Filling in the Gaps: The Meno Ya Win Classroom

January 5, 2015 - Jenny Pert-Wesley, a teacher in Sioux Lookout, has a wall of pictures in her classroom. She can point to any picture and tell a story of a student’s struggles and successes and like any teacher, she beams with pride.

“There is a picture of a little girl in grade one who was taken out of her community because her mother was assaulted,” Jenny explains. “They took her out and they sent her to the women’s shelter in Sioux Lookout. She hadn’t gone to school for about two weeks. When I went to the shelter to introduce myself to all the mothers and children, she came to school the next day with us and she stayed here for two weeks with me and we transitioned her over to Sioux Mountain Public School.”

There is another picture of a young boy who was diagnosed with a blood disease. He was admitted to the Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout for blood treatment and enrolled in Jenny’s class.

“He came in his wheelchair with his IVs, did his school work, and then off he went.”

Jenny’s classroom is unlike any other in the province of Ontario. Located inside the Meno Ya Win Health Centre, the classroom is designed to provide schooling for children and adults who might otherwise be experiencing a gap in their education.

Phase one of the classroom first began in spring, 2014. Initially, the program was designed for parents from remote communities who travelled to the health centre to give birth. Sometimes mothers would have to stay at the health centre for five or six months.

“We were trying to meet the needs of those mothers who would often bring their children and who wouldn’t be going to school in their home communities anymore,” Jenny explains. “So they would have this big gap in their education.”

This year, for phase two, the program is partnering with organizations throughout Sioux Lookout, including the Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board (SLAAMB), Tikinagan Child and Family Services, and First Step Women’s Shelter.

“We realized that there are more people in Sioux Lookout who are experiencing these gaps in their education for other reasons,” Jenny explains. “There was a woman and her young daughter who were medivacked out of their home community. She was severely hurt by her husband and they were staying at the women’s shelter. Her daughter wouldn’t have been enrolled in the public school because they were planning to live with her mother in another community up north. Because of our partnership with the women’s shelter, they sent her here every day, so when they went to their new community they went back up without her missing any school.”

The classroom is part of the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in Sioux Lookout and follows the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum. All students from kindergarten to grade 12 can enroll in the program. It also offers adult education for people wanting to upgrade or earn their high school diploma. All credits earned at the Meno Ya Win Classroom go towards a student’s Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

When a student enrolls in the class, an assessment is done of their reading, writing, and math level. Students are asked what grade they would normally be in, but the teaching that they receive is not necessarily based on a specific grade’s curriculum.

“We start where the student is at, that is really the bottom line,” Jenny says. “Knowing their grade is not as important as knowing what their working level is, because they need to work from where they are at, we need to know what their starting point is.”

According to Jenny, the classroom is an enquiry-based program driven by the student’s interests. There is a strong focus on language and math, as well as on First Nations languages and cultures. Jenny, a First Nations language teacher for six years, tries to incorporate lessons to help students learn their language, which might otherwise be lost.

Many of students participating in the program have already experienced some kind of loss or trauma. There was a boy in grade seven who was staying at the hostel in the hospital with his mom and dad and three brothers. Their home in the north was lost due to a fire and several family members were injured. The boy did not want to attend Sioux Mountain Public School, so Jenny spoke with him and enrolled him into her classroom.

“He felt safe and he came to school and he stayed here with us for two weeks,” Jenny recalls. “That grade seven student said that his favorite thing about the class was the kindness that he feels and the respect that he feels in this room.”

“I feel like children are children and they all need love and I believe they can all learn.”

This year, over 20 students have enrolled in the Meno Ya Win Classroom. Unfortunately, Jenny says that many parents are not aware that the program even exists and she is hoping that as the program continues to grow, more students will enroll.

“I think about our last three weeks of operation here and I think about all of the people who would have missed educational opportunities like this if it hadn’t been for this classroom,” she says.

“I think it’s so incredible because we had an idea of where we would have kids coming from, but there are so many things that are new to us where we didn’t even think that it would be a possibility that there would be kids in Sioux Lookout who are missing school because of many different issues,” Jenny continues.

With strong support from the Keewatin-Patricia School Board, Jenny does not think they will ever need to turn any student away. She is already receiving support from several high school teachers who provide lessons throughout the week as well.

“I don’t have any fears,” she says. “I have excitement because it continues to be so amazing.”

All Jenny has to do is look at her wall of pictures, the stories they tell a reminder of just how amazing it has been so far. She recalls a father working with his son at a small desk. The boy’s mother is receiving chemotherapy treatment at the hospital and his father is staying there. The boy works in the classroom while his mother receives treatment and his father comes down to work with him every day.

Then there is the story of a mother and daughter who arrived at the hospital when the daughter was pregnant. The daughter registered for high school while her mother was working just to graduate.

“That was so cool,” Jenny says. “They weren’t necessarily experiencing a gap in their education prior to arriving, they had no education. It’s really multifaceted and to me it is important to share all of those stories because they are all so vastly different.”

Authored by Doug Diaczuk, Communications Coordinator with Northern Policy Institute.

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