Although students may be forced to nix recess during -30-temperatures for weeks at a time, school life at Yellowknife Catholic Schools is quite typical compared to other Catholic schools from across the country. Simon Taylor, Board Chair for Yellowknife Catholic Schools (YCS) provided CCSTA with an overview of how the city’s Catholic school system operates as well as its challenges and successes since it first came to life more than 60 years ago.
Here’s the Question and Answer conversation CCSTA had with Simon:
When did the Catholic school story begin in Yellowknife and how?
Sixty-two years ago, Yellowknife Catholic Schools became a reality thanks to Norman Bryne and Father Ebner. These two gentlemen laid the foundation for what was then called “The Roman Catholic Separate School”. They felt that a separate school system was needed in order to meet the needs of the growing Catholic population. They worked diligently, facing a justifiable scrutiny from the community and political and economic challenges. In the 1950’s, there were a number of religious denominations practicing their faith in Yellowknife, these included Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Church and Baptist; children of all these faiths attended Yellowknife ‘s Public School. And, while many people did think a new Roman Catholic school might add to the strength of the town and could meet another of its growing needs, others didn’t. As a result, the Catholic Separate School’s beginning was accompanied by some strenuous, but generally speaking, fair and dignified debate. No matter what the beginning, the Separate School has become an important part of the City of Yellowknife.
How are Catholic schools set up and administered in Yellowknife?
Yellowknife Catholic Schools is recognized under the Education Act as “Yellowknife Public Denominational District Education Authority”. We are the only Catholic schools in the NWT. We are overseen by a Board of Trustees consisting of 7 members. Unlike all other school districts outside of Yellowknife, our staff are not government employees. We have established our own contract but our funding and guidelines from instruction still fall under the direction of the government, with some leniency to allow us to adapt curriculum to include the Catholic perspective.
How does the funding work in for Yellowknife Catholic Schools?
The two main sources are Northwest Territory government funding because we’re a government-funded school system (80%) and the rest of it is made up in taxes from the city. There is an educational levy for schooling and it either goes to the Catholic system or public school, which means our schools are fully funded.
What are some of the ongoing challenges for Yellowknife Catholic Schools?
Catholic education is part of the public education system. Like anywhere else, there are questions as to whether it should be there or not, but it’s rooted in our history. There is no push to get rid of it, but we have to ensure the system has a good reputation and maintains its good public image.
Another challenge has to do with choice. Because there are two main public districts (francophone district) and two smaller aboriginal districts, there is the issue ensuring that all of the districts work together properly and try to keep everything in proper balance. Choice is a good thing when having the option of where to send your child. Each district is keen to retain their students, so we make constant attempts to improve our systems, which is ultimately a good thing.
Other challenges have to do with economics, temperatures and distance. We’re a northern school district, which means there are economic challenges for families and students that really creates difficulties amongst the students. We are trying to work with those issues and it takes a lot of effort and careful consideration that everyone is included as much as possible.
We can face temperature issues during the winter. So when it goes below -30, the kids don’t go outside for recess and instead stay indoors. We can go for stretches of two to three weeks of below -30. That creates a challenge for the staff and the students as they spend their entire day in the school.
Distance is also an issue. There are sporting events and musical competitions or student trips: but just to leave Yellowknife to travel to Edmonton, it’s nearing $1,000. In NWT, with sports, it’s a travelling issue because you have to fly and go to hotels. From an education perspective, it’s expensive.
How does Aboriginal culture and population play a role in your schools?
In the north, the Aboriginal population is the majority. Yellowknife is a city of high turnover of people (RCMP and armed forces families), so there is an opportunity of integration of southern students with Aboriginal communities.
It’s an exciting opportunity, as we are part of a living culture. It’s an Aboriginal territory and part of that process, so there is a lot of opportunity that creates cultural exchanges. We’re developing the kids as leaders for the NWT and the Aboriginal students understand they’re part of the bigger population.
How well do Catholic Schools integrate into the community?
YCS has a very strong connection with the community, the Parish and the Diocesan Centre. At the community level we are involved in many social justice projects which allows our students to give back to the community. We are also part of many volunteer activities. Several staff over the years have served as Board members of various non-profit organizations. We have a great reputation in the community for offering a strong education system. At the Parish and Diocesan level, we continue to work together to strengthen the partnership with the school, church and families. Each of our schools and the school district take on the role of providing all ministries for two masses each per year. Both Bishop Mark and Father Ben play a very important role in our schools. They have been invited to do Eucharistic celebrations in our schools, participate in school liturgies and celebrations, offer Reconciliation within our schools during Lent and provide spiritual leadership and guidance for administration when necessary. Our staff members are also involved in various fundraising activities to assist the Parish and Diocesan centre in its projects. Our church has a youth minister who works closely with our Religious Education Coordinator. These are just some examples of how we work together for the good for our students and our community.
YCS is part of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA). How does ACSTA provide support to you?
ACSTA is a great networking system for us. It allows our trustees the opportunity to participate in conventions that provide spiritual growth. ASCTA has also provided support in areas such as legal, communication, policy development, Board orientation and review, and Superintendent Evaluation. Being the only Catholic school system in the NWT, our membership with ASCTA is crucial in providing us with information regarding Catholic education best practices, protocol, issues and challenges.
To learn more about Yellowknife Catholic Schools, please visit its website.