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Sharing the duties
Ian Patterson learning to lead reserve school as co-principal

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Tuesday, November 24, 2009

K'ATLODEECHE/HAY RIVER RESERVE - Most schools have a principal and vice-principal, but something new for the South Slave is happening at Chief Sunrise Education Centre on the Hay River Reserve.

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For this school year, Ian Patterson is co-principal of Chief Sunrise Education Centre on the Hay River Reser. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The school is undergoing a change of principals and, for this school year, it actually has two co-principals.

Ian Patterson will be principal next year, and is currently sharing the duties with Mattie McNeill, who has been at the school for three years and is planning to retire.

Patterson said having two co-principals helps with transition planning at the 73-student school

"It works, definitely," he said.

Such a system may have been tried informally elsewhere in the NWT, he noted. "But in terms of the formal role that we have, as far as I know it's certainly new to the South Slave. It's hard to speak for the other regions."

When a school switches from one principal to another, there is often a disconnect, particularly in small communities, he said, noting it is not easy for outgoing principals to pass along knowledge by writing it down.

Now, he can learn from McNeill by talking to her throughout the school year.

"It's an invaluable experience to have and most principals don't have that opportunity," he said.

Patterson said McNeill, as an aboriginal person from the South Slave, helps him learn about the culture of the area.

"It's very important to build relationships and make connections with parents and with the community," he said.

Patterson, a 37-year-old originally from Ontario, already has experience leading schools in the NWT two years as principal in Colville Lake and a year as a vice-principal in Deline.

When he came to Chief Sunrise Education Centre, he said he searched the Internet for information on how a two-principal system works elsewhere.

"There wasn't a lot out there in terms of how this co-principalship operates," he noted, although he found some examples in large southern schools where one person would be overwhelmed by the job of principal.

"We didn't have a model to follow," Patterson said, adding he and McNeill basically created it as they went along.

"We have a division of responsibilities," he said. "Obviously, there is going to be some overlap in areas, but we try to meet before the day starts and at the end of the day just to try to give updates on the daily events. More formally on a weekly basis, we'll take some time to sort of map out the week ahead."

Patterson is responsible for student behaviour and oversees a new alternative program, also known as a storefront school. McNeill looks after substitute teachers and the school's breakfast program.

"For staff supervision and evaluations, we've divided the staff, so that's a shared responsibility," Patterson said, noting budgeting and meeting with the district education authority are also shared.

Patterson said he and McNeill have to make sure they are on the same page when dealing with students.

"The worst thing for our students would be to get one message from me and a different message from Mattie, so it's just making sure we're consistent with our messaging and consistent in our structures and routines," he explained.

The system also allows co-principals to do some teaching.

Patterson contrasts the system to when he first went to Deline as principal.

There, he was among a new four-member staff, except for a Slavey-language teacher.

In Deline, he had to learn from the outgoing principal through a few phone calls and notes left behind.

Now at Chief Sunrise Education Centre, Patterson said there is more time to devote to developing relationships as principal than if he had just been thrown right into the job and had to learn it on the fly.

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