01/02/2014 12:28 EST | Updated 03/04/2014 05:59 EST

Aboriginal students find success at Ottawa alternative school

Coming from what she calls a “ceremony family”, 17-year-old Vanessa Snowboy says she didn’t have anyone to share her experiences with when she attended a mainstream Ottawa high school.

“My father does [traditional] ceremonies and when I talked to people about that, they would just give me weird looks. But since I came to this school, I finally had people to share my experiences with, and people I could talk in my own language with.”

Snowboy is now one of 35 students enrolled at Ottawa’s Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School, run out of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa. She speaks Cree freely with other classmates who are also originally from the eastern James Bay region of Quebec.

She’s also learned how to bead, sew, and make hand drums, all the while earning high school credits in hopes of graduating within the next two years.

Like many of the other First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students in the program, Snowboy was struggling at a conventional high school, when a guidance counsellor suggested she try this unique classroom setting.

“It offers culture. It also offers flexibility to the students,” says Celina Cada-Matasawagon, one of the school’s two teachers. She’s been involved since the school started at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in 2004.

“One of the big differences between our program and the regular high school is we have that flexibility to help the students meet the needs of where they're at," says Cada-Matasawagon. “Coming to a school like ours, where it's just a smaller setting, they can be more successful,” 

Teachers here believe an education model focused on Aboriginal culture is crucial. That kind of learning is lacking in the public school system. A report by the non-profit organization People For Education released last fall revealed that 51 percent of elementary schools and 41 per cent of secondary schools in Ontario offer no Aboriginal education opportunities, such as professional development for teachers or cultural support programs.

Funded by the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, the Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School has seen demand for its programming steadily increase.

It went from fewer than ten students in the beginning to an average enrolment of 35 in recent years. Just two years ago, ten students graduated – its largest graduating class yet.

Gabrielle Anwhatin will join that growing list of students who have successfully completed the program this year. The 19-year-old Cree is also from James Bay, but has spent most of her life in Kingston and Ottawa.

Anwhatin says she never connected in regular urban schools. “There, if I couldn't make the deadlines or something, they'd just fail me,” she says “But here, if I have a problem or something and things come up, they understand and they help me.

“I'm very glad that I came here. It's not like any other school. You feel like home and everybody is one big family.”

And how does Anwhatin feel about graduating this year? “I’m so excited. I can’t wait!”