The first thing one notices when walking into the K’alemi Dene School is its overall cleanliness and freshness in its naturally lit foyer and hallways.
It doesn’t look a day over one.
However, the school – designed by the former Pin/Taylor architecture firm – in fact turns 10 years old next month and will be holding a special day-long ceremony Sept. 27.
The day will mark the school’s opening in 2009 and will include a hide tanning demonstration by Dene Nahjo, speeches from community guests to mark the decade milestone, and a group photo that will replicate one that was taken on opening day.
“The school has definitely changed over the years, but the one thing that we have tried to maintain is the community feel and that is what it makes it so special,” said principal Meagan Wowk, who is heading into her third school year as leader, but who started out as a teacher in 1999.
“We’ve really come a long way in promoting community and language and we continue to evolve, but it is a place where there are the most interesting people you will ever meet. That is one of the main reasons I have stuck around.”
Heading into the 2019-20 season Wowk said there are tentatively about 110 students, which can fluctuate throughout the year, however this is up from the school’s opening in 2009 where registrations sat at around 80 students.
She said with the student population, the school is close to capacity and the goal is to ensure that all classrooms have a maximum of 20 students each to make sure there is maximum learning quality.
Wowk said she credits her staff of 17 – which includes teachers, educational assistants, a cook and language and culture instructors – with the success over the years in connecting to the community and Dene culture.
There remain long-term goals for the school, she added, which include eventually getting a gymnasium that can build on student athletics. There is currently a fenced soccer pitch and over the summer a private donor provided a new basketball court that students will get to take part in.
“So we’re always lobbying leadership for help and we are seeking support for help with student physical education,” Wowk said.
Dr. Angela James, a celebrated educator and former principal with the school between 1999 and 2011 enthusiastically tells stories about the building’s features and the people who have come and gone in it. She is now a director of Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat and remembers the day the school opened.
K’alemi is the Willideh word for rainbow and came from Ndilo’s first teacher Florence Erasmus, however James said it is believed to be in reference to the former Rainbow Valley group of coloured federal houses in Ndilo during the fifties and sixties.
She said she likes to think that the word also represents “the colours of children with different learning styles” however the opening day of the school reflected a strong symbolism, too, she said.
“When the school opened in 2009, there was rain big time,” she said. “There were two rainbows over the school along with about three eagles coming in. One of the kids said ‘Ms. James there are rainbows in the sky and eagles. Talk about blessings.’”
James said those blessings speak to the overall clean look of the school which is surely due to the upkeep of the it.
“The kids know that this is their school,” she said.