Not all of the almost completed Quesnel Junior Secondary structure is a school, but all of the building is for learning.
In addition to being the site for most Grade 8 and 9 students in the Quesnel area, it will also have Sus Yaz, the Dakelh words for Bear Cub, under the same roof. It will be a full-service, purpose-built childcare facility for small children.
“The preschool is licensed for 20, after-school care also for 20, and the toddler program 12 at any one time,” said Donna Legere, the veteran Quesnel early childhood educator who will manage the new location’s three program streams. “Being in the industry for 32 years, I can tell you this is an amazing facility.”
So amazing it halted her intentions to retire. Sus Yaz is a venture of the Lhtako Dene Nation (LDN) in partnership with School District 28 (SD28).
“The school district came to Lhtako and offered us this wonderful opportunity,” said LDN councillor Ray Aldred. He said that the nation was already involved in a family centre that was absorbing all their internal human resources capacity, but they did not want to pass up such a rare offer, so they reached out to Legere to help launch the new and unique facility.
“Donna is a very well respected childcare provider in the community. She’s trying to retire, but we approached her,” Aldred said.
Legere responded, “it was an amazing opportunity and I was very humbled when they offered me the position and I’m looking forward to this brand new adventure,” enough to stave off retirement a little longer. “It’s going to be an amazing facility for the children and the families in the community.”
It is already proving popular. It isn’t set to open until Sept. 7, but registration is partially underway. The after-school program was filled in three days. Wait-lists are now being developed.
When new schools are built in B.C., there is now an option to add in a Neighbourhood Learning Centre (NLC). Such an addition is not required, but the option can be explored, depending on the circumstances of the build. SD28 superintendent Dan Lowndes said the need for childcare programs in Quesnel was so great, and the Lhtako had been such good partners on other education initiatives in recent years, that building in an NLC was “a collective idea” that came up for Quesnel Junior Secondary (QJS), and “when we had the opportunity to have a provider here, it was a no-brainer to reach out to Lhtako first.”
The Ministry of Education & Childcare provided the capital funding of that portion of the new building, so the cost of the extra space wouldn’t have to be at the expense of local school district budgets or some element of the school’s new structure.
There is a physical separation between Sus Yaz and the rest of the school, but those walls involve a lot of glass and doors so convenient access is available. The small kids will be able to access amenities like the school gym, for example, and “opportunities for connection between Grade 8 and 9 students with the littles from Sus Yaz, which will be awesome,” Lowndes said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to picture where early learning can go, where language development can go, for kids and families to develop a sense of belonging on the school site, at the same time supporting the community at large,” which is in demonstrable need of childcare spaces.
Aldred agreed that “one thing we need in Quesnel is more preschool and more childcare spaces in general.”
LDN councillor Tim Michell said the successful addition of the childcare spaces “shows the relationship we have between the nation and the school district.” Michell added this isn’t the first time the two governance bodies have worked together, even in the same building. He pointed out the smudge room built into the QJS structure as further evidence of SD28s understanding of and commitment to local Indigenous traditions as helpful things for modern learning. In fact there are many elements of the new QJS that embrace Indigenous influences.
There’s no telling what kind of strong bears these young people can grow into, when they get a healthy start in their Sus Yaz years.