Painting the town

Work together, do something useful, improve your community. It works for these kids



Spattered with red, green and white paint, five students in blue coveralls methodically swish their brushes back and forth along the benches.

The temperature hovers above freezing. The teens chatter amongst themselves as the wind howls and passing vehicles blow dust into the air.

“I’m doing quality control,” jokes Nick Newbery, as he dabs here and there at the green paint already spread on the end of a bench.

Newbery teaches Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School’s Grade 9 alternative program, called the Terry Fox Program, which has been running since 1996.

“It gives a second chance to people who haven’t always been too impressed by school, or have struggled in some way,” he explains, as the students gather near the bleachers at Federal field for a break and a juice box.

“We chose the Fox name because [Terry] Fox had a handicap and he didn’t let it stop him,” Newbery says.

The class began as a remedial program to help keep kids in school. And it has worked. Two students have even gone on to graduate from the high school.
Although a few students usually drop out each year, the program enrolls 15 students. But on this windy morning, only five students have come out to paint the bleachers and benches at the baseball diamond.

Students in the program built most of the benches in town over the years (except for the bleachers built for the Arctic Winter Games), says Newbery. They’ve also done a lot of outdoor painting in the capital city, including some outside the elders’ centre.

It gives the students some basic carpentry and painting skills and helps them develop a work ethic.

“Show up for work, work together, do something useful, improve your community,” Newbery says.

The program has a four-pronged approach: remedial academics, community service, which includes regular visits to elders, life skills and land skills.

“Thank you Nick,” says one student as she deposits her drink box in a garbage bag tucked underneath a can of paint. “You’re welcome,” he says, and smiles before continuing.

“Many of these young people will drop out before they’re finished,” he says. “We try and get out as much as we can.”

If the class is studying history they will try to get to the museum, or to the area they are discussing. If they study banking they go to the bank and if they are studying law they take a trip to the court and chat with the judge.

Newbery raises about $28,000 a year for the program, with the majority of it going to pay for activities on the land.

During the first half of the school year the program focuses on indoor activities, such as snowmobile repair and first aid. During the second half, the focus moves outdoors to snow shelters, fishing and hunting.

There is also a three-day trip to Kimmirut where students visit the health centre, RCMP, go out on the land and compare life to that in Iqaluit.

Tuesday afternoons are spent with elders, so students can develop their Inuktitut, learn how to sew, embroider, work with wood and make brooches from caribou antler.

Newbery is retiring from teaching at the end of next year and the Terry Fox Program as it is will end too, but that’s not to say alternative programs won’t still be available.

There are two alternative classes at the high school and two others will be available next year at the junior high school level, an indication, Newbery says, that some students need more than what is being offered in the traditional education system.

“It’s the cross-cultural changeover kind of thing and we are seeing it striking our children,” Newbery says. “The idea is to try and give the students a chance to decide what they want to take from two cultures.”

It gives them a way to get a foothold in each world.

“We have to give more time and tools for people to succeed. They have to succeed or else we’re going to see a lot of people sitting around, displaced.”

The students resume their work and one teen asks if they are going to go for ice cream if they finish early.

Ice cream on such a chilly day?

“These kids are Inuit,” Newbery says, a grin spreading on his face. “They can do anything.”

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