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Q & A with Moh Odeen
School principal named among best in Canada

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 14, 2008

FORT RESOLUTION - Moh Odeen, the principal of Fort Resolution's Deninu school, has received more recognition for the remarkable transformation of the school over the past five years.

On Jan. 8, he was named among the top 33 principals in Canada for 2008 by The Learning Partnership, a national group championing public education.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Moh Odeen, the principal of Deninu school in Fort Resolution, has been recognized as one of the best principals in Canada. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The latest recognition is in addition to the Excellence in Education Award that Odeen previously received from the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC).

Odeen, 59, has led an innovative effort to increase student achievement, improve behaviour and deal with many other issues since he arrived at Deninu school, along with his wife, Bernice, as vice-principal.

Last year, Deninu School produced a record six graduates, and five or six more are expected this year at the 124-student school.

News/North: What was your reaction when you heard of the latest award?

Moh Odeen: I was surprised.... I have not told anyone here at this time, other than my significant other. That's because we do what we do in schools. Since I came here, the way I look at things is that this school should be like any other school and our kids are entitled to the same quality of education like any kid in any part of Canada.

As such, the things that we try to do in the school are not exceptional. They should be what every school should be offering to every child in any system.

N/N: When you arrived as principal of Deninu School five and a half years ago, what was the school like back then?

M.O.: Obviously, a lot needed to be done in the school. We had a situation where there was high turnover of staff. Achievement levels of students were low. Behavioural problems were really acute and really common. Literacy levels were low. Students did not make any connection to teachers.

We got here and we figured we needed to do something different in terms of the way we approached changing the school.... Certainly, there are things that I tried that didn't work and a lot of things that we tried that did work. It worked because of a variety of reasons.

I think I have a great District Education Authority to work with. It is very, very supportive.

N/N: Did you know before you came to this school that it had such problems?

M.O.: We had accepted the position tentatively and my wife and I came up to visit the school the Easter before. We looked at the school and we decided we were going to honour our commitment to come and make a difference in the school.

N/N: You realized some of the problems during that Easter visit?

M.O.: Yes. We came in and we spent a day in the school. It was certainly eye-opening. We saw some of the issues and some of the problems. As educators, we decided it was the place for us to be.

N/N: Why did you decide to come to Fort Resolution?

M.O.: Where I was, I was there for 15 years. I was principal in Onion Lake, Sask. I thought that we had taken the school as far as it could go at that point. We were looking for a different challenge. We were getting close to retirement and I've always wanted to come up North and work.

N/N: When you decided to come up, did you think you could make a difference and improve the situation?

M.O.: Yes, I thought that I could make a difference. It wasn't conceit. It was more having worked in a First Nations community at a school that had problems.

We did a lot of innovative things in Onion Lake... So we came from that kind of tradition and we said the first thing that we needed to do was develop relationships, because if you develop relationships within the school with kids, you have half the battle won.... I don't think that we've done anything remarkable.

If you set high expectations, the kids are going to try to achieve those.

N/N: In practical terms, what did you do when you first got here?

M.O.: It evolved over time. I don't think that I came here and said, "OK, this is exactly what I have to do." I think the first thing we tried to do was create a learning atmosphere in the school, and for us to do that we had to deal with some behaviour issues.

Basically, what we did was we had a big meeting of parents. And parents said, "Hey, go ahead. Go ahead and change the school." They were frustrated that they were sending their kids to school and the kids were not learning, and the school was not an effective environment for that.

We got in touch with different agencies and we set up a community interagency and as a group we met and said, "OK, what are some fundamental issues we need to deal with,"

"We motivated kids within the school.... We developed incentive programs for kids. We did a lot of professional development for teachers.

N/N: What other things have you done here?

M.O.: One of the good things within our region is that we've got a lot of support from the South Slave main office. They supported our journey into literacy.

One of the issues when we came here was low achievement levels and low reading levels. Over the last five and a half years, we've spent over $200,000 in literacy resources for this school.

We've put a literacy program in the school that basically increases the literacy levels of kids in the school. We have kids who are reading about 300 books a year. We're meeting the Alberta standards with many of our kids, especially at the lower levels. At the higher level, it becomes more difficult because they've gone through those dysfunctional years and the research is saying that, if you don't catch readers early, then it becomes more and more difficult.

N/N: What's it like to walk into the school today as opposed to five and a half years ago?

M.O.: It's like night and day. There are two issues in the school. One is concerning the attendance levels, which is going to take some time. The other one used to be the way kids talk to each other and use inappropriate language. Not in an abusive way.

They use the F-word as part of their ordinary, everyday language. That used to be a big issue in our school. We've said basically that we will not tolerate that kind of language in our school and it's not an issue any more. We'd had one or two fights in about three years.

In five and a half years, we've had one drug possession in the school.... We've had teachers who taught in this school come back and look around and they said they can't believe it, because it used to be that the school was on inside recess.

N/N: You seem almost uncomfortable receiving awards. Why is that?

M.O.: I'm the principal of the school and certainly a lot of responsibility rests on me in the sense that I am the person that may be the public face of the school.

I think the things that we've achieved in this school and recognition I achieved is the result of the great DEA to work for and our head office SSDEC.... It is great support. Our community interagency, they've always supported us and they've always geared things around what's good for youth.

There's good support from parents. Over 95 per cent of the parents express support for the things we are doing in the school. And, great staff members.

In the second year of our time here, we hired teachers who wanted to make connections with kids and didn't see teaching as an 8:30 to 3:30 job. They ran the hockey program. They ran the extracurricular program. They did whatever they had to do. And the kids bought into what we were trying to do.