New school brings boost to enrolment

Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School bucking the trend for Aboriginal enrolment levels

Chief Jonathan Kruger has a lunchtime chat with Sisuse Wilson who is in Junior Kindergarten at Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School on the Penticton Indian Reserve.

Chief Jonathan Kruger has a lunchtime chat with Sisuse Wilson who is in Junior Kindergarten at Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School on the Penticton Indian Reserve.

Though the students at Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School may not realize it, they and their school building are getting recognition across the country.

They’re probably more interested in things like getting their homework done, playing on the new playground equipment or working in the school’s cultural centre. Or maybe just enjoying the spectacular panoramic view from the school, situated high on a bluff overlooking the valley.

“The children probably feel like they are on top of the world. And they deserve to be,” said Penticton Indian Band Chief Jonathan Kruger.

At the same time as the kids are busy with their work and play, they are also seeing high enrolment levels at a time when schools in other areas of the country are reporting high rates of absenteeism among First Nations students.

Michele Woitzik, the school administrator, said they are also seeing solid community involvement from family members and others.

“That’s where we’ve seen a big increase in attendance,” she said. “There is a great sense of belonging.”

Kruger said it is probably a combination of factors that contribute to their success, including the world-class building the school is now housed in. Even before its doors were open, the Outma Sqilx’w school was earning acclaim, like making the top 20 shortlist for best designed schools in the world at the 2010 World Architecture News competition. And earlier this month, word came that the school had been given a Best of Canada award by Canadian Interiors magazine and will be featured in their November 2011 issue.

It’s a beautiful building and a great atmosphere to be in, according to Kruger.

“I’m sure that our children are pretty stoked to go to school and are proud to be in a good place,” he said. “You’ve got a beautiful huge gymnasium that they can play in; the playground equipment is state of the art; and there is the cultural room that promotes pride.”

Peter Hildebrand of Iredale Group Architecture wanted to ensure the school was contemporary and reflective of the Penticton Indian Band’s culture.

“The design brief required that the building grow from the landscape and so the colour palette and soft curvaceous forms mimic the textures of the nearby rolling hillsides,” he said. “The design culminates in a dramatic atrium, dedicated to teaching the Okanagan People’s language history and art.”

Kruger describes the atrium, the cultural heart of the school, as resembling a futuristic version of the traditional pit house. It is a focus for cultural elements of the classes.

“I believe that our cultural program and our curriculum was always outstanding. But it is definitely enhanced, I am sure, because of the cultural room,” said Kruger. “They are drying sage in there and Indian tea. They are really working with the tools they have in there.”

Up until last year, the Outma Sqilx’w school was housed in a series of portables, as the band worked on the dream of creating a real home for their school. After 20 years of work, that dream was realized this September, when the first classes of students entered the new building.

The goal of the design was to create a contemporary space that captivated students using current technologies as well as creating curiosity and pride in their culture. Outma incorporates many technologies for both learning and sustainability, including smart boards in the classrooms, video conferencing, WiFi, a low-energy geothermal system for heating and cooling and ample natural lighting to run the school without artificial means during the day.

“We wanted our community to have the best school for our children. It happened to be the best designed school in Canada, in the top 20 in the world,” said Kruger. “That’s really something to be very proud of. And especially being honoured a few days ago for our power-sense and energy efficiency.”

Education and promoting cultural values has been a priority for both chief and council in the past as well as today, but Kruger said that the real drive comes from the community. Though the band’s plans for economic development are proceeding, Kruger said that change is coming on a large scale, involving the whole community and balancing development with social and cultural values.

“We are definitely following the community’s direction and very proud to be part of that,” Kruger said.