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DEGREES OF SUCCESS: Bess Ann McKay has helped reform South Slave education for four decades

Bess Ann McKay, right, has been helping to guide education in Fort Resolution and the South

Bess Ann McKay first got involved with Fort Resolution's District Education Authority when her daughter was three years old.

Now, her grandchildren and great grandchildren are in the school system.

“When I leave here, they might give me a plaque saying I've been here too long,” she says, laughing.

Over her four decades of occupying a seat on the DEA and periodically representing Fort Resolution on the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), including as chair, McKay has witnessed – and helped propel – many changes.

One of the most satisfying developments has been the growth in use of local Indigenous language. That was a treated as a “back burner” item many years ago, she says.

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“Students and staff (these days) learn to use eight key language phrases as a starting point to creating greater fluency,” McKay says, adding that more than 300 children's books and Indigenous language dictionaries have been published over the years. “We get so much feedback how our kids are getting so good at their language... Oh my goodness gosh, I have to say I'm so proud – so, so proud.”

Culture week in August, including a trip to nearby Mission Island, is another annual highlight that she speaks of glowingly.

Then there is literacy – another area where McKay and the SSDEC place great emphasis, which is paying off. The SSDEC's Leadership for Literacy initiative has boosted literacy and numeracy significantly – with 73 per cent of students performing at or above grade level in math and 67 per cent reaching the same milestone in reading as of 2019-20. That was an increase from less than 50 per cent.

“We've improved considerably. We achieved our goal, I might as well say. Kudos to our team of educators, administrators and technical specialists for ensuring that our students have equitable opportunities for success and learning,” says McKay.

She also offers praise for the Trades Awareness Program, which allows students to congregate in Fort Smith to be introduced to potential careers such as welding, carpentry, plumbing, cooking and graphic design.

“It's so positive and the students really enjoy it,” she says.

She's also pleased with the Northern Distance Learning Initiative, which broadens the range of high school programs via video conference.

Grade extensions, allowing local students to graduate high school, became a reality in 2000 in Fort Resolution.

“Kids get to stay in the community. When they leave to go to another community it's not a struggle but it's loneliness. Having Grade 12 has been such a relief,” she says.

More funds desired

If McKay could immediately change anything, it would be more money for Deninu School, which she refers to as a “beautiful” facility for a little over 100 students.

“I feel that we never get enough funding for what we want to do to educate our kids. It's always a challenge. We try to lobby the government for more flexibility,” she says. “But you make do... We'll keep on going with what we have.”

The sudden emergence of Covid-19 created significant impacts in 2020 with the school forced to close last spring. A quick shift to home-learning packages and online lessons ensued.

“I'm proud that the SSDEC and our DEAs in our schools how met the challenge quickly and helped to adapt,” she says.

One of the key leaders helping to craft and guide the pandemic changes in the South Slave is superintendent Dr. Curtis Brown, who has been on the job for more than 20 years. McKay recalls being a member of the committee that hired him in 1999.

“I'm always pushing for what I think is right at the divisional board level,” she says, adding that her board is always pleased to share knowledge and experience with other boards.

In her own childhood, school wasn't nearly as stimulating at Grandin College in Fort Smith.

“It was a little bit tougher than today... what we have today, we didn't have back in the day. We've come a long way,” she says, referring to technology, and Chromebook laptops in particular. But she fondly recalls on-the-land trips with her parents.

She continued pushing her own boundaries in her adulthood, making a foray into local politics and getting elected as Fort Resolution's first mayor after the community gained hamlet status.

In 2013, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, which is awarded to Canadians who make significant contributions and achievements.

Four years later, the Aboriginal Sport Circle recognized her with a Community Builder Award.

Her passion these days is dog mushing, travelling to nearby communities to promote the pastime.

But helping rewrite the blueprint for learning has remained an overarching and constant endeavour.

“It's just phenomenal... I just love doing what I do. Education is so important,” says McKay. “I got involved in the South Slave because it's important to me that we give our kids the best chance at life by pursuing a good education.”

About the Author: Derek Neary

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