One of the biggest lessons that students lucky enough to attend Kaw Tay Whee school in Dettah may learn is that the educational experience is not confined within its walls.
“The students are connected to everything,” principal Lea Lamoureux said of her Junior Kindergarten to Grade 7 students at one point during a tour through the school.
“I am biased, but I think we really do have incredible programming. We believe in supporting the whole child.”
Most famously in recent years, the ‘whole-child’ approach had lent itself to students entering three short films in the Dead North Festival over the past three years featuring a horror-puppet named Frostbite. The films and the central character have become so iconic that students have begun an online store with sweatshirts and other Frostbite merchandise.
But looking closer, there is quite a bit of activity in the small, 487 square-metre school that helps to ensure students are compelled to attend, have a rich hands-on education, are physically active in the outdoors and are connected with their culture and traditional Willideh language.
Kaw Tay Whee, named after the respected elderman and Chief of the Yellowknives Dene Band of the 1820s, is recognized by the Dene for creating a peace alliance between the Tlicho and Akaitcho peoples in 1823, according to historian Fred Sangris. The actual name means “forming ice in the fall on the shoreline and freezing,” he said.
Kaw Tay Whee is the smallest of schools between Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah with typically 30 to 40 students total in all grades. The school also offers some spaces for alternative high school study which pushes that number a bit higher every year.
Principal Lamoureux is entering her 12th year as leader of the school where she has long decided to settle for work after serving other locations in the NWT including Fort Simpson and Fort Good Hope.
“It’s Dettah where I grew up,” she said laughing during a tour this week.
The school is unlike its “sister school” K’alemi Dene School in Ndilo as it is older – built in 1988 -and smaller with three classrooms, a kitchenette, a resource area, and administration and support spaces.
With such a small building and student population, every bit of the floor space at Kaw Tay Whee is used with unique and different stories everywhere.
“We are pretty creative with how we use space,” Lamoureux said, pointing to a large storage room that has transitioned into a heavily used library that has built up over time. “You have to be when you have several grades in a classroom.
“It is a small school for sure, but what that means is we have multi-age group classes, meaning several grades in one classroom. That has a lot of nice benefits to that in that it allows for nurturing relationships and developing a sense of safety and that kind of thing.”
Lamoureux is quick to owe these bonds to her team of three full time classroom teachers, an Indigenous language teacher, and a program support teacher, as well as her own teaching help, too.
The Willideh language is labelled almost everywhere in the building. In the small kitchenette, for example, where hot breakfasts and lunches are provided daily, cups, utensils and other kitchenware are organized in cupboards exclusively marked in the language. A Willideh Birch Tree, in the school’s foyer – symbolic of the Dene culture and the school’s practice of birch tapping- is given a leaf with a student’s name on it when the language is used by the youngsters outside of the classroom.
“We have a lot of Willideh around the building because we are really trying to recognize the language in writing and not just in speaking,” she explained.
Another big component of the school is a Maker Space room which Lamoureux’s husband Neil Penney oversees. The large room comes across as an eclectic and wonderful workshop with Traxxus remote control cars, a Lego lab, movie sets in the process of being constructed, a year-round garden, fish, frogs, and crickets and musical instruments.
“It totally takes up a lot of space because we do almost everything here,” Lamoureux said.
Penney added the room’s activities are largely dependent on the students and what they want out of learning, noting that he bought Glen Abernethy’s drum kit recently after much insistence from students that they wanted to learn the instrument.
“Certain kids were really into growing tomatoes last year, for example,” Penney said. “We grew them here in March and then by the time we got them to the greenhouse, we had tomatoes. So it is basically interest driven. ”
Penney said he is aiming to get keenly interested students in model building or other activities to aim toward acquiring high school credits, which they have done.
Both Penney and Lamoureux have said that their focus is emotionally rewarding. Last year, they saw four of their students graduate high school – one at Sir John Franklin and three at St. Patrick’s High School.
One is even planning on going to Lethbridge College, she said.
“It’s phenomenal,” Lamoureux said with a sigh when asked what it meant to her. “It’s pretty much the biggest deal of life. It’s just so special that it happened.”