Circle of Courage

With the support of Elders and teachers, Nala’atsi School gives Aboriginal students roots and wings.

Nala’atsi School

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The minute you set foot inside the doors of the you realize that you have entered into an extraordinary space.  This program for Grades 10-12 students, try operated by School District 71, ed doesn’t feel like an educational institution.  I am drawn inside by the sounds of laughter, salve the smell of coffee, and the visual stimulus of walls, tabletops and bookcases filled with expressive art.  No, it doesn’t feel like a school building… it feels like a home.

I am visiting Nala’atsi after hearing one of its teachers, Toresa Crawford, and two of her students, talk about the program at a Courtenay Rotary Club luncheon last fall.  At that presentation, Crawford explained that this unique school for Aboriginal youth was started in September 2000.  Its purpose was to address the fact that an increasing number of secondary school-aged Aboriginal students had either left school, were at risk of dropping out of school, or were on the waiting list to get into the only other alternate school option—City Centre—in the Comox Valley.

Crawford explained that research conducted by School District 71 in 1999, had shown that for a variety of reasons, the traditional school system wasn’t working for many Aboriginal youth.  When asked what they wanted in an education, the list of requests included a school that would focus on independent study and small group activities; a centralized location; an exclusively Aboriginal program; Aboriginal content and cultural opportunities; eligibility for a Dogwood Certificate; and more flexible schedules to accommodate work, parenting and other lifestyle considerations.

In response to the research and valuable feedback, School District 71, in consultation with Aboriginal groups in the Comox Valley, opened this alternate high school program.  The name ‘Nala’atsi’ was chosen by Elder Mary Everson.  Nala’atsi means ‘Place of the Day’ or ‘New Beginning’ in the Kwak’ wak’wala language.

Nala’asti’s first location was the basement of a house rented by the Wachiay Friendship Centre, a non-profit organization that provides cultural support services for Aboriginal people in the Comox Valley.  Ten students attended the school that first year.  It was considered a great achievement when two of the 10 students graduated and another two upgraded so that they could get into post-secondary school. The other six continued with their studies the following school year.

While the curriculum and teaching model was successful, the inaugural facility neither resembled, nor met, the physical standards of a school, so the program was relocated three times over the next few years.  The relationship with the Wachiay Friendship Centre, however, proved to be a success from the beginning and it continues to be an integral part of Nala’atsi to this day.

Nala’atsi is now located at the new Aboriginal Learning Centre, 665 – 16th Street, behind Courtenay Elementary School.  The 3,000-square-foot building has two large open-concept classrooms, private meeting rooms, a full kitchen with dining space, an exercise room filled with donated equipment, an Early Head Start area for young children, as well as offices for the district principal of Aboriginal Education and the Aboriginal curriculum support teachers, who develop and deliver programs on Aboriginal culture, history and traditions for students.

Nala’atsi students display some of the 30 masks they created. “By looking at the masks and reading the corresponding write-ups, you can ‘listen’ to the message each creator was trying to convey,” says teacher Toresa Crawford.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Students and parents alike rave about the safe and supportive environment that has been created at Nala’atsi; the flexible timetable and the one-on-one help available because of the low pupil-teacher ratio.  Students feel welcome in the building and they can concentrate on learning at their own pace, rather than having to deal with the stresses that often come about in a larger high school.

A major strength of the program is the multi-generational influence of the Elders who come to the school on a daily basis.  The Elders are an important connection to Aboriginal history and are positive role models for the students, as well as a source of encouragement and support. The Elders are the ‘roots’ that these youth need to feel proud of their culture.  Combined with the guidance of teachers and support staff,  the students gain confidence and the ‘wings’ to help them soar.

The day that I visit Nala’atsi, a group of Elders are gathered around a table hand-stitching buttons onto a traditional ceremonial robe called a ‘Button Blanket.’  The garment is worn during Potlatch celebrations. This particular red wool cape is being lovingly created as a fundraiser for a local family.  It features a generic tree of life design in black.  Other designs that you might see on these blankets are specific to particular families and are passed down for generations.  Today, the women are sewing regular white buttons onto the blanket; generations ago, their ancestors would have used bits of abalone shells.

As the women sew, they talk about how much they enjoy coming to Nala’atsi to be with the kids.  Multi-generational interaction is an important part of the Aboriginal culture and, the Elders explain, it benefits everyone.

“The young people recognize that we have valuable experiences to share with them,” says Jackie Finnie. “They confide in us… and if they need a lecture, they get a lecture.  They understand that our expressions of concern and worldly advice are evidence that someone cares about them.  In turn, we feel their love and appreciation.”

The other Elders—not all of whom are First Nations people—nod their heads in agreement.  They don’t let me leave until I, too, have sewed a button on the blanket.

While we are chatting (and sewing), staff and students bustle around us, preparing a hot lunch that is served family style in the large kitchen.  Staff, Elders, students and guests all sit down together to enjoy a hearty meal, lively conversations and lots of laughs.  If you happen to be in the school over the lunch hour, expect to be fed!

With a student body that encompasses a vast array of societal challenges—from racism, to personal or family addictions, to mental health and behavioral problems, to poverty, abuse and more—it is interesting to note that students who had experienced behavioral difficulties in their previous schools are blossoming in this more intimate, relaxed, multi-generational environment.  In the rare case where a problem occurs, a healing circle is effectively used as an alternative to administrative punishment.

