Kativik program helps troubled kids

Special education takes hold in Nunavik



Johnny Morgan bid farewell to Grade 7 last fall, anxious to avoid another year of failing grades and schoolyard taunts.

Today, the 14-year-old from Kangiqsualujjuaq goes to class regularly.

He’s even thought about becoming a professional chef.

“I like to cook things,” Johnny says, during a break from his work-skills class at Satuumavik School, where he and seven other students are planning tomorrow night’s restaurant menu.

In this hamlet of 600 people on the southern tip of Ungava Bay, the only restaurant meal you’ll find on Friday nights is the one Johnny and his classmates serve up.

Welcome to IPL Inc. headquarters: a rambling classroom furnished with two stoves, two refrigerators, computers, a blackboard, and one large work table, which doubles as a desk and a kitchen counter ­ depending on the day of the week.

Against a wall stands a row of small animal cages, home to birds, a hamster, turtles and a lizard.

It isn’t your ordinary classroom. Then again, these aren’t your ordinary students.

Respect, respect, respect

IPL stands for Individualized Paths to Learning, the alternative education program offered by the Kativik School Board to accomodate special-needs students alienated by traditional teaching methods.

This is the last resort for Nunavik’s least-motivated, poorest performing students ­ those who have fallen so hopelessly behind in their regular studies that they have all but abandoned interest in learning.

Unlike students following a conventional academic curriculum, IPL students focus on basic literacy skills, applied mathematics and what teacher Paul Gracia calls “life skills” – beginning with a healthy dose of self-esteem.

“I have one rule in my class,” Gracia says. “You must have respect ­ respect for yourself, respect for others and respect for the environment.

“They have to live up to that or they’re not allowed to be in my class.”

The Kativik School Board (KSB) operates IPL remedial-learning programs in nine schools in the Nunavik territory, each under the control of a local IPL teacher.

Though they vary in size and content from community to community, the program objectives remain the same: to give young Inuit a final chance to claim some small benefit from an education system that largely fails them.

More hands-on

“Most of the kids don’t have an academic inclination,” says Gracia, who came to Kangiqsualujjuaq last year after setting up an IPL program in Puvirnituq. “They need something more hands-on, something more practical.”

That’s the case with Johnny, who’s main ambition is to drive a water truck for the hamlet ­ an important job in any northern community, and one that requires a sense of responsibility.

Or 21-year-old Jeannie, who, after years of abuse at home, is trying to recover her self-confidence.

Under his supervision, Gracia’s kids spend less time staring at formulas and fidgeting at desks, and more time working out solutions to real-life problems.

The restaurant, open for business twice a month, is just one of IPL Inc.’s projects. The IPL program in Kangiqsualujjuaq has grown into a mini-business empire this past year, with students running a pet shop and a daily canteen, as well as a monthly school dance.

Gracia’s students devote 10 hours a week to IPL Inc.’s management, sharing responsibility for food-preparation, publicity and bookeeping.

In return, students receive a small monthly “paycheque,” in the form of a credit at the local store, tied to attendance, participation and attitude.

Two cycles

Math, English and computer classes, which take up another 10 hours a week, are all tailored to the needs of the program.

“It’s all very practical. If they’re not going to be able to use it, it’s not a part of IPL.”

Because Quebec’s ministry of education requires schools to prepare all students for a high-school leaving certificate, IPL students under 16 get the chance to return to the academic stream when they’re ready.

Pierre Vezina, pedagogical director of the special-education program with the Kativik School Board, admits few IPL students ever complete academic requirments of a high-school diploma.

“Most of the IPL students have been told, or they believe, they aren’t succesful at academics, but that’s not the only important point,” says Vezina. “It’s not the only way to succeed.

“A lot of these students are very smart, they have a lot of creativity, but for some reasons they have fallen behind academically.

The school board’s newest IPL program was set up this year in Kuujjuaraapik, where students are applying their interest in mechanics and construction to the whole community’s benefit.

They’ve erected new playground equipment and conducted extensive renovations to the school building. They even perform skidoo repairs.

Attendance up

“Kids who were never showing up for school were starting to show up after hours and even on weekends,” says Vezina. “They were actually enjoying what they were doing and learning a hell of a lot.”

Because many of the students enrolled in the program get little or no parental support, the IPL course includes regular discussions about nutrition and hygiene.

So far, Gracia’s been able to hold on to eight of the 11 students who enrolled in the program at the beginning of the academic year.

Of those who left, one was jailed, one left to have a baby, one dropped out, and another was expelled.

Gracia thinks more Inuit students would benefit from school if they weren’t forced to follow a southern curriculum.

“There’s a big push from Makivik and the Kativik Regional Government to have Inuit personnel, but most of the jobs require some form of specialized education. The problem is we’re not graduating enough students from high school,” Gracia says.

Indeed, at Satuumavik School this year, not a single student in the mainstream academic program is expected to qualify for a high-school diploma.

“I sometimes think we should have an IPL school and a class for gifted students,” Gracia says.

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