Not so traditional school in Alberni

Haahuupayak is one of several non-traditional schools offering education in Port Alberni. First in a multi-part story.

Students at Haahuupayak School gather in their school’s foyer every morning to sing

This is the first of a series on non-traditional school choices in the Alberni Valley.

Port Alberni parents have little choice when it comes secondary school education for their children but there are choices when it comes to the primary and intermediate grades. Besides public schools, which most kids attend, there are two religious-based private schools, both charging tuition; a First Nations school which is free and open to non-aboriginals and there is the publicly funded Francophone school, which is somewhat exclusive due to the language requirement for its students.

This feature is not an endorsement of private or public schools, but is meant to provide insight on what these different schools offer. What may be best for one child may not necessarily be the best for another. In the end, the majority of these kids will all meet as teenagers at the publicly funded Alberni District Secondary School.

Haahuupayak School

The pulsating drumming is a morning signal to students and staff that another school day is about to start at Haahuupayak School. It’s a morning ritual that sees everyone gather in the foyer and with a student leading, they engage in a song and dance, before dispersing.

Haahuupa means continuous teaching with care, which is exactly what Haahuupayak provides to its students, says principal Gio Mussato. From providing a sandwich to a student who arrives at school hungry to understanding and providing empathy to students from difficult backgrounds.

Haahuupayak is an independent school focused on teaching the Nuu-chah-nulth culture and language. It is located just off the Somass River Bridge on Tseshaht First Nation territory.

Although it is a First Nations run independent school, the school is open to all and does not charge tuition.

“We run a school like you would run a regular public school,” Mussato said. “It’s a culture based education we offer.”

Haahuupayak students attend a Nuu-chah-nulth study class every day, which teaches students about the culture, language and tradition, with the use of storytelling, singing, dancing and arts and crafts.

“We have 22 masks and skins that the kids are allowed to use,” said Nuu-chah-nulth teacher Trevor Little, explaining students are also taught about how important salmon and animals are to First Nation communities. “We have a cedar unit where we pick cedar off the trees and make gifts.”

Haahuupayak was founded in 1976 as there was concern within the First Nation community that their children were not succeeding in the regular public school system. The school moved into its current architecturally stunning building, built to resemble an eagle with its wings spread, in 1998.

The school has welcomed non-First Nation students in the past and with the First Nation community taking on an increasing role in economic development in the area, Mussato said learning the Nuu-chah-nulth language and culture could be advantageous for a non-First Nation child.

Classroom sizes are capped at 20 students and due to the school’s small size, everyone knows each other.

“We did a survey and parents really like the cultural education we provide,” Mussato said. “The kids also really enjoy the school.”

Haahuupayak school is fully funded by the provincial government, unlike most independent schools which receive half. Students living on reserve, however, are funded by Tseshaht First Nation through funds disbursed from the federal government to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

The school has 90 students from Kindergarten to Grade 6, offers a full-day Kindergarten program and has a separate infant-toddler program and preschool. The school also provides a free bus service to any student who does not live on the reserve.

Next: Faith-based learning in the Alberni Valley.