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Hats off to a rare group of grads

Penelakut Class of 2014 grads, from left to right: William Jack, Sarah Charlie, Sarah Dee Louie, Richie Jim, Melanie Smith, Charles George, Shawna James and Kathlene Charlie. Missing are Loretta Edwards and Gilbert Smith. - courtesy Karen Burnham
Penelakut Class of 2014 grads, from left to right: William Jack, Sarah Charlie, Sarah Dee Louie, Richie Jim, Melanie Smith, Charles George, Shawna James and Kathlene Charlie. Missing are Loretta Edwards and Gilbert Smith.
— image credit: courtesy Karen Burnham

One little question changed the course of Melanie Smith’s life. Encouragement from her sister helped too.

Smith is one of 10 graduates — the first in 20 years — who graduated June 18 with their adult dogwood diplomas from the Penelakut Island Learning Centre.

“It’s a major accomplishment for them and for the teachers there,” said Penelakut band Chief Earl Jack. “We haven’t had much luck keeping our kids in school, but this year we did. We’re hoping this will carry forward and that they’ll all go on to do something great.”

Smith’s life changed when her daughter Kara asked her what she did at her graduation.

“I had no answer, because I didn’t graduate,” the 34-year-old said. “I didn’t want her to think that that was OK.”

At the same time her daughter was asking that innocent enough question, Smith’s sister Leona told her the school’s new teacher, Karen Burnham, was one fabulous teacher and that she should go back to school.

“I had no plans to go back, I have little kids and the previous teachers weren’t as organized as Karen is, I was in and out of school,” Smith said. “Karen came in knowing what she wanted to do; the other teachers weren’t getting anywhere.”

“It’s my daughter and sister that got me back (to school),” Smith said.

Next up? The mother of three has been accepted and plans on attending Vancouver Island University this September, she’s enrolled in the Child and Youth Care program.

“Eventually, I want to start a program here on the island to keep our kids out of trouble, I’m not saying they’re all in trouble, but I want to be able to help keep them busy, to help them see that they can create a better future for themselves too.”

Chief Jack said band unemployment is 90%.

Other students who graduated are: Kathlene Charlie, Sarah Charlie, Loretta Edwards, Charles George, William Jack, Shawna James, Richie Jim, Sarah Dee Louie, and Gilbert Smith. Eight of the 10 have applied to VIU for acceptance this September.

Beyond Smith’s own life, the impact of having so many graduates graduating in one year is rippling like waves in a pool.

“There are more people enrolled in school for the coming school year because of our example,” the graduate said.

Those aren’t the only changes that have occurred or are about to happen.

The Ministry of Education recently granted the learning centre independent school status.

Come this September, Burnham said there’ll be another teacher and a literacy specialist on staff, joining her and her educational assistant. She said they’ll be “going after kids,” who need smaller class sizes and put an increased focus on numeracy and literacy.

Burnham has worked with First Nations’ students for the past 12 years and previously taught for the Stz’uminus First Nation in Ladysmith before being offered the job at the learning centre.

Prior to her arrival, the centre only offered distance education and online courses, which from Smith’s comments, wasn’t meeting many students needs.

“Distance education can be hard and impersonal, it’s hard for students to relate to stories about a Hungarian granny,” Burnham said.

As most successful people know, success doesn’t always come from the efforts of just one person. It takes a village. And in this case a school board and a university.

Burnham said the Cowichan Valley School District’s Dave Bellis made it possible for students to graduate under the aegis of School District No. 79.

“We said to Dave, ‘What are the chances that we can offer a full program out of our learning centre, instead of just online courses?’” the teacher said.

The learning centre also partnered with the First Nations Education Steering Committee which offers a program called Connected Classes. That program broadcasts courses like biology 12, pre-calculus math and chemistry to a number of schools, not just Penelakut’s learning centre. Students from all the schools have the opportunity to interact.

VIU provided course counselling, as well as a course on portfolio development.

“It’s a real milestone,” said Bellis, the vice-principal in charge of the Cowichan Valley School District’s Adult Learning Centre. “Everyone is incredibly proud of the students, we all wish them nothing but the best.”

Despite “the village’s,” joint efforts, ultimately the victory is all about Penelakut’s students, who were incredibly appreciative, their teacher said. They were determined to get ahead.

“Life has been awful for many of these students, we had to create a dream and some hope and hope that they’d go for it,” Burnham said. “They haven’t had a vision before, imagined what life could be; these students created one and when they got it, they’d go.”

“The victory here isn’t that we graduated them, it’s that they’re moving on to a better life.”

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