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Pam Spooner, principal of Nusdeh Yoh (House of the Future) Elementary until spring 2018, said she was drawn to the job out of a desire to do more to improve outcomes for Indigenous students than other teaching opportunities provided. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC) When B.C.’s first public Aboriginal-choice school opened in Prince George in 2010, it was "chaos," in the words of senior secretary Bonnie Bowe.

"Complete chaos," she said. "The on-call staff, the EAs [educational assistants], they didn’t like to come here."

Her memories are echoed by Sonya Rock, the kindergarten Grade 1 teacher.

"I was exhausted. I was tired," she said of those first months. "But I was very determined, because I wanted to see our children succeed." Teacher Sonya Rock is hugged by one of her students at Nusdeh Yoh Elementary. ‘The children that come into my life, they are like my own,’ she says. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC) Like the rest of her family, Rock attended residential schools, an experience she described as "traumatic." But she grew up to be a teacher, determined to make a difference in the lives of the next generation of Indigenous learners.

That drive is why she jumped at the chance to take part in a pioneering project in B.C.: Nusdeh Yoh (House of the Future), an Indigenous-centric elementary school in a challenged inner-city neighbourhood. A school ‘rooted in Aboriginal world views, culture and language’

Choice schools are institutions with specialized programs and philosophies operating within B.C.’s education system.

Nusdeh Yoh — which means "House of the Future" in the Dakelh language — touts itself as being "rooted in Aboriginal world views, culture and language."

Its creation was part of Prince George’s School District 57’s strategy to improve graduation rates for Indigenous students in the city.

The school district’s most recent numbers indicate it has over 3,000 self-identified Indigenous students — more than 33 per cent of the student body total. Nusdeh Yoh focuses on the holistic well-being of its students, working with parents and other community groups to provide best outcomes. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC) And in 2010/11, the high school completion rate for Indigenous students in the district was just 44 per cent, far below the 71 per cent completion rate for all students.

Eight years on, staff agree the "chaos" of the early days of Nusdeh Yoh is gone.

As well, completion rates for Indigenous students in the district is up to 57 per cent for 2016/17. The completion rates for self-identified Aboriginal students in Prince George’s School District 57 has been steadily improving over the past decade as schools incorporate more Indigenous perspectives in the classroom. (B.C. Ministry of Education) A community of respect

Though it’s tough to say how much of that improvement can be credited to Nusdeh Yoh, former principal Pam Spooner said she saw significant improvements during her tenure.

"We’re hearing from [high schools] that our kids are coming way more prepared," she said during her final days at Nusdeh Yoh in May 2018 (Spooner is now the Aboriginal education principal for Penticton’s School District 67).

"They’re more social, emotionally-bound. They’re better regulated." Mr., Mrs. Spooner — it’s authority, right? … It was a sign of the church, of colonialism … When you’re trying to form a relationship, you don’t want to have a ‘I’m higher’ kind of thing The focus on the social and emotional well-being of students is no accident — it’s a core part of Nusdeh Yoh’s operating philosophy of creating a community of learning in and outside of the school grounds.

Spooner said parents — many of whom experienced residential schools or trauma in the public school system — need to be welcomed into taking part […]

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