Students at Central Elementary will be waving a new flag this school year, one bearing a proud green logo of a sockeye salmon. This will replace the school’s long-held logo of a toothy shark.
The school is also part of a district-wide initiative to paint welcome messages on its walls in Halq’eméylem, an aboriginal language traditional for the region but at risk of extinction.
The initiatives are part of Central Elementary’s efforts to strengthen the sense of belonging that aboriginal students and the community feel at the school.
When principal Jim Edgcombe crunched the numbers last year, he discovered that 48 per cent of the school’s 220 students are aboriginal. He felt that the school should work harder at fulfilling the three goals that the Chilliwack district set itself in 2010 to enhance education for aboriginal students. These are increasing aboriginal sense of belonging, increasing academic success, and improving understanding of language and culture for all students.
The school is doing pretty well on the last two points, said Edgcombe, and is prioritizing the goal of belonging for this coming year.
Already, Central Elementary has become a community hub for a long list of programs that encourage students, parents, and the community at large to get involved and stay connected to the school.
“When you have a high level of parent support, you have a higher level of student success,” said Edgcombe.
The Downtown (previously, Central) Gateway for Families program hosts a variety of social service organizations in the school’s basement during the week.
The school also takes pride in encouraging the expression of traditional aboriginal arts and culture. There were three large aboriginal family gatherings last year, some with hundreds of attendees. The school also recruited an elder-in-residence, Yvonne Tumangday from Sto:lo Nation, to spend time with the community.
But it’s fostering a sense of belonging that is the final key, especially as many aboriginal students come from away and do not have a local band affiliation.
“Many of our families are not local. We have aboriginal peoples from all over Canada at our school. We have Métis, we have Cree, we have Ojibwa,” said Edgcombe. “We want to have an inclusive, welcoming school.”
Embracing the sockeye salmon as the official school logo is one step towards in that direction.
“The shark is not really local, and has a bit of a negative perception on a whole bunch of cultural levels,” said Edgcombe. “We wanted to really shift that to something positive, that is local, that has aboriginal significance.”
Not only is fishing an important industry in Chilliwack.
“As a staff, we liked the idea that the sockeyes travel together as a school. That they persevere to achieve a goal,” said Edgcombe.
Local graphic artist Bonny Graham-Krulicki designed the new sockeye logo in the traditional Coast Salish style. There are three letter “R’s” woven into the fish to represent the values of respect, responsibility, and relationships, as the school requested. There’s a candle to represent the lamp of knowledge. The triple repetition of images echoes the partnership between the students, staff, and parents.
The school district is also painting large welcome messages in Halq’eméylem at all locations. “Ey kwesé e’mi,” which means “It is good that you are here,” will soon greet every person who enters a Chilliwack school.
Graham-Krulicki designed this message as well. She used a font that she invented specifically for Halq’eméylem five years ago as a way of preserving the language.
“I thought, wouldn’t that be a great way to preserve the Halq’eméylem language? Is if I created this (font) into an artform that people would want to hang on their walls, and it would be a form of art, but it would preserve the aboriginal language in the process,” said the Coast Salish artist who runs B.Wyse Productions.
The district is purposely waiting for students to return to class before putting up all the welcome messages.
“We actually want to generate some conversations, and be able to have kids say, ‘What does that say?’, and be able to explain what Halq’eméylem language is, and just let it be a starting point,” said Nerine Graham, aboriginal education coordinator. “The goal is to get Halq’eméylem language up and visible in our school district.”
Central Elementary is also having Graham-Krulicki create a collection of additional words, such as teach, peace, love, laugh, learn, to be placed all over the school.
Although painting words on walls may seem superficial, said Edgcombe, it’s a statement of the school’s commitment to fostering aboriginal identity.
“We are on the traditional territory of the Skwah band. This area was the actual site of the original Skwah village,” said Edgcombe, speaking of the school’s current location. “We always acknowledge that this was where folks used to live long before contact.”firstname.lastname@example.org twitter.com/alinakonevski