The St. Mary’s Band celebrated what many told them was impossible on Thursday, August 23: the opening of a school in one year.
The nation gathered to celebrate the incredible feat last week, and cheering, tears and smiles were never in short supply.
Chief Cheryl Casimer wore one of those smiles as she congratulated the students and talked about the band’s achievements in education.
“They are going to be very pleased and excited to go into that school,” Casimer said.
It was not an easy process for the nation to get a school from the planning stages to ready-to-go in only one year, but Casimer said they refused to wait in line any longer to provide the students what they needed. Had the nation waited for government funding, Casimer said they would have been number 1,400 on a list of 2,000 First Nations waiting for a new school.
“We’ve done what other First Nations haven’t done,” she said.
The band took the lead and put up its own money to get the building done, and entered into several partnerships for funding. They looked to a modular building design and selected ATCO to construct and transport the sections of the building.
Project Manager Michelle Shortridge, who announced proudly that she is the big sister of an Aqamnik Elementary School student, was one of the driving forces behind the school happening as quickly as it did.
“We needed a new school system and we needed it fast,” she said. “It was definitely a long, difficult year.”
Casimer said other First Nations across the country have begun to look at what the St. Mary’s Band accomplished for their own projects. MP David Wilks, who appeared on behalf of the Honourable Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan, said the nation is being looked to as a leader in Ottawa.
“The St. Mary’s Band is highly regarded as one of the more progressive bands in all of Canada,” he said. His statement was greeted by excited cheers and applause from the crowd.
Casimer highlighted the education statistics for aboriginal students across Canada. She said Aboriginal students have a higher drop out rate than the national average and less graduates, but at the Aqamnik School, things are different.
“We were not going to be a part of those dismal statistics,” she said.
Last year, the Aqamnik School had a 95 per cent attendance rate across the student body.
“That was for everyone, not just one class,” Casimer said.
Principal Michael Derech jokingly said they hope for 100 per cent someday, but acknowledged that occasionally an illness can pull the kids away for a day or two.
“We were always able to bring quality education to our students,” he said, explaining that previously the school was scattered among portable classrooms and trailers. “It was never the structure that was bringing the kids to school.”
Derech talked about the incredible teachers that made the little school welcoming, and wondered how much better things will get with the new building.
“Now we can do the things that if we had the space we would have done,” he said. “We constantly struggled with a chronic lack of space.”
Casimer said there was no limit to what the students could accomplish now that they have the space to grow and learn.
“Can you imagine what they’re going to be able to realize in this beautiful facility?” she said.
There were plenty of Thank-Yous to go around during the ceremony, but praise for Shortridge flowed in from speaker after speaker.
“I have great respect for the St. Mary’s Project team,” said Boris Rassin, president of ATCO Sustainable Communities, adding that he couldn’t believe the band brought the project from construction to student ready in one year.
Members of the band pitched in to get the project manager her very own toolkit – a joke gift that Shortridge happily accepted and planned to use.
“She stepped up and showed the leadership qualities that are required to take on such a huge project,” Casimer said.
Work on the school building may appear done, but Casimer said they still need a gym facility – and again, the nation will not be sitting on any waiting list for funding.
“We’re not going to wait around.”