After spending most of the school year in four different makeshift schoolhouses, students in Sambaa K’e, N.W.T., are expected to cap their studies by going back to their normal school location this week.
Charles Tetcho School, previously a one-room schoolhouse, has been extensively renovated to expand it to three rooms. It accommodates students from kindergarten to Grade 9.
It was expected to be ready last September, but the process was delayed, so the school’s 21 students started this academic year learning in a moosehide tent.
“They put spruce bows all over the floor of it, which is really lovely because it looks nice and it smells amazing,” principal Donna Fradley said on Friday, adding that the space was “cozy.”
Inside, students sat on seats made of chopped-up tree trunks. The tent was large enough to fit students, teachers and elders.
“It was fun because we got to make paddles, and we got to canoe with them,” said Madison Jumbo, a 13-year-old Grade 7 student.
The space also had a burner for making bannock and boiling water for tea.
“We are an Indigenous community. One of our mandates is Indigenizing education and bringing elders and knowledge keepers into our programming, so there were many things that were done with the students that were culture and language-related. So it was a good opportunity for that,” said Fradley.
As the weather became too cold to use the tent, the students were moved into a church — described as “a small log cabin” in the community — by about mid-October, Fradley said.
The school’s principal at the time would have to ignite the wood stove inside the church at 5 a.m. to ensure there was enough heat in time for classes.
About a month later, it got too cold in there, too, so it was time for another schoolhouse switcheroo. The students were moved into the last available trailer — two bedrooms in size — in the community, Fradley said.
By March, there were some safety issues with the trailer, including a leak in the roof, she said.
“It wasn’t quite the best environment for the students to stay in, and so we were moved over into the community gym, which is where we are right now,” Fradley said.
The gym is in a building attached to the school, “so it was like getting us one step closer to the school,” she said.
Other challenges included trying to access school resources that had already been packed up, teaching two different classes in one room, and dealing with no toilets and no internet access in the tent and the church.
“We had to take kids out to the band office or to another building sometimes when they had to use the washroom,” Fradley said.
The students took the year of the travelling schoolhouse in stride, she said.
“It wasn’t anything that out of the ordinary, actually, to them,” Fradley said. “People go with the flow, so it’s always just laid back and fun.”
She said there were unforeseen delays in the school renovation project, and one of the biggest challenges was getting materials into Sambaa K’e.
The community, formerly known as Trout Lake, had a population of 89 in 2018, according to the territorial Bureau of Statistics. It is a fly-in community, except in the winter when it’s reachable via winter road.
The moosehide tent bookended the school year, in a way. Elders took the students back to the tent on Friday to, among other activities, make birch bark baskets.
Meanwhile, volunteers in the community helped move things back into the renovated school, which will soon be home to more and more books.
“This community is amazing in terms of people helping out,” Fradley said, adding that the goal is to have the students and staff back in the school on Monday.
The renovations are “beautiful” and the students are extremely excited, she said.
“They have lockers in this new school. That’s a huge deal for a student who’s never had a locker before.”