Culture in classrooms: Growing Sooke School District works to enhance Indigenous programs

Aboriginal Classroom Program Assistants, Elders, mentors are in schools supporting students and infusing Indigenous worldview

Students in the Sooke School District are learning from elders, aunties and mentors who are working to bolster Indigenous teachings in the classroom.

The growing district is working with a roster of Indigenous staff to support students as it is on the verge of opening two new schools.

As part of an ongoing program, Aboriginal Classroom Program Assistants are a regular presence in district schools, working to support Indigenous students and infuse Indigenous worldviews into general learning.

Scharah Cooper, from Indian Head First Nation in Newfoundland, is one of four classroom assistants who started this year. She is tasked with working in two schools.

Cooper is looking forward to “providing an education that’s culturally relevant, that’s what I”m excited about.” she says.

She will work Monday to Friday, hosting a cultural program during lunch hours where she says the students can come in and make healing pouches, button blankets, dreamcatchers, talking sticks, sage bundles and whatever else the students might bring to the table. 

The new hires join over thirty existing school district staff who are already working in Indigenous education. 

Sooke School District is spread out across the territories of T’Sou-ke, Scia’new, Nuu-chah-nulth and Pacheedaht Nation as well as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations. There are currently about 1,200 Indigenous students enrolled throughout.

Kathleen King, the District Principal of Aboriginal Education, says the district works with seven elders, as well as roughly fifty role models and mentors who are often referred to as “aunties” or “uncles” by the students — each one valued for their unique individualized knowledge and strength. 

“They are very keen to work with the schools,” explains King. “We work with our local First Nations very closely to make a plan that is best for all, not only for Aboriginal students but for non-Aboriginal students as well.”

King says the district has had Indigenous education programs in place for more than a decade, but are becoming increasingly important as the district grows.

There are currently a new elementary and middle school being built — adding to Sooke School District’s current four secondary schools, three middle schools and a whopping 18 elementary schools.

Each new school has a significant cultural name that was provided by local First Nations and chosen by the Sooke School District Board. 

The new elementary school will be named Pexsisen, from Lekwungan Elders from Songhees and Esquimalt, and the new middle school will be called Lellum Middle School, presented by Cheanuh First Nations.

“We are a growing school district so we are very proud of how we’ve organized ourselves,” she says.

T’Souke Elder Jackie Planes-Deyaeger has been working with the district for four years. She says working with the students has been “awesome,” and she has bonded with both kids and teachers.

“I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am,” she says. “All the kids I’ve met so far … are all so enthusiastic that they ask a lot of questions all the time.” 

Planes-Deyaeger teaches the students about traditional foods, creates artwork such as cedar roses with them, and takes them on walks around the territory. 

“We go down to the beach and look at all the creatures and what the elders eat and what they respect,” she says. “I had no idea that I was capable of teaching, of what I do know and what I do know is through my family, my mother, my grandmother.”