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A school of their own

In order to offer readers an overview of the Yellowknife school system today, Yellowknifer begins Eye on Education, a special series, with a profile of K'alemi Dene School

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 31/01) - It's not uncommon to hear the steady beat of drums echoing down the hallways of the K'alemi Dene school. If you poke your head in a classroom you may see a Dene elder telling traditional stories to a captive audience of kids.

NNSL photo

K'alemi Dene teacher Eileen Erasmus gets Megan Zoe-Chocolate started on an exercise. Because class size is small, students receive a lot of one-on-one training. - photo courtesy of Gibson Communications

The Dogrib and Chipewyan language is displayed colourfully on the walls of the newest school in Yellowknife Education District 1.

The Ndilo Community school was opened in 1998 to serve children from kindergarten to Grade 3. By the next year renovations to the building began and the students were moved into portable classrooms beside J.H. Sissons school.

With more room, the newly renovated school was able to accommodate kindergarten through Grade 6. The children were moved back in time for the 2000 school year and the grand opening of the newly named K'alemi Dene school was held Sept. 29 of that year.

"The main curriculum that guides our educational activities is the Dene Kede Curriculum because of its unique focus on the Dene perspective of teaching and learning, but we also follow the standard academic curriculum mandated by the Northwest Territories Department of Education," said principal Angela James.

All of the school's 55 students are Dene or Metis."

Our process for registration is to give preference to the children who are Ndilo band members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, which is one of the reasons when you come here you can see the influence of Dene culture throughout the school. We want to give our children the best modern education while at the same time ensuring they have the opportunity to celebrate their unique history and culture."

Four areas of respect

One of the main teachings from the Dene Kede Curriculum focus on four main areas that teach children to respect: the self, others, the land, and the spiritual world. The four areas of respect are taught in conjunction with the cultural experiences that they participate in throughout the school year such as cultural camps, Dene arts and crafts and dog sledding. Ndilo language instructor Mary Jane Francois is teaching the children all kinds of Weledeh words, expressions and themes in their native tongue.

Drumming lessons are given once a week at the school. Young Yellowknives Dene students spend an hour each lesson learning Dene songs and how to pound out a rhythm set by drumming instructor Michael Black.

"We're going to get a few community drummers like Michael Black to move the program along this year," said James.

"It's part of our cultural programming. The drumming has been excellent for self-esteem building. It really reflects their learning. Sometimes the children are off-beat, but that's life."

After talking to the boys who join in the drumming, it becomes clear you don't have to twist any arms to get them to participate. Student Nazon Goulet says when he drums, it makes him feel like an Elder.

"In Dettah, people always drum," said Goulet.

"The drum is the circle of life. It shows our culture and the beat is the song. I plan to keep drumming, it makes me feel proud."

J.R. Abel agrees with his friend.

"To learn drumming and singing -- it's something the Dene have done forever," said Abel.

"I want to be a drummer and then later I can teach the little kids to do it. That way we will always have drumming."

Mary Rose Sangris has four children. Her eldest son Kyle and oldest daughter Kim never had the opportunity to attend elementary in Ndilo. Her two youngest daughters, Kyra and Kirsten are attending K'alemi Dene School right now.

"I found that Kyra, who just turned seven, learned to read at an early age and Kirsten is getting good grades in all her subjects. In comparison, my older children are having more difficulties in school. The teacher ratio is lower at the Ndilo school and I think that is making a big difference. I find my younger children are learning more efficiently," said Sangris.

"At the school there are many cultural activities that are planned that celebrate the Dene way. They teach the children how to raise a dog team, they go out on culture camps and overnight trips.

There's more togetherness and caring in the environment. When you go to the school you can see how happy the children are and I think the teachers are the main reason the students are doing so well. They deserve a lot of credit."