Schools make students feel welcome

Counsellors take extra steps to connect with students

Clarence Fulton Secondary students Jaiden Oakley (left)

Clarence Fulton Secondary students Jaiden Oakley (left)

Fresh-baked cookies, hot coffee and a comfy couch all help make the Welcome Room feel like home.

But it’s the support from staff and the chance to connect with each other that keeps Fulton Secondary School students coming back to the Welcome Room.

“It’s comfortable to come here to work and everyone is really supportive,” said Grade 9 student Hayley Francis. “The support workers are always helping students that need help with their work.

“It gets crowded in here, but everyone has fun. And the support workers care if we’re all right.”

There are five other welcome rooms in the district: at Seaton, Charles Bloom and Vernon secondaries and Silver Star and Alexis Park elementaries.

“It provides a space for aboriginal students to study, socialize, eat, obtain school supplies, learn about cultural events, and connect with community programs,” said Sandra Lynxleg, principal of aboriginal education for the Vernon School District.

“Welcome rooms are based on a model used in South Peace secondary school, and we like the notion of it being welcoming. We use the medicine wheel in operating the room: taking into account the cultural, physical, emotional and intellectual well-being of students.

“What is really unique about the room is that it belongs to the kids.”

Grade 10 student Muyis Goodwater likes to visit the room to do his homework and is eventually looking at a career as an automotive technician.

“The support workers are going to help me do a resume and get a part-time job,” he said.

Grade 8 student Jaiden Oakley said having a place that’s comfortable and welcoming made the transition into high school that much easier.

“Sometimes I come in and hang out and sometimes I come in and get caught up in math as there is always someone here to help and there are always snacks and coffee,” she said.

“It’s nice because a lot of the people who come here are like family, they act like family and they know if something is wrong and they don’t care if you go on and on about it.”

The Welcome Room is open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and is staffed by three aboriginal support workers who work to support students to be successful in the classroom.

An after-school tutoring program provides help with academic studies twice a week and a language of math program offers students the opportunity to improve their basic math skills.

“And they will talk about college and university and help us out with applying for scholarships,” said Francis, who is looking at a career in health care, either working in a lab or as an MRI technician. “So they can make sure I take the courses I need next year in Grade 11.

“It’s easier to talk to someone here than a counsellor. They are really understanding and easy to get along with and they are like family.”

Opened three years ago, the Welcome Room is a place of support for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. Fulton vice-principal Jeff Huggins said it’s all about working towards graduation.

“It’s about success in school,” he said. “It’s a place to go where they can gather together and get different types of support: academic support and cultural support. This is the hub of the aboriginal  community at our school — you’ll have 20 kids in here and more spilling out into the hall.

“The support workers know the kids and they will do anything to help them and they are very creative.”

Fulton is home to 781 students. Of those, 126 are aboriginal, 22 from the Okanagan Indian Band. Lynxleg said the Welcome Room is an important key to the success of aboriginal students.

“The room means our support workers have a place, so aboriginal students have a place to gather  because this is what we do in our community — we gather,” she said.

Aboriginal support worker Jody Dargatz said keeping students in school and helping them feel connected to the school community is a key component of the Welcome Room.

“And to help raise their self-esteem because all the adults here want them to succeed,” she said.

“There is still a lot of racism and I find we have to raise their self-esteem, so our presence not only helps aboriginal students but it helps to have respect on both sides. As soon as our students step through the door, their self-esteem rises, so they’re better equipped to educate their peers.”

Aboriginal support worker Kathleen Phelan is particularly focused on offering academic support to students.

“Because we want them to be a part of who we are and we want to share what we have,” she said.

“We support students with after-school tutoring, and we offer a late bus for students who live on Westside. I’m all about the academic support and making our students stronger, having a presence in this school, having people know that we are here, we don’t all look the same, not all the teachers and the students know who is aboriginal, you don’t know who you are standing next to.”

Phelan said she’s encouraged by the increase of awareness of aboriginal culture at Fulton and pleased that the school is now able to offer B.C. First Nations Studies 12 as well as classes in the Okanagan language.

“The connection between the aboriginal department and the Fulton staff has been created, and it’s improved the relationships and teachers here are on board with aboriginal education,” she said.

“The relationship between the aboriginal workers and the principal is huge: if you don’t have the trust, then it won’t work. And we always ask our aboriginal students to bring a non-aboriginal student with them.”

Phelan’s dream is to have a larger space, where team meetings can be held, and where all students can find a place in the room.

Lynxleg said the recent appointment of DeDe DeRose as the province’s first B.C. superintendent of aboriginal achievement will go a long way towards strengthening the district’s aboriginal department.