CANMORE – Exshaw School gymnasium had a melancholy air to it last Tuesday (Nov. 26), as Stoney Nakoda families grappled with the possibility the school may have to close after a federal funding formula change has left Canadian Rockies Public Schools $1.6 million short.
Despite heaps of snow and bad road conditions, the gymnasium filled up with parents, teachers and other staff from across the division to discuss the effect the school has had on many children – 99 per cent of which are from Stoney Nakoda, a reserve east of the MD of Bighorn consisting of three bands, Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley, where the Morley townsite is located.
“The reason why I want my daughter to go to school here is because it’s smaller, it’s close to home and I went here when I was little and I really liked it. I want her to have the same experience and she does like it – a lot,” said Mika Snow, who has a daughter enrolled in Grade 4 at Exshaw School.
“I want my child to get the same education as everyone else in the country, the same opportunities and be able to excel, so I don’t agree with this whole thing. I hope that this works out, that we can figure out a plan, come up with something to have the school remain open. I don’t want her to not be able to come to school here next year.
"I think the question is what are we going to do now?”
According to Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) administration, it received an email from the Department of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) in August indicating it was terminating a long-standing tuition agreement dating back to 1973, resulting in a $1.6 million funding shortfall effective for the next school year.
The school board has been attempting to find a solution with the federal government, though the process is a slow one and the board will have to make a decision soon. Currently, its options are to close the school entirely, or reopen as a kindergarten to Grade 3 school, which would mean Exshaw School would no longer be able to take in students from Stoney Nakoda, or keep the school open should ISC come through with adequate funding amounts.
The meeting was meant as an opportunity for parents who send their children to the school to speak freely and openly about what it means for them. Some asked why the funding cuts would have such an impact on the school.
Board members explained 59 per cent of the 197 students at Exshaw School are in tier 3 or tier 4 for literacy, with a similar percentage for math, which means they are below provincial standards. The school also has 22 students with identified special needs. As a result, additional learning supports are provided at the school through the funding that has been historically provided.
The funding shortfall will mean CRPS is unable to provide some, if not all, of these supports, which parents say they’ve seen the benefits of in their own children, grandchildren, or themselves.
“I had my grandson here from Grade 1 to Grade 8, so I understand what kind of support this school can give to our children,” said Margaret Rider, who said her grandson is well on his way to graduating at Canmore Collegiate High School thanks to the supports he received at Exshaw School.
“We’d like the school to stay open … Our children have a right to be here. Are we still not in Canada where we can make a free choice? I know that the support that the staff [give] and the supports that are in place here, it’s very rare across Canada. I’ve seen the success in my grandson. I know where he started and where he’s going now.
"He’s doing well but he had a lot of support here … thank you to all of you, and I hope we get a positive answer.”
CRPS Superintendent Chris MacPhee echoed those sentiments, indicating the board has seen success within its programs at Exshaw School.
"The school in Exshaw has a variety of resources dedicated to supporting the needs of all learners in the school in order for them to have fair access to the curriculum. There seems to be some misunderstanding and inaccuracies surrounding funding information given to community members by sources outside of CRPS for example, but not limited to, the ratio of teachers to students,” said MacPhee.
“Many parents have expressed an overwhelming desire to have the school remain open and many written comments speak directly to the types of supports that children are receiving and the positive impacts on student learning. The success we are having with our Indigenous students is directly correlated with the aforementioned supports, which are made possible as a result of the current funding levels. We believe that the Federal Government's proposed funding levels, which were shared with CRPS in September, are not aligned with the intent of Truth and Reconciliation."
Exshaw School has a long history of welcoming students from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation dating back to 1961, according to the book Exshaw: Heart of the Valley written by Rob Alexander and Dene Cooper, when the Exshaw School district and the Department of Indian Affairs, now ISC, signed an agreement allowing 10 Indigenous students to attend.
“Under that first agreement, a maximum of 13 Morley students could be registered,” page 181 of the book reads.
“The Department of Indian Affairs tuition rate for each student was set at $15 per pupil per month plus $2 per pupil per month for lunch-time supervision.”
By 1972, 104 of the 252 students were from Stoney Nakoda First Nation. In 2019, there are only two students who attend Exshaw School who are not from Stoney Nakoda. Many of those students go on to CRPS high schools to graduate.
For Naomi Goodstoney, who has a son in Grade 3 at Exshaw School, the situation is an overwhelming one.
“I’m very concerned about my child’s education and his future, I would imagine how would the children feel because every child has a voice and it should be heard,” said Goodstoney.
“It’s their education, their future, this is their second home away from home and the bond and the friendships that they build with classmates is like a brother and sisterhood. I want my child to experience that because I experienced that myself here.”