Enjoying that new-school smell

Michael Johansen
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Hectic! That's what the brand new principal of the brand new K-12 school in Sheshatshiu called the first day of real classes.

He had good reason to use that word. In one day, even before all the students expected for the coming academic year had even registered, the school already had around 300 children on the books which must be pretty close to a record for this central Labrador community. Day 1 last Tuesday, that is was only the first for kids attending classes in kindergarten to Grade 6, but lots of older students had shown up early, many of them bringing their parents. They could have waited until Wednesday to register but, like their younger schoolmates, they couldn't wait to check out their new classrooms, teachers, labs and, of course, the new gymnasium which, with its springy pro-basketball-standard wooden floor, its remote-controlled curtain and folding bleachers, and its plethora of new sports equipment, is by far the most popular new feature of the school.

The principal (who didn't really seem to mind how hectic his day was, since just about everybody was smiling and happy) had other words to describe the school itself. We have a fantastic facility, he said. We have an awesome staff, so it's not an issue of trying to convince parents anymore. Kids are going to want to come on their own. Young students of all ages had words of their own for the school. Good, some said simply, although others were more expressive: Beautiful! said one girl, while another delighted on how the new building smelled. It's clean! It smells fresh. It's a fresh start today! Clearly, the facility is a hit with everybody: students, parents, teachers and support staff.

It's not just all the clean new space, fresh new faces and shiny new toys that makes the place so popular, or the fact that as a successor to the dilapidated, despised and sometimes dangerous Peenamin Mackenzie School, it really didn't have to make much of an effort to be vastly superior. What has helped the people of Sheshatshiu take the new facility so readily into their hearts is the widespread perception that it is, unlike the old one, truly an Innu school not school board, but because the building itself expresses facets of Innu culture. Seen from above, it takes the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings, and the pattern laid into the brick cladding out front was taken from one found on a museum piece, a historic Innu coat.

The high popularity of the school not just among those who are supposed to attend it, but perhaps more importantly by those who have the power to send their children to it or keep them home means that when all are counted, the new school will likely have more registered students than anyone knew actually lived in Sheshatshiu. Not only will the school benefit from the usual start-of-the-year attendance bubble, but those many dozens of Sheshatshiu parents who never considered letting their children go to Peenamin Mackenzie, but sent them away to classes in North West River or Happy Valley-Goose Bay instead, will now happily let them be schooled in their home community.

However, all good things, somebody once said, must come to an end, so maybe Sheshatshiu's honeymoon with its beautiful new school won't last forever. But the staff seem confident that even when the fresh newschool smell is gone, attendance won't dive to the abysmally low double digits often seen at the old school. The principal and all his staff seem intent even eager to make sure the new school remains a place the community loves and the students want to attend. If they succeed, Innu education in Labrador will never be the same. It can only be better.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Peenamin Mackenzie School

Geographic location: Sheshatshiu, Labrador, North West River Happy Valley Goose Bay

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