Running a school on unstable funding

The success of Nbisiing Secondary School

Photo of two teen First Nations

On the edge of the north shore of Lake Nipissing, resides a small school like few of its kind. On the outside it looks like any high school throughout the province, but it isn’t. To be quite honest it technically isn’t even in the province; this is Nipissing First Nation’s Nbisiing Secondary School. This school is not isolated, located a little more than one kilometre from territorial boundary which touches the municipal boundary of North Bay. North Bay like any municipality boast all four types of Boards totalling six high schools, all provincial day schools. However, Nbisiing isn’t one of them, it is a “federal school” (we’ll get to that later). What is intriguing about Nbisiing, is the story of how the school links a traditional perspective with a plan for future generations.

The school, according to Chief Scott McLeod, has been evolving for a long time. Forty years ago, Band Council created the position of Education Director. This person was to support and counsel students (adult or otherwise) who attended provincial day schools. From those humble beginnings, current Director Fran Couchie explains, evolved an adult education program to help students obtain their GED so that they could get jobs and opportunities to support their families. Mrs. Couchie and Chief McLeod state that they realized early on that high school students in the community could benefit from their adult programing. Chief McLeod states, “This evolution on the surface seems odd, but for us [creating Nbisiing] was a natural shift.” The shift was from education support to educating ourselves and the Nipissing First Nations (NFN) Education Department was created. Chief McLeod says, “This was a way for us to improve our quality of life by recognizing and reconnecting with our history.” Nipissing First Nation has always prioritized education amongst its people, understanding that education is fundamental in the advancement of its Nation. Nbisiing is a crucial step in the reassertion of jurisdiction, but it’s not a closed door approach. It’s in the cultural heritage of Nipissing to be a kind, welcoming and friendly people who are open to sharing and cooperation. Nbisiing is again one of their strongest testaments to this traditional way of thinking.

Being a federal school, they choose to offer programming from Grades 9 to 12 from the Ontario Curriculum and deliver its content with a culturally relevant perspective. What does this mean? Well students attending Nbisiing earn Ministry credits and an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) upon achieving Ministry of Education (MOE) graduation requirements. This allows them to enter Ontario colleges and universities on equal footing with their provincial counterparts. Nbisiing in return, opens its doors to the Ministry inspectors to ensure that they are delivering the spirit of the curriculum to its students. Yet the Band Council and Education Department maintain control over the operations, staffing and context in which curriculum is taught. NFN ensures that every teacher is Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) registered, it also so happens that many are band members themselves or have strong ties to the community. This gives students a cultural and academic balance, not readily available in provincial day schools. Student success is the very root of their approach, which can be seen everywhere throughout the school.

Photo of a classroom with students and teacherAs a band member myself the feeling of being home is clearly felt while walking its halls. Speaking to teachers, administrators, the director of education, the Chief, as well as students, one gets a strong sense that they are all working towards a singular purpose, which is the betterment of our nation. Everyone sees, understands and plays a vital role in this process. Mrs. Sawyer, principal of the school says, “It’s home. Many of our school leaders are community leaders and students see themselves as potential leaders.” Mrs. Couchie adds, “We can focus on us, to build ourselves up.” NFN is a forerunner in applying the traditional value that it takes individuals to raise a nation and a nation to raise individuals. So why attend a small federal school over a provincial school, especially since it’s not isolated and students have options. “In a world of data-driven success predictors we are trying to redefine what success means for us, for the school and for our nation,” says Mrs. Sawyer. They look forward to expanding their opportunities that education provides individuals. Chief McLeod states, “We are shifting again…We have PhDs, MDs, Lawyers, BAs, MAs and Journeypersons…now we are looking to create the economic environment for that education to help us all as a nation… to bring our children home.” Nipissing First Nation is a forward-thinking First Nation who is willing to wait out the long-term return that the investment in education brings.

This beautiful facility has quite the potpourri of mixed funding, from federal dollars to band dollars which make up the bulk of their stable funding. They also access funds from less stable grants from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, a variety of provincial and federal Ministries, as well as reverse tuition agreements with other boards and the MOE and tuition transfers from other First Nations. Unlike provincial schools they do not have the formal structures or human resources to find and secure funds as seen within a school board or ministry tax base, as a result much of their time as staff and administrators is devoted to filling out proposals to secure the grant money needed to keep afloat and everyone contributes. “We do what we need to do for the betterment of your students,” says Chief McLeod. This comes at a cost in several ways, to maintain the high competitive level of programming and unique opportunities to comparable provincial schools as mentioned earlier located less than 15 kilometres away; everyone must play a role in finding, generating and reinvesting money into this facility. I listened to how students used grant money and a business model of creating and selling certain crafts, clothing and products produced in class to regenerate money for classroom supplies. They often do a moose hunt where they use all the parts of the kill to either generate funds and to provide supplies for classes such as: hides for drums, bones to create traditional tools, meat to supply foods classes for cooking and in turn they sell to students/community member for reinvestment in the school. For every additional dollar they get through special grants, they look at models that will help them to be self-sufficient and gain a maximal return on that investment. This however, does not leave any margin for error as grants are not stable yet are needed as they look to compete against their bigger more stable competitors the public system.

After touring the school, speaking to everyone involved in its operations, Nbisiing is truly more than a school. It is the link between a community’s traditional heritage, its world view and the future. As a band member myself, I am proud, humbled and honoured to be a part of such a strong community, one that has seen the value of education. As Chief McLeod said, “Education strengthens and enriches our community…it pushes us forward to fulfill our ultimate goal which is independence.”

About Daniel M. Stevens
Daniel M. Stevens is a teacher in District 4, Near North and is a band member of the Nipissing First Nation.

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