Improving literacy skills in the first years of a child’s schooling dramatically increases the likelihood that he or she will complete high school and move on to pursue higher education.
The Martin Family Initiative’s Model School Literacy Project was designed to improve literacy levels among First Nation students, with a particular focus on children in Kindergarten to Grade 3 – the critical period for learning to read and write.
The Pilot Project
The Martin Family Initiative’s Model School Pilot Project project took place at two First Nations schools. The results were incredible. In 2009, 13% of Grade 3 students at these schools met or exceeded Ontario’s standard for reading proficiency. Five years later that number had increased to 81% – higher than Ontario’s province-wide average.
A sound level of early literacy has a wide range of benefits, one of which is greatly improved chances of graduating from high school. With First Nations high school graduation rates significantly lower than the rest of Canada, it is imperative that First Nations, Métis Nation, and Inuit children and youth are provided with the same opportunities to learn as other Canadian children and youth. This is a question of equity and Canadian values for the youngest and fastest-growing segment of our population in education.
For the last 16 years, Ontario has focused on improving the reading and writing skills of students and has been recognized around the world for its efforts in improving student success.
In 2009, the MFI launched a five-year Model School Pilot Project in partnership with Hillside School in Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and at Walpole Island Elementary School in Walpole Island First Nation. The program was modelled after Ontario’s highly successful Turnaround Schools project, which provided targeted resources and support for some of the province’s lowest achieving schools.
The project was focused on:
1. Establishing a literacy improvement plan for Kindergarten to Grade 3, which served as the school’s primary focus
2. Providing teachers with ongoing professional development to establish effective teaching practices
3. Implementing effective assessment practices to inform teaching and determine intervention needs
4. Providing ongoing coaching for school principals
5. Establishing clear accountability mechanisms and measures to track progress and ensure success
6. Actively encouraging communities to reflect their language and culture in the schools’ programs
STEVE STYERS, DIRECTOR/CENTRAL LEADERSHIP MENTOR/CULTURAL LIAISON
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Where the Model School Literacy Project is currently in place
Following the successful Model School Pilot Project in Walpole Island First Nation and Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, the Project has established a partnership with the Federal Government to expand to include six more schools across Canada. By the year 2020, there will be a total of 20 Model School Literacy Project sites.
The participating schools are:
Ermineskin Elementary and Kindergarten Schools
ERMINESKIN CREE NATION
Napi’s Playground Elementary School
Waywayseecappo Community School
WAYWAYSEECAPPO FIRST NATION
Keethanow Elementary School
STANLEY MISSION CREE NATION
Standing Stone School
ONEIDA NATION OF THE THAMES
MEMBERTOU FIRST NATION
Walpole Island Elementary School
WALPOLE ISLAND FIRST NATION
Hillside Elementary School
CHIPPEWAS OF KETTLE AND STONY POINT FIRST NATION
The Model School Pilot Project was effective
On the Ontario provincial assessment, where the standard is equivalent to a passing mark of 70%, Dr. Julia O’Sullivan, former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, found the following:
When the Pilot Project was launched, only 13% of Grade 3 students met or exceeded the province’s target for reading proficiency. At the end of the Pilot Project, that percentage had increased to 67%. Five years later that number had increased to 81%– higher than Ontario’s province-wide average
When the Pilot Project was launched, only 33% of Grade 3 students met or exceeded the province’s target for writing proficiency. At the end of the Pilot Project, that percentage had increased to 91%, which was significantly higher than the province-wide average of 78%
As the program unfolded, expectations and the quality of teaching improved. It became clear that for many students identified with special needs, underachievement in reading was due primarily to the quality of teaching. As a result of these improvements:
The percentage of Senior Kindergarten to Grade 3 students identified for speech and language services decreased from 45% to 19%
The percentage of Grade 4 to 6 students identified for speech and language services decreased from 24% to 4%
Fewer students were labeled unnecessarily, so speech and language services became targeted at those students with intensive needs and challenges
The Model School Pilot Project also:
Established a relationship of trust and confidence among all the partners – this is especially significant given the history of residential schools in Canada
Increased confidence and pride in the schools within each First Nation community
Confirmed the beliefs of the Chiefs and the communities that their children could learn and be successful
Provided encouraging models for other First Nations across Canada
Increased the perceived value and status of language and culture programs as well as the role of teachers
Established a climate of increased accountability
Developed and implemented protocols, for example, for prevention, intervention, and special education
Strengthened the role of the principals
Increased parent, family, and community engagement
- Demonstrated best ethical practices for research involving First Nations and academics
Praise for the Model School Project from those who experienced it.
