Fourth grade teacher Jerry-Lynn Durant flips a switch on the triangular device hanging around her neck. Suddenly, her voice booms out of a speaker hidden somewhere in the walls of the small classroom.

“Okay, everyone take your seats,” she commands in the authoritative but calm voice of a seasoned teacher. Her class obeys. They’re excited because a television crew has come to film their class. They’re on their best behaviour.

The television crew is TVO’s own, here to film Ron Kanutski, social worker, cultural teacher, cultural coordinator at Children’s Centre Thunder Bay and holder of the biggest heart northwest of Sault Ste. Marie. He’s here to teach this fourth grade class a little bit about his Aboriginal culture—a culture many of these children share.

Here, in the heart of a Thunder Bay neighbourhood plagued by poverty, Ogden Community School teaches about 200 students from kindergarten to grade six and almost half of the students are Aboriginal. Some have come from reserves hundreds of kilometres away because their parents wanted them to get a better education. Many of these kids live with foster parents or relatives or even kindhearted souls like Kanutski (who will take in as many kids as he can).

Poverty is a huge issue in the neighbourhood but through the hard work of community volunteers, parents, teachers and administrators, kids thrive at this school. “Between the hours of 8:30 and 3:30 this is a safe haven for kids,” says Scott Harris, a former Ogden principal sitting in for the current principal who is on leave.

Part of making it a safe haven includes a nutrition plan. There’s a breakfast program for kids who come to school hungry and kids can make a lunch for themselves thanks to local grocery stores and an outreach parents’ group kicking in the funding. A retired kindergarten teacher makes sure the kids have fresh milk every day by raising money through her local church.

Communication with parents is essential to learning and safety but it can be tricky when many of the families can’t afford a phone. Harris is quite used to pulling on his boots and coat and trudging down the street to check on an absent student. “If they don’t have a telephone how do you communicate with them? Well, you go to the door and talk to them,” he explains.

Durant wears a microphone in the classroom for reasons also unique to the neighbourhood.

About five years ago, Ogden’s EQAO scores were extremely low. To combat the problem, the school became part of a Turn-Around Schools project. This meant extra teacher training in areas like literacy and extra money for resources. It also meant giving the kids a hearing test.

They found that a whopping 55 percent of the children had significant hearing loss. At the time, the school was an open area school, which meant there were no walls between classrooms, so the school put in walls and set up FM systems in all the classrooms. “If you can’t hear you can’t learn,” says Harris.

Why is hearing an issue for Aboriginal kids? Lynnita Jo Guillet, an Aboriginal education resource teacher for the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, explains that doctors are not readily available on reserves. “You don’t run to the doctor when you’re on reserve and your child has an ear infection. So the predominance of ear infections and the resulting complications that occur are much, much higher. And there’s no eye doctor unless one flies in once in a while to check for eye glass need. So they arrive in town and they can’t see or they have hearing problems.”

Once the health and safety issues are covered, Ogden makes a significant effort toward improving the self-esteem of Aboriginal kids by helping them celebrate their culture. On top of the regular curriculum, the school brings in people like Kanutski to foster a sense of belonging in students far away from home and to revive a culture that had been stifled by decades of forced assimilation.

Powwows led by elders are held regularly and drum groups are often brought in. “When it comes time to dance, everyone is up there dancing—not just the Aboriginal kids. It’s one big happy family,” says Harris. “Things like that make a big difference and the kids feel great pride.”

Native art lines the walls and the library showcases murals painted by students. The school mascot is the Otter, which Kanutski explains represents play and work “because you have to have a balance.”

Kanutski volunteers his time because he believes it’s part of his job as a parent and as a member of the Aboriginal community. “If we don’t invest in our children, who’s gonna? We can’t wait for someone in a position of power to invest.”

So Kanutski takes time away from work to tell kids traditional teaching narratives, like the Seven Grandfathers, sing songs and teach Ojibwe words and phrases. “It’s about learning a skill,” he explains. “It’s about unity and togetherness.”

And with the work done by Ogden and people like Kanutski, the message of unity and togetherness is starting to pay off. EQAO scores are up, the kids are well-fed and, more importantly, kids are starting to feel better about who they are.

“I’m starting to see that some children have more self-esteem than in the past,” notes Kanutski. “Some that were timid and shy are more out there—not afraid to be who they are. I think what’s happening is we’re having acceptance in our schools."

Check out Aboriginal Education: Solutions for the Future to see what was filmed that day.