M’Chigeeng’s Lakeview School aims to be ‘best in Ontario’

M’Chigeeng’s Lakeview School on a sunny September day. photo by Lori Thompson

M’CHIGEENG—There are new initiatives underway at Lakeview School in M’Chigeeng First Nation (MFN). Principal Gayle Payette provided an overview of their unique programs and successes but the biggest surprise may be in their vision statement. “Our vision statement,” said Ms. Payette, “is becoming the premier elementary school in Ontario.”

“Usually when people hear this, their mouths drop and they ask, ‘why?’” she continued. “What people think is that we think highly of ourselves, but it’s really that we think highly of our students and what they’re capable of. We want the students to become successful in whatever endeavour they choose to go after, whether it’s academic, cultural or language. We want them to use their own voice.”

Lakeview School encompasses a full elementary program from kindergarten through to Grade 8. There is a core Ojibwe program from Grades 4 through 8 and the Anishinabe Revival Program (ARP) begins in Junior Kindergarten and runs through Grade 3. Staff include a newly appointed full-time school-based wellness worker and a literacy teacher that supports the Confident Learners program. There is a numeracy resource teacher, a physical education teacher and a special education resource teacher.

Last year they incorporated a cultural awareness instructor. In previous years a music teacher was there two days per week. “We switched that up to include cultural awareness where we had a gentleman from the community come in and do drumming and teachings about our culture,” said Ms. Payette.

Another first last year was the addition of a school-based therapy dog named Bear, whose handler happened to be the literacy resource teacher. Bear is trained and insured to be at the school full-time; what Bear does is provide an opportunity for students to be comfortable or comforted. Bear attends three days a week and is well-loved throughout the school. Initially there were students who were terrified of dogs but after several months of watching other children interact with the dog they were able to increase their levels of comfort and interact with Bear themselves.

“At Lakeview School we went through a paradigm shift, from teaching to learning,” Ms. Payette said. The experience begins at the earliest level. Full-day Kindergarten is enquiry based. Stations are set up and incorporate many outdoor based enquiries. Lakeview follows part of the curriculum in terms of the Confident Learners program but is more focused on letting the students take the lead with student-led activities, then taking the learning from them and incorporating it into the curriculum wherever they can. An example of this is when students were so impacted through learning about the importance of water last year that the Grade 1 class hosted a water walk. It was their own idea and was entirely student-led.

“The Confident Learners initiative is to ensure that all students are fluent readers and confident learners by the end of the third grade,” said Ms. Payette. “The first four years of elementary school is a key period when students learn to read. Children who make the transition from learning to read to reading clear by the end of third grade are positioned to succeed in learning and in life.”

“There is research to support this,” added MFN Director of Education Robert Beaudin. “If a child is reading by the end of Grade 3, they will have success in high school and beyond. If they’re not, they face many uphill struggles.”

In 2012, a partnership between 32 First Nations schools and the University of New Brunswick’s Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy (CRISP) set out with the vision to increase the capacity of teachers, parents and volunteers to help ensure all Indigenous children become confident readers and learners.

“The Confident Learners program is a direct result of support from Indigenous Affairs (INAC),” Ms. Payette said. “They have an advisory council and keep in touch through Kenjgewin Teg (KTEI). We’re part of a First Nations school support program that is hosted through KTEI. There are a number of First Nations schools that are part of this and it’s a good collaboration. Confident Learners is the only program of its kind to be built with and for Indigenous educators and children.”

“We had the opportunity to be one of the lead schools in jumping on board with that,” said Ms. Payette. “Lakeview School is probably one of the first streamed schools that is taking a big lead on this in terms of professional development and the implementation of that program within our school.”

“The big push on that part—and it’s critical—is that the stronger our teachers are the stronger the program is,” the principal continued. Lakeview School provides the opportunity for professional development through early dismissals on Wednesday. A teachers’ study group, essentially a professional learning group, meets every Wednesday at 2:15 pm.

“The program includes code-related skills (concepts about print, phonetics, letter knowledge and reading fluency) and language skills (vocabulary, receptive language, expressive language and written language). We go through building capacity, informing instruction, fostering confidence in students and applying that theory as part of our professional development. We’re talking about classroom management and skills, making higher yield thinking strategies for students,” she continued. “We’re talking about social development and emotional development for students, all of that so we can enhance that confidence in the students and give them that opportunity to be successful readers.”