In addition to working through the provincial high school curriculum, each student’s timetable is rounded out by having guest speakers come to the school, attending community field trips, physical fitness activities, mini-courses in First Aid, Food Safe and WCB Workplace Safety, as well as extensive work experience, resumé writing instruction and community service.  These valuable activities also contribute to the future employability of the students, building their confidence and self-esteem, and greatly increasing their chances of earning a high school diploma.

Crawford, who was the school’s first full-time teacher, explains with pride that over the past 10 years, more than 300 Aboriginal students have benefited from the nurturing environment at Nala’atsi.  This year there are two teachers, a youth and family worker, 24 students and a support network of well-respected Elders.

It is these 24 students who have, along with some of the Elders and community members, created a series of 30 masks that are laid out on a table in one of the main rooms.  At first, I am drawn to the masks because I am intrigued by the artistic expression and creativity that has obviously been poured into this unique group project.  Any art medium was permitted in their creation—from buttons or feathers to puzzle pieces, paint, glitter and more.  The masks are colorful, abstract and extraordinary.

Each mask is accompanied by a small write-up.  The manuscripts vary in literary style and length.  Some are short, but poignant.  Others are more rambling monologues.  All cast some light on the issues of the lives and times faced by the Nala’atsi youth and Elders.  Some are an obvious celebration of triumph; others depict an ongoing struggle and teenage angst.

“The mask project was funded with grants from Literacy NowBC and the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) Aboriginal Outreach Team,” explains Crawford.

“Literacy BC dictated that the project promote literacy, so the masks and their respective write-ups were a creative way of doing that.  Funding from MCFD required the project promote Aboriginal culture, through the connection and interactions of the students and community.  By looking at the masks and reading the corresponding write-ups, you can ‘listen’ to the message that each creator was trying to convey.”

A delightful young woman named Emily is painstakingly photographing each mask so the pictures can be made into a large poster and published, along with the write-ups, in a book.  This book and the accompanying poster will be a visual reminder for the students of their feelings and beliefs.  As she carefully adjusts the digital camera settings and continues to work on her task, Emily tells me that this is her first year at Nala’atsi.  She is in Grade 11 and, after only a few months, she has already noticed her grades have improved.  She loves the school because “there is no peer pressure, there is one-on-one help from the teachers and I have learned to set goals.”  While once at risk of become a dropout, Emily now dreams of going to college.

Next, I sit down to chat with Jeremy, Brandon, Michael, Jordan, Richard, Kieran and Patrick.  The boys explain that they felt lost and out of place in a mainstream school.  Bullying was an on-going problem. For their learning style, everything was too rushed, structured and intense—with so many different teachers and assignments they couldn’t keep up.  Nala’atsi, on the other hand, allows them to work at their own pace and help is provided whenever it is requested.  They all agree that having the Elders in the school makes it fun; they enjoy hearing their stories and appreciate the fact that the Elders take the time to listen, in turn, to them.  They also talk about goals for their future.

Goal setting, explains Youth and Family Support Worker, Karen Hlady, is a major part of Nala’atsi’s curriculum.  Each student is guided through the ‘Circle of Courage’ goal-setting program, which is based on a philosophy developed by Dr. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota professor well known for his teachings on reclaiming Aboriginal youth at risk.  The Circle of Courage is a medicine wheel made up of four quadrants: Belonging, Generosity, Mastery and Independence.  Brokenleg teaches that these capacities are inherent in each of us and all need to be relatively balanced for us to live balanced social lives.  It’s fairly obvious that any services directed toward children need to foster all four of these areas and in this capacity, Nala’atsi delivers.  Hlady works closely with the teachers to help the students establish written goals and to evaluate their progress over the school year.

“The Circle of Courage is an important teaching tool for us,” explains Hlady.  “Many of these kids have been conditioned to put themselves last.  By helping them set goals we give them hope. We help them realize that life is about finding a sense of balance and belonging, that societal acceptance must be earned, and that true independence only comes from having support.”

Math and science teacher, Mark Taylor, says that there is never a dull moment at Nala’atsi.  “From my first day at Nala’atsi I have felt the deep sense of community pride.  I feel privileged to work here and am truly inspired by these great kids.”

“Nala’atsi is not ‘just a school program’,” concludes Crawford, “our job is to empower every student who walks in the door.  Many of the youth who attend Nala’atsi have had to face tough challenges and it is our responsibility to provide them with a new beginning.”

“The Nala’atsi program provides a home away from home for not just our students but also to any visitor who enters our building,” adds Bruce Carlos, District 71 Principal, Aboriginal Education.

“The coffee is always on and there are usually goodies to be shared in the kitchen.  From our many visiting Elders to the fine gentleman who delivers our newspapers, each and everyone is welcome in our school community.  Our small team of Nala’atsi staff work so well together it feels like we are family, and this feeling is passed down to our students.  As Dr. Brokenleg believes, every child or youth needs to have at least one significant adult in their lives that provide support and guidance.  For our students, they are blessed to have the whole staff mentoring their personal and education goals.  Our students’ successes are our success.”

For more information on the Nala’atsi School program visit: