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Public school enrollment in Masset, B.C. is decreasing, while Chief Matthews School – which is growing popular because it offers Haida language classes – has a waiting list for kindergarten through Grade 4. In this Oct. 3, 2012 photo, Native children are leaving Chief Matthews by bus.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Field trips are integral to any school's curriculum. In Masset, B.C., on Haida Gwaii, the trips that resonate most – at least among Derek Seifert's pupils at George M. Dawson Secondary School – are deer-hunting excursions. These "lessons on the land" allow teachers to squeeze textbook skills such as biology and conservation into a real-life situation that connects with the aboriginal children who represent 80 per cent of the social-studies teacher's class.

"It's a great chance for them to take part in their culture and they get to share their knowledge of hunting with us," says Mr. Seifert, originally from Paris, Ont.

Yet the amount of red tape – getting approval for a potentially high-risk adventure involving guns – has meant only one hunting expedition so far, in 2010. "At some point," Mr. Seifert says, "it's just not worth the hassle and it's easier to do it on the weekend as a community member instead of through the school."

At the same time, barely a 10-minute drive from Dawson Secondary, the Haida First Nations band school, Chief Matthews Elementary, offers just about any cultural activity – butter-clam digging, Haida singing and dancing, berry picking and skinning the spoils of a deer-hunting trip.

Chief Matthews, which covers kindergarten to Grade 4, is challenging the conventions of B.C.'s public education system in ways beyond being culturally sensitive. It has done away with grades – grouping students into reading, writing and math classes based on skill level. They are then tracked weekly.

The approach is getting results. Reading, writing and math scores on standardized measures such as the Canadian Achievement Test have improved, according to Chief Matthews principal Leslie Bellis. Every pupil who completed Grade 4 at Chief Matthews last year had excellent CAT scores, she adds, and most have a smooth transition to the public school system. "If they fall behind even in one week, we immediately catch it and go back and reinforce that lesson," Ms. Bellis says.

The school has a waiting list at the same time as enrolment in Masset's public schools has been falling as aboriginal students leave to study off the island. "Before the parents can even ask, I say we don't have the space," Ms. Bellis notes.

High drop-out rate

Chief Matthews is one of a handful of B.C. reserve schools breaking the stereotype of derelict portables, black mould and a flailing native education system, pointing the way to a more innovative and nimble model. And innovation is sorely needed: In B.C, only 54 per cent of aboriginal students graduate within six years of entering Grade 8, compared with 80 per cent for all students in the public-school system. Many aboriginals live near resource-rich areas and could fill labour-market shortages in those remote regions if properly educated. For each aboriginal who drops out, the Canadian Council on Learning estimates the cost of "non-graduation" is $4,230 in social assistance and $8,098 in health coverage.

Rod Allen, superintendent of learning at B.C.'s Ministry of Education, acknowledges the good work at some reserve schools: "Their students come to us with a sense of belonging and pride in their aboriginal identity. And since they feel valued and appreciated at their schools, they are generally more open to learning."

He adds that public-school teachers often feel underprepared to teach aboriginal students, not knowing how one first nation community differs from another in practices and beliefs or how to integrate their culture into the classroom. "I have seen some teachers pass off an aboriginal student's file to the aboriginal support worker rather than deal with them as they would if it were any other student," he says. "It just makes my skin crawl."

The government hopes to change that, Mr. Allen says. Starting this fall, all teacher candidates in the province will have to take an aboriginal education course. The ministry brought in a superintendent of aboriginal achievement this summer to focus on closing the gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students and promoting culturally responsive education.

"The teachers on-reserve are already a part of the community, so if the parents don't come to us, we have to get our teachers into the community," Mr. Allen says, adding that many school districts now run culture camps during the school year where teachers can learn from elders.

Research shows that students are more likely to succeed if their culture and surroundings are represented in their school, says Jo-Ann Archibald, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia. She worked closely with the teachers at Chief Matthews to develop a culturally responsive math curriculum, so that for example, students learn to count using ravens, a Haida clan symbol. She also developed similar methods for public secondary schools, in which students learn physics by observing how a canoe slices through water.

Parents like band school

Easier access to her family's Haida culture is one of the reasons Leslie Brown sends her six-year-old son, Kai Seward, to Chief Matthews. Ms. Brown graduated from Dawson Secondary, and says it didn't have nearly enough first nations curriculum to engage her.

"I know some of the parents think that the band school isn't as professional and doesn't have as much money as the public school," she says. "But I wouldn't consider sending Kai anywhere else. They couldn't teach him like this at the public school."

Most parents say they want Chief Matthews to expand to all grades, but Ms. Bellis says the resources are not there. The school is financed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and since 1996, the gap between funding for bands schools and public schools has grown – an annual increase capped at 2 per cent for native schools, versus 6 per cent for the provinces. (Earlier this year, however, the First Nations Education Steering Committee, which represents about 130 schools, signed an agreement with the federal and B.C. governments, guaranteeing an increase of $15-million annually.)

Jaasaljuus Yakgujanaas is finishing Grade 12 at Dawson. She moved to the public school system after Chief Matthews and hopes to study marine biology at UBC.

"The best part of going to Chief Matthews was all the culture stuff," the 17-year-old said. "Maybe if there was more of that, other students wouldn't move off island to go to school somewhere else."

Tamara Baluja's experience was made possible by the Canadian Journalism Foundation's Greg Clark Award.