New Coquitlam school keeps kids connected

A group of high school students who used to spend more time out of the classroom than in say a welcoming environment and a learn at your pace style of teaching that incorporates Aboriginal culture is keeping them on track to graduate.

The students in Grade 6 to 12 attending School District 43’s new Suwa’lkh School in the former Millside elementary in Coquitlam said they look forward to a day of learning where they used to avoid it.

JJ Jay, whose heritage is Metis, had sketchy attendance at Gleneagle secondary where he still plays rugby. The structure of his old school didn’t suit him, nor did the rules, and the feeling that he could never measure up.

“I didn’t like it,” Jay says of his old school where he sometimes felt labeled as That Kid. At Suwa’lkh, Jay said he feels valued, a sentiment shared by many of his peers who said they sometimes felt lost at the bigger schools but feel like part of a family at the smaller school.

There are only 45 students attending school at Suwa’lkh, although principal Laurie Ebenal hopes to enroll up to 100 in the coming years. She said Suwa’lkh has made great strides in attracting students from other schools because it offers a full-range of academics as well as electives such as PE, music and art.

“It’s a school of choice,” Ebenal explained. “They make the choice to come. I don’t take a kid until they choose to come.”

The difference between Suwa’lkh and a typical high school or middle school is noticeable as soon as you walk in to the second-floor classrooms. You can smell lasagna cooking — the students plan, shop and cook for the school — there are cedar boughs in the band room, native art on the wall and large dream catchers hanging from the ceiling.

Suwa'lkh School girl with feather

Downstairs First Nations carver Rick Harry is showing a group of students how to measure up a yellow cedar log to carve a totem pole and, in a counselling office, an abalone shell filled with the ashes of sweetgrass, cedar, sage and tobacco sits on a table next to a feather. It’s used by teachers when students ask for a “smudging” to “cleanse” themselves according to native teaching.

It’s this potent mix of Aboriginal culture that intrigues students and keeps them coming back. Faith Adams, whose heritage is Sto:lo, does animal card readings both as a way to get in touch with her spiritual side and to get marks for English.

“It’s part of my culture,” she said. “I believe you can look at an animal and take a story away from it.”

Ebenal said the school is a prime example of the province’s personalized learning mandate in the BC Education Plan. Students do project-based learning in their areas of interest, and the school strives to meet their individual needs and goals.

For Emily West, the school is both a safe haven and a safety net. She was in danger of not graduating after missing so many classes. Now after a year and a half at Suwa’lkh, she’s one of the leaders, who has finally found her footing. She has learned to play the guitar and do pottery, helps plan, shop and cook hot lunches for students and is doing well in her academics.

“They were like me,” she said of the other students. “They were ready to do right and focus on themselves.”

It’s rare for Suwa’lkh to lose a student and the school is helping SD43 achieve a 90% graduation rate, one of the highest for aboriginal students in the province. And the name fits well — Suwa’lkh means First Beginning and for many students it is.

• Support from donors is welcome to help pay for food, supplies and equipment, which are in short supply. To be a community partner with Suwa’lkh, contact Laurie Ebenal at


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