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Reward for reviving Chipewyan language
Dan Summers to receive Canada's Outstanding Principals award

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 18, 2013

Dan Summers, principal of Deninu School in Fort Resolution, will be given one of Canada's Outstanding Principals awards during a ceremony in Toronto on Feb. 26.

Summers, who is one of 51 recipients from across Canada, was chosen to receive the national award for his work toward reviving the Chipewyan language not just in the school, but also in the community.

"I couldn't think of a greater accomplishment then being part of helping to rekindle a language," Summers said. "We're all learning the language."

Summers and his staff have spent the past four years promoting - and using - the Chipewyan language in every aspect of life at the school.

In addition to the school's language component/culture program, students also read the noon-hour announcements in Chipewyan.

The language is used during assemblies, when students do presentations and during Christmas concerts.

The school's computers have Chipewyan fonts and each class and staff learns a "word of the week," said Summers.

Summers posts the word in his office where he spends at least five minutes every day memorizing its pronunciation and meaning.

"We encourage Chipewyan to be spoken daily," he said.

It's not only those in the school who are learning, Summers added.

"We're getting reports from elders who are so proud of the kids," he said. "Parents have even said they're re-learning the language because their kids are bringing it home."

Fort Resolution was home to St. Joseph's Residential School from 1903 until 1957.

As a result, many children grew up without learning their language and culture, Summers said.

"There is a generation that, because they were not allowed to speak it, have lost a lot of that," he said.

Now, Summers said Deninu School is a place where culture is infused into the curriculum and celebrated.

"It's about making people believe we're going to succeed and you need to bring your culture and values and beliefs with you," he said.

Summers said staff works together to develop units of study that incorporate Chipewyan language and culture into a variety of subjects.

"Not only does it support the culture and language, it accommodates the need for the academic component," he said. "It's a natural fusion."

Summers said Angie Fabien, the school's Chipewyan language instructor, has been an instrumental part of the program's success.

"She's absolutely passionate about Chipewyan language, about bringing back the culture and values of the language itself," he said.

He also credited Brent Kaulback, assistant superintendent with the South Slave Divisional Education Council. Summers said Kaulback, who was recently inducted into the Northwest Territories Hall of Fame for his efforts to save aboriginal languages, helped guide the creation of the Chipewyan dictionary.

Kaulback, students, elders and members of the Yamozha Kue Society worked together to develop the dictionary, which was launched in March 2012.

It is 369 pages and includes word definitions and sentences. It also comes with a CD so users can hear how words are properly pronounced.

"It's been a tremendous success, the kids use it daily," Summers said.

Summers said skills learned during language and cultural components of the curriculum are translated into other subjects students will need in order to earn a high school diploma.

"On the other side, you have to remember that we are in a global nation.

"We are competing," he said. "We have to be able to function at levels that are comparable to the rest of the world."

Making sure the school is a fun and engaging place encourages students to make the effort, Summer said.

"That's a large component of our school," he said. "They like coming to the school."

Akela Peoples is the president and chief executive officer of The Learning Partnership, which sponsors the Canada's Outstanding Principals awards.

She said staff and members of the community nominate principals for the awards.

"Being a principal is a complex role," Peoples said. "But in the case of these outstanding principals, they've gone above and beyond what we would consider their job description. His supporters certainly felt he was deserving."

Peoples said Summers' promotion of Chipewyan language and culture is one-of-a-kind.

"When I read about Dan, he has done something quite unique in his school," she said. "A strong sense of self is critical to learning."

Summers said school staff work as a team to promote success.

Last year, the school's language coach, Kate Powell, and program support teacher Lucinda Summers won the Department of Education's Ministerial Literacy Award for helping to boost literacy rates at the school by 35 per cent.

Fabien was a member of a team awarded the 2012 Excellence in Education award for her work on the Chipewyan dictionary.

The Deninu School team was also awarded the Premier's Award of Excellence for "excellence, innovation and dedication in their work," the GNWT website stated. The team also received the Premier's Excellence in Culture Collaboration Award.

Summers said being awarded as one of Canada's outstanding principals is not only an honour, it proves the community believes in the work being done at the school.

"It's just nice to be recognized for being on the right path," he said. "With that said, mind you, I'd like to think I have a bigger part than I do. My part is quite small compared to some of the other people. My staff is absolutely brilliant."

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