Edmonton school wins national award for Indigenous excellence

Ocianna Clarke struggled at school until she attended Boyle Street Education Centre.

“I never knew you could actually enjoy school, but this school made me want to come every day and be here and learn new things,” said Clarke, 16, who started attending classes at the charter school in downtown Edmonton in September.

“I feel like I actually belong here.”

Clarke’s experience shows the difference Boyle Street Education Center has made for Indigenous students for the past 26 years.

Last month, the non-profit high school received a national award. The Indspire awards have been recognizing excellence in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities for 30 years. Boyle Street was recognized in the Indspire Guiding the Journey: Indigenous Educator Awards.

For staff and students, it was a moment to pause and celebrate after overcoming adversity.

The school had a major flood in the building during the pandemic. In September, their school elder died. A post online remembers David LaSwisse as someone “who walked a path of humility and taught the importance of kindness and respect by virtue of how he interacted with others.”

‘Ticket to something different’

Boyle Street Education Center got its start 26 years ago supporting the kids of clients dropping in at the Boyle Street Co-op. Programs grew out of student needs expanding into areas such as fashion design, hair styling, music and cooking.

In a school where many have been impacted by intergenerational trauma, students are encouraged to nourish their minds, bodies and spirits with tools such as yoga, daily smudging and upper body massage therapy to teach positive touch. They have access to a doctor, a psychologist and a resident artist.

Educators work hard to help students overcome barriers inside and outside the classroom.

“Learning is not going to happen if you don’t have a home to go to, food to eat or you’re worried about your child,” said superintendent Mavis Averill, who has been with Boyle Street since the beginning.

Still, students are held accountable.

“It doesn’t matter how hard a day you’ve had or how hard a night you’ve had. You still have to pass that class. Because getting a high school diploma is one ticket to something different,” Averill said .

Kayda LaRose said teachers at Boyle Street Education Center are welcoming and want you to succeed. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Kayda LaRose, 19, said Boyle is making it possible to raise her eight-month-old son while working toward her dream of becoming a social worker.

“They’re always on you about being in class,” LaRose said with a laugh. “I like coming to class. I like coming to see the teachers. The teachers are very welcoming and want you to succeed.”

In a program called Braided Journeys, students learn about their home communities, culture and history, in the direction of their choices. It’s one of many ways the school has moved away from a Eurocentric curriculum.

Some students are currently working on paintings reflecting constellation stories from an Indigenous perspective.

“So I don’t always have to know about Pegasus or Orion. Maybe it’s Wesakechak, maybe it’s Niska,” said Tim Christopherson, who teaches the program.

“And the students will learn those stories and take them home and tell them to their kids at one point.”

The significance of deepening the connection to her Saulteaux heritage at an institution once used to strip Indigenous children of their identity is not lost on Clarke.

“It’s really special to me because a lot of ancestors never got to do that,” Clarke said.

“Coming here has even made my dad feel happy for me because I’m doing things that he never got to do. He’s just really proud that I have the opportunity to do so.”