Parents and teachers at Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial stood firm against a part of the new Cree School Board (CSB) plan that would have eliminated the school’s highly successful English reading program and potentially jeopardized high school students’ chances of graduating.

The new plan, part of the CSB’s Cree Local School Improvement Program (LSIP), sought to implement the Cree language for 100% of the school day. Voyageur runs a 50/50 system, in which half the day is taught in Cree, while the other half is taught in either English or French, depending on the parents’ choice when they register their child.

“When [the LSIP] was first introduced for the schools to implement, we were concerned,” said Mistissini Deputy Chief John S. Matoush. “Parents were concerned that existing programs, which had made progress on the reading and writing levels, would be disturbed, and this success might be lost when the LSIP program would be implemented.”

Voyageur Memorial didn’t reject the plan just because of this, however. They said there was a lack of resources and teachers to support the initiative, and it would result in an underwhelming success rate and a great deal of inertia.

“The overwhelming decision was ‘not right now’,” recounted school councillor Jerry Coon. “The parents also said, listen: if you do incorporate the Cree language and culture program, it will affect our children’s learning and reading level, and graduation rates will be affected. And listen: if you don’t have the teachers or the qualified material, then why do it?”

Parents were specifically worried that the swift implementation called for by the LSIP would threaten current high school kids’ ability to graduate. Cree language courses would be compulsory in the final years of secondary school, and students who haven’t been speaking Cree would be in danger of failing these courses.

“It’s not to say we don’t support Cree language,” said Matoush. “But we wanted to find a way to implement it slowly at the high school level so the readiness and preparation would be there for the youth studying the Cree language. Leaving the high school at status quo means students can continue with the curriculum they’re currently using. That way, their studies won’t be jeopardized.”

The other threat parents saw was for the elementary-level reading program. Voyageur Memorial is the only school in the CSB with “Success For All” (SFA), a private U.S.-based reading program that stresses heavily researched learning strategies and statistical analysis of students’ progress. Since starting the program at the end of 2009, the school’s average reading level has improved dramatically. There was just a single student at the expected reading level for their grade at the outset of the program. Now, there are more than 50 at-grade readers.

The SFA program was seen as a promising and successful way to teach Cree children strong reading skills. School officials stressed that reading problems in the early grades can slip by teachers and start to snowball, undermining learning in future years. The comprehensive testing of the SFA program ensures reading difficulties are properly identified early, and specific practice is assigned to improve students’ skill in problem areas.

When the word came in that the new curriculum would put the SFA program in jeopardy, the school held a series of meetings with the school council and the parents’ association to discuss their options. Their position on the matter was clear, according to officials.

“Parents thought the SFA program was better, and why change it now when it’s working,” said Coon. “We will consider the new curriculum on a year-to-year basis. The CSB doesn’t have certified Cree-culture or Cree-language teachers, and the school material isn’t available either. We hope that with the support of the council, we will keep the program we have in place now.”

Right now, the reading program is only in implementation for the elementary grades at Voyageur Memorial, but the school had plans to expand this down to Cree Kindergarten and pre-K levels. Young students split their time evenly between the regular curriculum and the SFA program; the mornings involve intensive English reading courses, while the afternoons cover regular school courses – biology, math, history – in Cree and either English or French.

“The school committee and the community and parents said they didn’t support the idea of having a Cree language of instruction at 100% in a full day,” Matoush said. “They wanted parents to have a choice when it comes to the education of their children, that they be able to choose English or French with Cree.”

The school sent a series of requests to the CSB, outlining their concerns in multiple areas, and asking the school board to reconsider changing the 50% SFA-50% regular curriculum program that has been so well received. If the number of hours committed to the SFA were reduced, school officials fear there would be a significant drop in the success rate of its students. The school is still awaiting response.