Brandon University’s Program for the Education of Native Teachers will need to attract more students in upcoming years if it wants to stick around.
Over the years, the long-standing program has gone from a low of only 65 students to an all-time high of 160, according to PENT director Ken Friesen. Although the program is part of the university, it’s self-funded, which means it relies on students and sponsors to fund it, he said.
This week, PENT welcomed roughly 110 new and returning students — the minimum number required to keep the program running.
"This program needs to remain at that minimum number ... to be in existence, to be further sustainable ... to make it over the next five or 10 years," Friesen said. "Schools are seeing fewer and fewer students, but on the other hand, the aboriginal population is the fastest growing population in this country."
PENT is a community-based teacher education program that is part of BU’s faculty of education. Over the course of the program, students combine paraprofessional work in their First Nations community schools from September to April with courses at BU from April to July. The program also allows education assistants or teacher assistants to become an accredited educator in a very condensed format, Friesen said.
The majority of PENT students come from remote communities across Manitoba — including Churchill and The Pas — which presents a challenge when it comes to their marketing and recruitment efforts, Friesen said.
"One of the best marketing tools that this program has is word of mouth and the connection that the students themselves bring to the program and the experiences they have while here, they take back to their community," he said. "That has been the most successful, most effective recruitment tool."
Priscilla Desjarlais from Ebb and Flow First Nation will be graduating this year and said she heard about PENT through friends in her community.
"I didn’t want to take online courses," Desjarlais said. "I would rather sit in a classroom and learn from the teacher themselves."
Colleen Bruce from Berens River First Nation is now in her second year of the program and said at first it was hard to leave her family behind, but that her personal sacrifice has been worth it.
"I’ve learned how to live on my own, how to manage and I’ve found lots of great support here, too."
Friesen said PENT also tries to help new students find adequate housing for when they come to Brandon, which can sometimes be a challenge.
Returning PENT students Sherelle Day and her husband Zack from Oxford House First Nation said it was hard to find a landlord who would only rent to them for four months, but they were able to find an apartment in the end.
Roughly 600 students have graduated from the program since it began in 1971, Friesen said, which is also good for the program’s marketing efforts and he’s hopeful the program will be around for many more years.
Being that PENT’s office is tucked in the basement of BU’s education building has also made it one of the university’s "best kept secrets."
"It really is trying to fulfil that need for teachers and educators to fill the roles as educators in the north and to stay in those communities," Friesen said. "They go back into the community, back into their home and in many cases back to the schools that they went to as students themselves."