Success can be measured in many ways and Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School is hoping that their success rate will climb, thanks to French and English pre-Kindergarten programs that has children as young as 4 attending school full time.

The French program started two years ago and is now seeing its graduates enter Grade I. The pilot project, a first of its kind in Eeyou Istchee, has the students attend class in French for half a day and in the Cree for the other half.

“In the children’s assessment, done in June, a child needs to master a minimum of 80% of the oral language in mother tongue or in second language,” said Alain Bellemare, Voyageur Memorial’s Elementary school Principal.

“They were scoring 81% in Cree and 84% in French,” he said. “The conclusion was that they could read and write in French as good as in Cree.”

Bellemare went on to say that the parents’ reaction has been phenomenal. Instead of having two Grade I classes in English and two in French, the success of the French pilot project has forced the school to have only one Grade I English and a combination Grade I and 2 English class along with the two Grade I classes.

The English program, which started this fall, is very exciting but it’s too early to tell how successful it will be.

“These 15 children are coming to school for the first time, although many have been in daycare before,” said Linda Collier, the pre-K English teacher.

“For the first days, all teachers work at introducing the children to the idea of routine as far as being organized and responsible for getting their own outdoor clothes and shoes on and off, and lining up for the bus, and making a smooth transition between activities,” she said.

“Learning to focus on the task at hand and following through on it and learning the give and take and socialization skills of working together is a big part of their first school experience.” After lunch, the Cree pre-K teacher, Annie Gray, takes the children as they learn in Cree for the rest of the afternoon.

Collier started teaching in Mistissini after working as a journalist. She also taught English as a Second Language in other countries and Canada. Her knowledge of people and their characteristics has helped in her new environment.

“I am not teaching strictly English as a Second Language, but rather teaching the regular school subjects – in English. All of the children hear English in the community and have some understanding of the language. What I have found challenging these first weeks is to discover just how much,” said Collier, who was exposed to Mistissini’s football camp in August and got a good feel for the community through the sport.

Collier says that the most important learning tool for the children is reading. “What is most important in this program, I believe, and in all childhood education, is that children are encouraged to read at home,” said Collier. “There is so much documentation that shows how children who are read to at home excel throughout their school years – which often go on to include university or trade school.”

Collier says she is learning at the same time as the children. “I have tried to communicate to the children that I am learning to use a new language too – theirs (and also brushing up on my French) – and that I know it takes patience and work, but it can be fun too,” she said.

“What I am working at is designing lessons and a program that will both challenge the children but still meet all of their various levels of ability – and a program that will have them supporting each other as they learn English.”

Bellemare could see a difference in the way they’re learning from when he got there four years ago. “What these kids have been doing in the French sector is transferring what they’re learning from one language to another. So if they learn something in Cree they know how to express that in French and vice versa. I hope that it works the same with the pre-K English,” he concluded.