Crees and schools run by Christian orders go a long way back. All the way back to Moose Factory or La Tuque for prime examples of the residential-school policies. This is why it was hard to look at the Dabwetamun Academy without having a concern.
The concerns were groundless to say the least. Dabwetamun Academy is an Accelerated Christian Education system. In a time when parents were being taken to task for non-participation they were the ones who wanted and started this school. After looking at it I realize it is a viable alternative to Mistissini’s educational choices. In the past students either attended Voyager Memorial School or went by bus to Chibougamau’s MacLean Memorial School. The academy is so successful that children attending it aren’t just the children of Mistissini residents. One student has come from Wemindji, another from Waswanipi and one from Nemaska.
Students who go to Dabwetamun Academy – set up last year – undergo a diagnostic test to see what level they are really at in math, spelling, science and English in terms of learning levels. “We try to help them fill in their gaps to bring them up to the level they should be learning at rather than the chronological age,” said Cathy Lemmert, director of the school.
She admitted that most of them had tested lower than their age would be expected to know. “Some tested four levels or grades behind normal standards. We had three students who did a year and half to two years of school work in one year in the last year.”
Lemmert said she didn’t like to compare the Christian school program to the local school but this alternative is for parents who want that individual approach to schooling. “In the public system the child is placed in an age group with other students. In ACE, the philosophy is every child is different regardless of age. So they are placed at a level that they can learn at. It could be higher in English than math or higher in science than English. We determine that so they can achieve,” said Lemmert.
“We have a tremendous reward system. For each page or booklet they finish they are given a congratulation slip and are called up to the front of the class and all the kids clap.” The paper is then taken home to show the parents who can see the progress the students are making.
As part of the reward system each student has a bankbook in which merit is accumulated. Each school booklet they finish is worth 200 merits. If they help around the school with chores or cleaning up they get more merits. If a student is spotted helping or being especially kind to another student they are also rewarded with merit points. While these merit points aren’t money, once a week the merit shop is opened up and students can use their merits to buy what’s in the shop. This system has the added bonus of teaching students about debits, credits and bank balances. “The kids, even the older ones, love the merit shop,” said Lemmert.
The rewards are bought by both the school and the parents from the Dollar Store, Wal-Mart or other places.
Parents play an important part in the school and “there’s good involvement” according to Lemmert. “They run the school and have their own parents committee. They make the decisions and we work for them. It’s their school.”
She says this encourages involvement especially when they see their children achieving and happy about it. Some Mistissini residents have gone even further as evidenced by the computers donated by Jim MacLeod of MacLeod Exploration.
“We have a good atmosphere,” said Lemmert. Part of this is due to the 65 character traits the students learn throughout the school year. Kindness, diligence and forgiveness are some of the traits integrated into the program. “The staff is trained to be very positive with the children. They are discouraged from saying that students are doing it the wrong way.”
One of the great things about the Dabwetamun Academy program is the goal setting. At the end of the day students plan out what they will be doing the next day. They learn to determine what is within their ability to do. “We teach them to set realistic goals,” said Lemmert. Too ambitious means you can’t accomplish the tasks and too lazy means you aren’t working to your potential. It means that each student knows exactly what they will be doing and accomplishing the next school day. “We teach new students at the beginning of the year and they catch on very fast,” said Lemmert. Anything not finished becomes homework but some students become so enthusiastic they ask for homework.
Dabwetamun Academy has been approved by the Quebec Ministry of Education. It currently teaches grades one through six. They have 35 students but are allowed 45 and there’s a waiting list.
Standards are high at the academy with 80% being the passing grade for each test. With 85% of the students achieving this it’s no wonder the school is a success and parents are willing to pay the tuition rates of $4,200 for the first child and $4,000 for the second. A one-time fee of $200 is charged for new students to cover testing and administrative costs.
Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff has gone to the school to congratulate the students for their dedication and achievements. He also said the parents showed great initiative in operating this type of school.