Katherine Dekker has always known that if she was going to do something, she was going to do it well. This work ethic was ingrained in her by her mother, who, widowed when Katherine was just one year old, worked hard raising four daughters while holding down odd jobs to support her family.
“She used to tell me all the time, just do something. If it’s right or even if it’s wrong, make the effort and do it,” says Dekker, whose mother remarried when Katherine was seven. “I think that’s why I’m adventurous, a risk-taker and why I think out of the box. It doesn’t have to be what everyone else is doing. It can be what I think will work well.”
That way of thinking has made Dekker an innovative educator. In February, she was recognized as one of Canada’s 40 outstanding principals of 2012 by the Learning Partnership, a Toronto-based public education advocacy group.
Dekker doesn’t have children of her own, but she has 240 elementary school children at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School in northeast Edmonton. It’s a unique school. Fifty-five per cent are First Nations or Metis. Forty per cent are from South Sudan, many from refugee families who barely speak English.
“English-as-a-second-language learners, and often our aboriginal students, are starting from a lower vocabulary base,” says the 53-year old-former kindergarten teacher. “So I’ve developed some programs that allow the academics to be the highlight of the school, like extra tutoring for struggling readers. Everything we do goes back to teaching these children to read and write and do arithmetic.”
When Dekker took over as principal four years ago, she started making changes right away. She understood that students can’t learn on an empty stomach, so she made sure that every student started his or her day in class with a bowl of cereal and milk. The program is sponsored by SIRENS, a not-for-profit organization that supports at-risk and aboriginal youth.
“We also ask other Edmonton Catholic schools to support us, so they’ll do a cereal drive maybe at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Lent,” says Dekker. “The first year I did this, I wasn’t very clear about how many schools should do it at one time and we ended up with a whole room filled with boxes of cereal. I’ve gotten much better now at asking for what I need and when I need it.”
Students also get a snack at recess and volunteers from the charitable organization E4C serve students a hot lunch. Families are asked to make a financial contribution each month, but all children are fed whether families pay or not.
Dekker has worked as well on changing the culture of the school. Students had been segregated into aboriginal or English programs. Dekker understood that, while children need to have their culture highlighted in order to feel they belong, the African students would benefit from knowing more about the aboriginal culture and the aboriginal students would benefit from knowing more about the African culture. So she started mixing the students in classes from Grades 4-6. She introduced the Cree National Anthem, so that students sing “O Canada” in Cree one day and in English the next. And all students are invited to participate in activities for the aboriginal program, like the round dance in January and the spring pow-wow.
“We want them to look past the colour of their skin,” says Dekker. “We want them to look at the people, so that it won't really matter whether they're Sudanese or Aboriginal or they're Chinese or they're Vietnamese, they're just children here at our school.”
Dekker also worked with parents to increase attendance and get students to school on time, ready to learn. She wanted a clean environment, so if anything is written on the walls, it’s cleaned up right away. She brought in a therapist to help deal with behavioural problems and coached teachers to model positive behaviour for the students, which includes being polite and never screaming. Dekker introduced the Apple Schools program through the University of Alberta, to teach nutrition and exercise, promoting healthy habits, attitudes and lifestyles.
Dekker also tries to give the children a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. She is an avid traveler, and in 2007, took a one-year sabbatical to visit 11 countries.
“We want to make sure students see what’s out there,” says Dekker, who organizes regular field trips for the students. “Obviously we can’t take them to India or to Italy, but we can take them across the city and talk about the things we’ve done and the places we’ve gone to. You can travel by plane or by book. Our teachers also bring that level of traveling into different stories in the literacy they do with their children.”
Dekker always says “we” when she talks about the school and what it’s doing for students. She is quick to give credit to her team.
“It’s impossible for me to do everything that needs to be done in this school to make it a great place,” she says. “However, it is the principal who allows great things to happen. So when you have a good leader with a great staff, you really have a good place for children to be. You need both.”
Her vision is simply making a difference for her students.
“I want them to know that in the future, there's going to be a place for them in the world. I want them to know that if they work hard, they can have success. In 20 years, that's when we're going to know the success of our program, because these children are going to remember that in elementary, we had teachers, support staff, secretaries, custodians, people who believed in them and cared enough to make sure they got the very best.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com