Literacy resource teacher (LRT) Connie Freeman is the driving force behind this program. Ms. Freeman has also initiated a book bag program for students where they can sign books out of her book barn. She encourages students to increase their reading levels. An assistant ensures everything is catalogued and instructs library classes one day per week. The LRT also presents an early reading readiness program where she withdraws students from the classroom to offer one-on-one support.

“It is also very unique that we have the opportunity to work with a numeracy teacher,” said Ms. Payette. “She collaborates with the teachers and occasionally provides professional development as well. She uses a program called Leaps and Bounds to do math assessments and was instrumental in development to create this beading project that we do and have become quite famous for. The project incorporates math, culture and language – to see that in action, it’s amazing! We’re incorporating elders. We’re incorporating community members. We’re incorporating language, numbers, the Ojibwe language and specifically the math. We’re getting them to know specific vocabulary and to explain their thinking. Why is that pattern like that? How do you get that pattern? What if we change that? To get the students to explain their math through beading in a way they couldn’t before is pretty amazing.”

The numeracy teacher also oversees a maker’s space which is designed for students to expand on artistic or creative ideas. This year they’ll be incorporating robotics. They usually host an annual art show as well.

Lakeview’s unique core Ojibwe program is run by Eria Bebonang and uses sign language as well as Ojibwe language flash cards to help students develop more confidence in using the language in the classroom.

A wellness worker provides daily intervention as needed. “Sometimes a student just needs to take a break and they go to see her,” Ms. Payette explained. The wellness worker coordinates and laises for interventions from outside agencies such as mental health and family services. She can also arrange transportation for students to and from appointments. Having a school-based wellness worker provides students with a safe place to vent and helps them to learn coping strategies. There has been an impact in that the number of referrals to the principal’s office have gone down.

The ARP program is built on a ‘scaffolding’ concept. “The approach is different than the traditional method,” said Ms. Payette. “With scaffolding you introduce one concept and then you build on it. The school also utilizes an online program called Quizlet. It’s beginner level and syllable based. Right now it’s supported on iPads and iPhones but we’re hoping to have it available for Android devices soon.”

“We also utilize a land-based approach to learning,” said Mr. Beaudin. “Students spend more time out and about. An elder once told me, ‘this is not our classroom, this (the outdoors) is our classroom.’ So we’re incorporating more land-based. The NARPS (National Archery in the Schools) program will also be implemented this school year.”

“We have our own tipi for cultural teachings,” Ms. Payette added. “We’d really like to have the whole first week of school as culture week.”

Community engagement is an important component of their ‘think outside the box’ programming. There is a fall feast that provides the opportunity to see harvesting in action. Neil Debassige of Fuel the Fire TV sets up three different stations: one for harvesting deer, one for demonstrating different animal calls and a fishing station. Pam Roy sets up an apple station and does a presentation on honeybees, demonstrating the different aspects of harvesting within local communities. 

Lakeview has implemented an adult caregiver engagement strategy (ACES) to get parents more involved. “Our parental engagement numbers continue to climb,” said Mr. Beaudin. At the last parent night the turnout was almost 80 percent, and more parents are interacting with the school on Facebook. Other initiatives include starting the day with a happy thought to encourage positive engagement and a daily email for parents and community members with an Anishinabe phrase of the day that includes an audio file. On Aboriginal Day the school served up a free pancake breakfast to 184 people. “We want to demonstrate that Lakeview School is a part of the community,” said Ms. Payette.

Teachers are encouraged to learn the Anishinabe language and to use it as much as possible within the classroom. The normally lethargic Grade 7 class was given 15 minutes of gym first thing in the morning. “It’s made a big difference and changed the rest of the day,” Ms. Payette said.

Other small steps forward include positive partnerships with various health services and the UCCM Police Service. Community Services Officer Murray Still visits Lakeview regularly, talking about bullying and other issues. Police also participate in activities such as winter carnival. Other partnerships include Laurentian University and Queens University for student teacher placements and Manitoulin Streams for experiential learning about water, environment and fish habitats. Every year Grade 8 students from Lakeview School work with Manitoulin Streams on restoring M’Chigeeng Creek by improving stream habitat, planting trees and picking up garbage.

“The word we’re using is ‘partnerships’,” Mr. Beaudin explained. “The real word is relationships. What we’re building is relationships so they last longer. We are seeing a change in behaviour. This has all been driven by our leadership, by chief and council past and present who provided the vision. We’ve borrowed from that. All the events are geared to that vision and are being implemented by good people that care in a manner that is responsive to community wants and needs.”