Formed in 1965, the Frontier School Division is the largest geographical school division in Manitoba, spanning 75 per cent of the province’s land mass, covering approximately 485,000 square kilometers. Beginning at the American border beside Ontario, the division includes a large number of communities along the Ontario border and into Manitoba, going north of Hekla and then angling west, north of Dauphin and north of Swan River right to the Saskatchewan border.
Reg Klassen is the Chief Superintendent of Frontier School Division and what began as a five-year commitment, has become a nine-year journey. Klassen has spent over thirty years serving students in several communities and a variety of educational positions. He has worked in numerous capacities including a guidance counsellor, resource teacher, classroom teacher, and school administrator, and superintendent. SAY Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Klassen to find out more about the division and how it is unique from other Manitoba school divisions. One thing that was apparent from our conversation with Klassen is that community involvement is key to student achievement, especially in the North, and it is the unique governance structure and the quality and care of the administration that makes Frontier a leader in education.
Given their geographical reach, the division is divided into five areas and includes a variety of communities, some only accessible by air, rail, boat, or winter ice roads. They have an overall student population nearing 7,000—80-85 per cent of Indigenous students—and they have 16 education agreements in place with First Nations communities to advance reconciliation and to support the advancement of Indigenous student achievement.
In addition to Klassen as the Chief Superintendent, there are 10 superintendents, one area superintendent in each of the five areas, and five assistant superintendents who run different portfolios. The three areas of focus are Academics, with a significant emphasis on literacy and numeracy; Indigenous Way of Life; and the most recent one is Student Services and Wellness. “Coming out of the pandemic, that last one is very much needed,” says Klassen. “Underneath that portfolio, we have brought in clinicians, guidance counselors, educational assistants, resource workers, and mental wellness workers—all the people who are instrumental in the wellness of our students and our communities.”
There are significant challenges faced by youth living in remote and isolated communities in the North, different from those in larger urban centers. These factors can impact a student’s readiness for advancement including post-secondary education. The Frontier School Division is working hard to recognize and lessen, if not eliminate, any obstacles their students might face and has made significant gains in literacy with a program focused on kindergarten to grade three.
“We know that learning how to read by the end of grade three, at a grade three level, has a significant impact on a student’s ability to go forward,” says Klassen. “And based on the successful work rolled out last year, we’ve got some pretty robust plans for literacy development.” Some successes include a noticeable increase in attendance and better focus in the classroom which no doubt points to an increase in confidence. “That’s pretty exciting for us,” reports Klassen. “We need to make sure that we’re providing students with good learning opportunities and good teaching so that they learn, and we don’t have kids who are frustrated or bored.”
Beyond that, Klassen states that the division is focused on many areas of development and is executing a few pilot programs this year, one of which is a mentorship program in Black River, where a high school student who wants to learn an Indigenous language is matched with a community mentor.
When it comes to language and culture, “We know that they are not two things exclusive of each other—they need to be together,” says Klassen. “So we’ve put together a partnership with the University of Winnipeg so that our language teachers, regardless of whether or not they have a Bachelor of Education, get a higher level degree and better speaking skills. They learn the pedagogy of instruction in a language program that isn’t just memorization of words, and then they better understand and teach the language.”
The Indigenous Way of Life department in the division is also constantly growing—the land-based learning program is a sought-after experience for students. “We find our students gravitate towards it, they want to know it, and they want to learn it,” explains Klassen. Frontier also plans to incorporate Elders programs as soon as possible.
There are many unique offerings and opportunities for students to thrive in the Frontier School Division, and one of those areas is Frontier Collegiate. Located in Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, Frontier Collegiate has anywhere from 20 to 30 First Nation communities represented by the students in the school. About 350 youth from across Northern Manitoba have chosen to go there, or need to go there because their community does not have a high school. “They’ve just put in a state-of-the-art welding program,” explains Klassen. “It’s the only certified welding program in northern Manitoba.” Frontier Collegiate also offers culinary arts, hairstyling, and various technical vocational trades.
Some of the other highlights that Frontier should be proud of include the construction of a new state-of-the-art Construction Building that recently opened in Norway House in September. The facility will support students from Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, providing skills training needed for a career in the skilled trades. Students in this program will learn carpentry skills and will learn to build houses, filling the high need for housing in northern communities.
