The expansion of Chief Atahm School means much more than extra space for students.
It will mean more opportunities to learn the Secwepemc language, more opportunities to become grounded in Secwepemc culture and more capacity to create curriculum materials.
Following the recent groundbreaking for a new building to expand the existing immersion school near Chase, Rob Matthew, school principal and acting director of education for the Adams Lake Indian Band, said the new building will include students up to Grade 10, as well as a language centre. The language centre will house the people and technology working on curriculum development.
“We would like to have a nice professional facility to produce quality learning materials for our kids,” said Matthew, who for the past 25 years has created the school’s curriculum materials on language and culture.
Chief Atahm is a parent-driven school.
“The parents want to extend our program and the values in our program higher. That’s why they want to keep the kids a little longer, so they don’t lose the language, and they see value in the strong cultural identity,” Matthew said.
“That’s something that we ask our former students — what do they remember? They say the strength of knowing who you are. It helps them deal with life issues in high school and as adults.”
The school provides immersion from nursery to Grade 4, with a heavy emphasis continuing in middle school. It’s hoped a total of 95 students will attend in the fall.
Matthew said the cultural component is daily for all grades.
“We live and breathe it,” he said, noting elders have committed so many hours and years to help teach the students language and culture.
“They’re so inspiring. They say, ‘Don’t give up,’” Matthew said.
Despite the efforts to retain the Secwepemc language, it remains endangered. To combat the loss, the school has an affiliation with Simon Fraser University to teach adult immersion. Ten students have committed to becoming fluent and are working on their 15th course, which will go toward a proficiency certificate and diploma.
“If we can do it right, we will have a degree in our language which would ladder to a B. Ed [Bachelor of Education],” Matthew said, meaning students could become teachers of the language.
“It’s our own language and our own culture which is endangered, so we have to make time to teach it, enjoy it and pass it down… We believe we are defined by our language and our land,” he said.
The school expansion is expected to be complete in time for the new school year beginning in September.