Kids are taking ownership of their own learning, so if there’s a topic that they really want to know about, they know that they can get that information themselves in the library. It’s really neat to see kids embracing the culture of learning.
“The library is now the heartbeat of literacy in the school. It’s a thrill to see the development of students as producers and consumers of knowledge or to watch a child be totally immersed in the joy of reading.”
- Vaughan Stoyka, Program Director
“I learned how to dive into the resources and make better use of them. We have many cross-curricular materials that allow us to teach literacy throughout the day.”
- Grade 2 Teacher
“There is no guru you can send for; no program you can buy; teachers teach children how to read.”
- Julia O’Sullivan, Chief Advisor
“I have gained so much. I kind of thought I was a really good teacher before but I am a way better teacher now having been through the professional development, the instruction, the support, and the feedback.”
- Resource Teacher
“The biggest change I’ve noticed is the teachers’ confidence in the skills that they have.”
- Literacy Lead
The biggest challenge for principals in First Nations schools is the isolation. Whenever I needed advice I just had to lift the phone and call MFI. This kind of support does not exist for principals in First Nations schools
Steven Styers, Former Principal, Walpole Island Elementary
“Together we have created a positive foundation for our children to ensure that they have the essential tools. But more importantly, our children now have a strong sense of ownership in their language, culture, and history as a result of this project.”
- Chief Tom Bressette, Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation
“A lasting legacy of Wiiji Kakendaasodaa at our school is the increased importance of the Ojibwa program and Ojibwa teachers.”
- Cathy Hampshire, Principal, Hillside School
“With all the professional development we could clearly see we were working as a team. With all the assessment tools that we used we had results and can see that the hard work has paid off.”
- Grade 8 Teacher
Now when we have conversations with other staff they are saying how much better they feel about their teaching. They feel more confident in the way they are teaching and that has to do with the professional development we have been getting.
“I have higher expectations for all of the students and I have improved in getting some of the more challenging students to work at their best level.”
- Grade 3 Teacher
“The kids want to learn. It’s like there’s a fire that’s been lit and they’re proud to be part of the school. The parents are not apprehensive to come to school. A lot more parents are coming to see what’s going on.”
“What turned things around was when we started to talk to parents and families about what their children could do instead of what they could not do.”
- Cathy Hampshire, Principal, Hillside School
“I feel like the door has been opened in a way. I feel like the parents have found their place in the school and I think they’re really enjoying the way that they’ve been included.”
It leaves me speechless to see how far the kids have come in such a short time
“I think it’s clear that there are huge changes in the school just by looking at students’ work. Our students’ work has gone from very few written sentences in the first and second grade to longer stories. The thought behind each sentence is more coherent and it’s clear that students have a sense of pride in their written work.”
- Literacy Lead
“When we transition the children to Grade 1, they’re going to have the skills that they need. We talk about where we are, what we are working on, what our strengths are, and what we need to build on. We determine our focus and we work together. The networking and working closely are important.”
- Kindergarten Teacher
“So many of the young children now have a better chance because they have not been misdiagnosed with special needs.”
- Patricia Canning, Early Intervention Advisor
“The students seem enthused and motivated to achieve and now they are thinking beyond elementary school. They are seeing this as a stepping stone.”
- Grade 6 Teacher
Miigwetch for giving the Anishinabek Nation inspiration and unequivocal proof that, with adequate financial resources and strong school leadership, we have the expertise to provide quality, culturally relevant education and to administer our schools.
Chief Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief, Anishinabek Nation