Students Thrive at Kitsumkalum Adult Learning Centre

By: Amanda Costa

Colleen Austin and class of 2009
Colleen Austin and class of 2009

Heading west from the City of Terrace, British Columbia, the majestic Skeena River on the left, travelers will come across the small First Nations community of Kitsumkalum (pronounced Kits-um-kay-lum). Known as the People of the Robin, the Kitsumkalum peoples follow the time-honoured tradition of passing cultural traditions, property and status to their children through the mother's side of the family. There's no question women play a central role in Kitsumkalum society, linking each generation to the past.

For some women, like Charlotte Guno, Principal of the ‘Na aksa Gila Kyew Learning Centre and Education Coordinator for the Kitsumkalum First Nation, keeping her culture and her community connected is more than a personal priority — it's one of the main reasons she started the ‘Na aksa Gila Kyew Learning Centre (pronounced “Ena-axa-Gila-Geeo”), Kitsumkalum's adult education program.

On the surface, the Learning Centre is like any other adult education program, offering courses in English, Science and Math so that students can build a foundation for future study. What sets it apart is its emphasis on teaching in a culturally relevant way.

A Culturally Respectful Learning Environment

Here at the ‘Na aksa Gila Kyew Learning Centre, students study their local language, Sm'algyax, (pronounced “Sim-al-gee-ak”) and learn about traditional foods in a nutrition class. The Centre has even produced a video for an intercultural exchange with an indigenous group in Bolivia. These seemingly small shifts in approach have made a big difference to students here, who benefit from an education that is culturally respectful and relevant to their lives.

Head instructor Colleen Austin is the driving force behind many of the school's unique programs and teaching methods. With a background in Aboriginal education, Austin knows that students learn best when they feel supported. So she pays attention to the needs of each and every student. “All of our students have a bad story about high school,” explained Austin. “My job is to change the perception they have about their own education.” Working closely with a small group of students means Austin can go beyond the conventional role of a teacher. Whether that means lending an ear or hand-stitching a family's crest onto a graduation gown, Austin will go beyond the call of duty to help her students succeed.

Education Is Freedom

The Bolton Clan on Graduation Day
The Bolton Clan on Graduation Day

Guno and Austin see the potential in every student who walks through the Learning Centre's doors. Some, like Annie Bolton, were reluctant to return to school but have since become educational role models in the Kitsumkalum community. Bolton was a busy mother, wife and community volunteer without the time or energy to attend classes. But her dream of one day going to college and her drive to succeed won out. The Learning Centre provided a welcoming and supportive environment for Bolton and she thrived there, inspiring others to reconsider their education goals, including two of her children, Kevin and Jenniefer.

It took determination and dedication, but this spring the family members graduated together at a heart-warming ceremony witnessed by family and friends.

Guno beams as she talks about her students. Two 2009 graduates plan to attend university, while several others will go on to train at the local college or trade schools.

Ultimately, Guno's goal is to develop each student's lifelong learning potential. She teaches them to believe in themselves and stresses that making the commitment to complete high school is always worth it. “I always tell my students that education is freedom,” Guno said. “At the end of the day, education is the best way they can get the life that they deserve.”