Teacher Amanda Woodward teaches Cree dancing to Grade 5 and 6 students.

November 5, 2012

Every program at St. Francis of Assisi School reverts to academics.

Whether the school implements an online math program, yoga classes or after-school basketball clinics, all are done with the intention of supporting the students academically.

If a student comes to school hungry, learning is more difficult. The reason the school initiated a culture program is because children who feel that they do not belong do not learn.

Many students' families are low-income, in some cases barely eking out a living. Because poverty affects learning outcomes, the school has a breakfast program, a recess snack program and a hot lunch program with donations from community organizations.

"Through donations we're able to provide a lot of extra things. It's incredible, the generosity of people here in Edmonton," said principal Katherine Dekker.

The openhandedness shown towards the kindergarten to Grade 6 school does not end there. Also donated regularly are boots, coats, clothing, books and stuffed animals. Every year the school receives a $1,500 donation from an anonymous individual.

About 400 boxes of cereal were donated in the past two weeks. St. Clare's Parish gives school supplies. As well, the school receives money and much-needed items from the Rotary Club, St. Dominic's CWL and the Grey Nuns Hospital.

Dekker said five years ago, in her first year as the school's principal, she mentioned on a local TV news program that many students were coming to school without socks. Immediately, people donated 5,000 pairs of socks.

"This is not a job, it's a vocation. For the staff at this school, it's all about patience, understanding and making a difference in the lives of children."

The school in northeast Edmonton, located at 6614-129 Ave., has 225 students, including 129 of aboriginal ancestry. The school offers an aboriginal program where students learn the Cree language, native dance and other cultural elements.

Sudanese students also comprise a good part of the population. Most of Edmonton's small Sudanese population is concentrated near St. Francis School. Also represented are students of Indian, Vietnamese and Polish descent.

Through Edmonton Catholic Schools' One World One Centre program, the school has brought in Buk Arop, a facilitator from Africa, to instruct students on Sudanese culture. Instead of just learning about their own cultures, everyone is learning each others' as well.

One approach embraced at the school is the Circle of Courage, which is based on the notion that there are four fundamental human needs across all age groups: belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. When these needs are met, learning becomes much easier.

"Quite often our children come from homes where perhaps things aren't as calm and settled as they would like them to be, so they tend to have a 'me-personality.' The generosity at school helps them view the 'you' in the world," explained Dekker.

Through the Circle of Courage concepts, Dekker found that students are more responsible, show respect for teachers, tend to keep the hallways clean and are more apt to help others.

Dekker praised assistant principal Gary Armstrong for being a good role model for aboriginal students. He has spent most of his career in high schools. This is his first year at St. Francis.

"Though it is a much smaller school, there are so many things happening. It's very cultural and active," said Armstrong.

By all accounts, the school staff work hard to maintain the Circle of Courage concepts and put new programs into action.

"It's not unusual for teachers to be here at 6 or 7 o'clock at night, and some show up on the weekends. It's not unusual for the principal to leave here at 9 or 10 o'clock at night," said Armstrong.

"Even though I've worked in large high schools, this is the most dynamic school I've ever been at."

Another component of the school is healthy eating. The Alberta Project Promoting active Living and Healthy Eating (APPLE Schools) is helping to define effective ways to create healthy communities.

Through the program, more than half the students are given cereal and milk in the morning. Every student has a healthy snack at recess.

The program, implemented in over 40 schools across Alberta, motivates change and transforms the school environment for improved learning and health.

"I think it's important that the children have something healthy to eat when they first get to school," said Dekker. For various reasons, many students arrive at school hungry in the morning.


Through the Edmonton City Centre Church Corp., students receive a free hot lunch. There is also an an active after-school program with basketball clinics, zumba and other activities.

Dekker said the staff wants parents to feel they too have a home in the school.

"The more that they come for different events, the more they get to see us face to face, the more comfortable they will be with their children's education and the more involved they will become in the school," she said.

In January, Dekker was recognized by the Learning Partnership, a public education advocacy group, as one of Canada's 40 outstanding principals of 2012.