AbEd, student mental health among district priorities

An increased focus on Aboriginal education, a higher level of support for student mental health, an extensive technology infrastructure upgrade and the ongoing construction of the new Kelly Road Secondary School – these are some of the priorities in School District No. 57 (Prince George) for the 2019-2020 school year.

The district is welcoming Pam Spooner as its first-ever Director of Aboriginal Education. Spooner, whose hiring was announced on Aug. 22, will bring passion and expertise to the position and will help strengthen and guide a program that is reaching new levels of success with each passing year. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, Aboriginal graduation rates in School District No. 57 leaped from 48.8 per cent to 65.8 per cent.

In May of 2019, the district – which includes Mackenzie, McBride and Valemount – held its inaugural Aboriginal graduation ceremony, or Ts’udelhti, which means We Honour in the Dakelh Lheidli dialect. Close to 80 graduates representing 33 Nations participated in Ts’udelhti. Upon its conclusion, plans for the 2020 event were already in the works.

The Aboriginal Education Department had approximately 110 staff members in 2018-19 and that number will grow this school year. As part of its commitment to Indigenous learners, School District No. 57 is adding two Aboriginal Vice Principals – one to support Aboriginal language and culture and the other to support academic achievement. Each elementary school and secondary school in the district will also see an increase in Aboriginal Education Workers. And, overall, two new Aboriginal Education Social Workers will be joining the district. The increase in staffing levels was a key part of School District No. 57’s 2019-2020 annual budget, which was approved in May 2019.

Student mental health is another priority and will be reflected on two fronts this school year. First, there will be a district-led Mental Health Literacy rollout to assist with prevention, early recognition, intervention and reduction of stigma associated with mental illness. Second, the district has made a three-year commitment to implement a Student Services-led mental health pilot project aimed at capacity building – providing the appropriate tools to school staff to deal with the daily challenges they face – with a focus on strategies for mental health literacy and learning. The financial commitment for 2019-20 is $350,000.

“It is a real good news story for the district that we could invest significant dollars in supporting our student mental health,” said Tim Bennett, Chair of the School District No. 57 Board of Education.

Work is also underway to significantly improve the wireless Internet infrastructure in all School District No. 57 buildings. The project, which has an estimated cost of $980,000, received approval from the Board of Education in May 2019 and the goal is for it to be completed in one year.
  
“It's something that we've heard loud and clear from students, from parents, that the WiFi is not adequate in our buildings,” Bennett said. “Our teachers do an incredible job bringing the new curriculum to life but don't necessarily have the resources in our buildings to do that. The fibre optic is there but the WiFi infrastructure is from 2011."

The wireless system of 2011 is being pushed beyond its operational limits, largely because of the explosion in use of Internet-enabled devices by students and staff members. The modernized wireless technology will result in better connectivity, which in turn will help support all manner of learning in classrooms. The cost of the wireless upgrade will be covered by $700,000 from the 2019-20 budget and $280,000 from previously-acquired grant money.

As the school year unfolds, work will continue on the new Kelly Road Secondary. The facility, on the same Hart Highway site as the existing Kelly Road, is on target to open in September 2020. Once the doors are open, students and staff will find themselves in a state-of-the-art school that will feature the latest in classroom technology and learning spaces. The building will also meet the highest environmental standards, as set out by LEED guidelines (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

“It’s very stringent and we’ve done it affordably and sensibly,” said Barry Bepple, Energy and Sustainable Conservation Coordinator for School District No. 57.

The cost of the project is being shared by the provincial government ($43.3 million) and School District No. 57 ($1 million).