’s designed to be a place for students to get some of the support they need to cope with their challenges and, also, where they can focus on their academics, try to get caught-up with some work, and get things finished so they can succeed academically.”
Fournier said providing an alternative space is in answer to those students having challenges in class – rather than being sent to the office and their parents called – and provides a space where they can develop coping skills and learn how to self-regulate.
“We owe a big thanks to various families, community groups and businesses that have donated product or given us access to resources,” he said. “The Grade 12 graduating class played a large part in how the space was to be laid out, which was our way of empowering them to leave a legacy behind.”
Fournier said the staff is quite cognizant about growth over time with the ESTEEM program; taking small, manageable goals to slowly build capacity, and having things grow at a natural, organic rate.
He said the approach has been going great so far.
“The ESTEEM program is designed to create a more student-focused school, so there’s been a lot of input from our students, and a lot of listening and consulting with our local staff members,” he said.
One student who had not been attending school reached out to Fournier who invited the family in to show them the space and explain its advantages, including having at least two staff members on-site, supervising the room at all times.
The student came back, attended the room regularly and worked with the guidance counsellor and vice-principal.
“I’m happy to say the student went from being inside the alternative space every day to slowly starting to request to be brought back to class, and is now on track to graduate,” said Fournier.
The student would likely continued skipping class and would most likely never have graduated were it not for the ESTEEM program, he said.
These little success stories – and there have a been a few of them this year – allow staff to see the benefits of the program continuing in the future.
“We have another alternative space which is, basically, a wellness room focused on student inclusion and specialized support,” he said. “Students who may have behavioural issues, are on special educational plans, or who consistently get in trouble in class are brought into this wellness room to meet with elders, and work closely with our student support assistants and student support teacher.”
“It’s a space where students can go – if they’re having emotional or behavioral challenges – to regroup, get some coping strategies and direct assistance from elders and staff, and eventually go back to class,” he continued. “The other alternative would have been to send them home, so, between these two spaces and other initiatives, we’ve been able to slowly steer the ship in a different direction.”