It’s taken Kim Tuccaro more than 20 years to finish her high school degree, but late last month she graduated from the Fort Chipewyan Community School with her daughter, Summer.
The pair were among 41 graduates given their diplomas at a ceremony outside Keyano College’s Fort Chipewyan campus. “It’s an awesome experience,” said Kim, 40, of the opportunity to graduate with her 19-year-old daughter.
“As a teenager I dropped out of school. I didn’t think I needed an education. When the community high school opened, I thought, ‘Here’s my chance,’ because you need education.”
Fort Chipewyan’s community leaders have declared the school a success since it opened in February 2020. There were 256 students enrolled between Grades 9 and 12 for the 2020-21 academic year. Students have earned more than 3,000 credits.
The school is run as a partnership between the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association and the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations.
The enthusiasm comes after years of local frustration with Fort Chipewyan’s K-12 school run by the Northland School Division.
The Athabasca Delta Community School (ADCS) did not produce any graduates in the 2018-19 or 2019-20 academic years. The Northland School Division did not confirm how many students graduated from ADCS at the end of the 2020-21 year.
The school also has frequent staff turnover, with a dozen teachers quitting by the end of 2019. Many families in Fort Chipewyan instead choose to send their children to family in Fort McMurray so they can attend public or Catholic schools.
A 2019 municipal report surveying Indigenous attitudes toward reconciliation showed First Nation and Métis leaders in Fort Chipewyan, Conklin, and Janvier agreed the quality of education offered by the Northland School Division in their communities was unacceptable.
“Sometimes things have to come to a situation where everything is going wrong and you have to stop and take a look at it,” said Chief Peter Powder of the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN).
“That obviously led to us taking things into our own hands when Northland wasn’t delivering.”
Kerri Ceretzke, MCFN’s education director and principal of the community school, believed 30 to 40 students would enrol during the school’s first year. She didn’t imagine enrolment would be in the hundreds.
“It makes me quite emotional because it was declared an education crisis,” said Ceretzke. “The community is just so proud. It’s changed how people are approaching education.”
The school runs in-person classes from 11am to 4:30pm. Scheduling conflicts and Fort Chipewyan’s limited internet means assignments are done on paper. A shortage of space means the school has to be resourceful for gym class or hands-on programs like career and technology studies.
“We have one classroom that we use as a physical education room,” said Ceretzke. “When the municipality opens the local swimming pool we will be using that as well or we go out biking.”
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the Indigenous partnership that opened the school is considering buying the building from Keyano. The 2019 municipal report on reconciliation found Fort Chipewyan’s leaders felt the campus was underused.
“If there is a feasibility study that makes it viable, then we will do it, if not we will move on,” said Adam. “We’ll create a new school regardless. We’re not changing.”
Kim and Summer say the school’s flexible schedule helped them. Kim left school more than 20 years ago to focus on being a mother. She only had three courses remaining. Summer left high school after she fell into a depression following the death of a friend.
Kim’s schedule overlapped with Summer and Keira, her 17-year-old daughter. Keira is graduating next spring. The trio found themselves at times studying together at the kitchen table, which Kim said was challenging.
“We bumped heads a few times, but it was good,” said Kim. “I was getting frustrated, but they would say ‘Mom, you can do it. You can finish. We’ll do it together.’ And we did.”
Laura Beamish and Vincent McDermott contributed reporting.