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Open door school

J.H. Sissons promotes equal rights, second chances

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 05/01) - Theres one word that can accurately describe the communal personality of J.H. Sissons school, and that is open. The openness is evident in the way the school was built.

The classrooms have no doors. They arc around upper and lower levels and open onto hallways lined with coats on hooks, desks and kids making themselves comfortable on the floor.

The library is the schools focal point.

It does something different, explained principal Paul Bennett about the structure. It is some of the magic in the school.

The magic, though hard to describe, is seen in the way kids behave. They are not necessarily a quiet group, but neither are they rowdy. They seem free.

A small girl walked into the office after recess. She marched straight in and up to the secretary, demanding information on the whereabouts of her teacher, who had made plans to meet her. Off went the secretary on a search.

The kids are on an equal footing and I think that is a neat thing, Bennett said. Even if I make a mistake I will go into a classroom and I say I need to make restitution.

And restitution may be the catalyst in reforming Sissons society into one in which respect is rampant and second-nature.

The discipline policy at the school is one of restitution, where students meet in a peace circle to talk out issues, where they stem from and how to solve them.

Even the school custodian can see that it works.

Many years ago many kids were rude and obnoxious, said Alvina Galloway candidly. But not in the last couple of years. She has been Sissons janitor for 14 years. About three years ago teachers pulled together to put the restitution program in place.

Lynn Taylor has also worked at the school for 14 years. She was the librarian and is now the restitution co-ordinator.

She has travelled throughout the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to explain J.H. Sissons model and help other schools install a model of their own.

The main thrust of it is that it is a non-disciplinary function, Taylor explained.

It teaches kids that it is OK to make a mistake and focuses on what can be done to repair it. It is a system that has been taught for more than 30 years in educational, correctional and community-based facilities around the world.

Restitution is based on traditional aboriginal disciplinary measures but J.H. Sissons is the only school in the North to adopt it as school philosophy.

We are looking at a territory-wide application of (that) model and are working with Ottawa (to get federal funding) right now, Taylor said.

In my old school if we did something bad it was totally suspension or detention, explained Grade 5 student Nicky Geggie-Hurst.

I have been in the peace circle a lot, last time as a witness.

His buddy Adam Scarf explained his latest appearance in the peace circle, where conflict is resolved, after two kids got in a fight and he tried to break it up.

I told them to resolve it in the peace circle, he said. And it worked because now they are best friends.

Cultural melting pot

A place like J.H. Sissons would seem like a prime place for intolerance, since it is a city school for students from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

But intolerant it is not.

About half of the 25 staff are from places such as France, Finland and the U.S.

Students are aboriginal, Russian, Bulgarian, Mexican and Asian.

J.H. Sissons is the only elementary school in Yellowknife Education District No. 1 that has French immersion.

Bennett said as many kids say hi to him in the hall as the ones that yell out bonjour.

He said although it would be nice to have the money to hire more teachers for one-on-one work with the kids or a big corporate donation for a computer lab, he is proud of the students attitudes.

Recently, a student dropped by Bennetts office. The boy plopped down on a chair and said he had been rude to a parent and wanted to fix it up. He said he wanted to phone the parent to say sorry and did.

It is education without fear, Bennett said. We need to allow for problems to happen.