Last year, the division also purchased the Caribou Lodge in Cranberry Portage and is refurbishing it so that they can run their Engaged Learners program—a transition program for youth who are no longer enrolled in full-time schooling for whatever reason and who find themselves unsure of what to do next. The program serves as a stepping stone to continuing education, either in the trades or by completing their high school diploma. With fairly strict rules and guidelines, each session is approximately three weeks and some students continue to go back to the program for up to three years. One of the conditions is that each participant must find employment before returning to the program for more skill development. Future renovations at Caribou Lodge include creating a dorm setting out of the existing motel structure and the construction of a greenhouse.
This year the Frontier School Division will celebrate 50 years of the Frontier Games—a large annual four-day winter celebration in a selected community that involves students in grades five to eight participating in several activities and friendly competitions. “We have trap setting, which is fun to watch, I’ll tell you. Some kids are really fast with setting traps,” explains Klassen. “We also offer snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, volleyball, hockey and other events.” Frontier also hosts an annual fishing derby where every school has the opportunity to have its students fish on the lake nearest their school.
Frontier School Division is unique in the way they are governed. “We are different from other school divisions in Manitoba, in that we have school committees, not parent advisory councils,” explains Klassen. “Anybody in the community can be on a school committee if they get elected, which happens every four years. And some of our school committees are selected by Chief and Council.” If it’s a First Nation and a non-First Nation community, then it could be a combination of both elected and appointed members. For each of the five areas in the Frontier School Division, each school committee selects one person to represent them at the area advisory committee—the smallest number of schools in one area is 7 and the largest is 13.
“Each one of those five area advisory committees elects two people to sit on our board of trustees, ” says Klassen. “So it’s not like other school divisions where you get elected and you’re on the school board. Here, you have to get onto the school committee. You have to be selected by your peers on the school committee and then you have to be selected by your peers at the area advisory committee to sit on our school board.”
“Currently our board chair, who I might add is the first Indigenous woman to be a chair of a school division in the province, has been selected now for almost 30 years, by the Misipawistik Cree Nation,” says Klassen proudly. A recent recipient of the Frontier Achievement Award, Linda Ballantyne has been selected to sit on the school committee every four years, has been selected to go to the advisory committee, and the advisory committee has selected her to sit on the board. The board has selected Ballantyne as the board chairperson for nearly three decades.
“Our board is very grassroots. You don’t get involved in this because you’re political,” says Klassen. “You get involved in this because you care about education. So there’s a huge amount of stability and experience on our board and they don’t ever panic. It’s a pretty great group of people to work with.”
It would be safe to assume that a division so expansive would have a sufficient number of educators; however, according to Chief Superintendent Klassen, that is not the case. “We have about 600 teachers, but we’re still looking for some 30 teachers,” he says. “ Last year we spent the whole year about 20 teachers short and that puts a strain on what we are trying to accomplish.” Klassen hopes that number will dwindle in the coming month; however, if it does not, the division does have a recruitment plan and incentives for educators who are willing to join the Frontier School division.
Newer graduates, as of 2021, who work for the division this year will get a $10,000 incentive at the end of 2024. The more recent the graduate and the longer your commitment with the Frontier School Division the more bonuses are available to you at the end of the school year—an attractive offer for those looking to pay off their student loans a little faster. Not to worry, there are also incentives for those close to retirement, with generous salary matching for Manitoba educators of different regions and those coming from Ontario.
“Our school division is a pretty nice place to be and work. We’ve got lots going on and a lot of great people,” declares Klassen. “Our communities are fantastic and if teachers come and get involved in the community, they find something that they never thought they’d find in terms of the quality of the people and the love and the care that they receive as new members of the community.”
“I think part of the reason we have trouble attracting teachers is because of the unknown,” says Klassen. “If you can get past the unknown and the fear of that, you’re gonna find a great place.”
Danielle Vienneau, Editor-in-Chief with SAY Magazine, believes in the power of sharing positive stories to inspire greatness in others. To submit your story, email email@example.com.