Moricetown is located 32 kms west of Smithers, where the Bulkley River squeezes through a narrow “world famous” gorge, named the Moricetown Canyon. It is a traditional dip net fishing place for the Wet’suwet’en who have lived in the area for at least 5,000 years.
The community’s population is just over 600 people. Prior to ICounts forming, many teenage students from Moricetown were enrolled in the neighboring community of Smithers. A great number of these students were not doing well in the public school system and had lost interest in attending classes. Many could be seen walking around during school hours. These “phantoms.” had lost interest in school for various reasons. The students felt disconnected from their culture, lacked self confi dence and some experienced forms of discrimination. Most importantly, they did not have the basic foundation and because of this, they lost their desire to learn.
The ICount program was formed in 2012. Diane Mattson and Thomas Butz (both retired school district teachers,) Lorna Butz (local business owner), and Tom Doulis met to discuss the possibility of developing a high school program in Moricetown. With approval from the Kyah Wiget Education Society, iCount was born. Dale Cutler, a local Wet’suwet’en with several years of experience working with at risk youth, also joined the team. The chemistry was there from day one as each member brought a valuable skill set to the program. The team would be later dubbed LTD, for Lorna,Tom and Dale.
ICOUNT has become a unique, independent and personalized, project based learning program with the intent of addressing the needs of these students. The school places a high emphasis on academic goals, but blends the students emotional, physical, cultural and social growth with their studies.
After recruiting and promoting the Icount program 27 students enrolled in its first year. In the first three months the staff at Icount focused on connecting with the students through a number of outdoor activities, to make them feel comfortable in their new environment. A healthy breakfast and lunch were provided daily, to meet their nutritional needs. Every school day begins with the “huddle”, where each student rates how they feel, on a scale from 1 – 10. It’s an excellent indicator to the staff as to how to proceed during the day. With Thomas’ years of experience as a Science teacher, he excited the students to learn through a number of cool experiments. Students react well to explosions!
The Icount staff were motivating and connecting with their students and Icount was taking on a life of its own and becoming more like a family unit than a regular school. Students were showing up early and leaving late. At the end of the school day many of the students would not go home!
After the Christmas break school resumed and the students were ready to learn. IEP’s (Independent Education Plans) were developed for each individual student allowing them to work at their own pace and level. Students were fi nishing their assignments and filling their binders with completed work. Many of the students were discovering that they loved learning and that the extra support made their year very successful. A national video contest was offered through the AFN (Assembly of First Nations) to First Nations schools. The submitted videos would showcase the dynamics of the school and their innovation through education that would make them stand out across Canada. The winning school would get a visit from the National Chief of Canada, Shawn Atleo, and have their schools video shared on the internet. Icount produced an amazing video and won the contest. The timing of the win was perfect for Icount. They were planning a fundraising dinner in the local community to help pay for an ambitious year end trip. Chief Shawn Atleo would be the guest of honour at the fundraising dinner. Atleo praised the work done in the community and dubbed iCount “The best First Nations school in Canada.”
To finish off the year Icount embarked on a province wide 5000km journey that ended in Tofino, BC. The trip was an amazing way to finish the year and a great way to solidify the strong bonds. The fi rst year at Icount was a success. In the second year ICount built upon it’s strong connection with the students. A friendship was made between Shawn Atleo and his wife Nancy. Icount was recommended a spot, at the annual “We Day” event – Youth coming together to lead global positive change and to inspire each other to make the change happen. We Day brings some of the greatest social issues of today to the forefront, and—no matter the cause, no matter the issue— provides ways in which every young person can fi nd their place within the movement to create global change. More than a one-day event, We Day is connected to the year-long, We Act program, which offers educational resources and campaigns to help young people turn the day’s inspiration into sustained action. Chief Shawn Atleo was a speaker at the stadium sized event. During his speech about education he pointed up into the stands and recognized Icount. 22,000 youth applauded. This would come to be a day they would never forget.
The foundation laid in the first year allowed for Icount to become more academic in its second year. The students once again were enjoying school and finishing assignments. The year was finished off with a trip up the coast of Prince Rupert where the students witnessed grizzlies in the wild from the security of a tour boat.
It was important to keep a connection with the students, so Icount developed a summer employment program that allowed students to work in Moricetown on various community based projects.
By year three Icount had morphed from a program to get students interested in school to an academic destination. With the programs success Icount numbers doubled. Teachers and extra support staff were hired. Teachers Matt Anderson, Peter Rhebergen, Derek Willmott and Chritine Jang joined the team as did support staff, Elgin Cutler, Travis Hebert, Nicole Maul and Linda Stringfellow, all bringing unique and creative compliments to the program.
Year three also found a budding Business sector called “Icount Services” emerge on the scene. “Play” on the reservation, was lacking, so Lorna sot out a way to thread a number of business opportunities into the Icount curriculum and out into the community. An outdoor skating rink, a snowboard rail park (which brought youth from surrounding communities to enjoy), an incredible Outdoor Equipment training facility (an exclusive sales contract to sell to all First Nations communities across the country), and a destination attraction – the 50 foot Ice tower, would bring visitors and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the northwest! Students of Icount gained certification for belaying, business credits towards their grades and a small food service developed out of the school kitchen, which employed students and community members.
Icount is no longer a destination for at risk students. They are now an academic destination and their goal is to help ALL students that do not fit into the old education system within the public school. As of this article Icount has over 57 students enrolled and is continuing to evolve into a recognized project based- academic program, to students in the Beautiful Bulkley Valley.
To find out more about this program and the potential of implementing this program into your community, please connect through our websites, or call the school at (250)-847-6121. www.firstnationsfitness.ca or facebook.com/icounthighschool
By Lorna Butz & Dale Cutler
Photos by: Dale Cutler