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A graduate student in the University of Calgary's school psychology master's program performs a jingle dress dance during a kickoff ceremony.

U of Calgary/Werklund School of Education

The Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre -- an organization founded in 1999 that provides services to First Nations communities in the Canadian province -- wanted to find some university programs suitable for its constituent residents.

In particular, the organization sought to fill a number of vacant positions for school psychologists, who serve an important role in communities still grappling with the effect of residential schools. That now-defunct system forced more than 150,000 indigenous students from the late 1800s throughout the 20th century to abandon their culture and assimilate into the dominant Canadian culture; thousands of students died in these facilities. Leaders of Canadian universities have in recent years issued formal apologies for this system, though some have criticized those attempted mea culpas. The system's effects still linger among indigenous communities in Canada.

A blended education master’s program at the University of Calgary proved the best fit to address the need for boosting the Manitoba area's school psychologist community -- with a few tweaks.

The first cohort of 14 students will begin the 17-course program this fall. Some students live in communities so rural that they can only travel out by plane or seasonal ice road.

The built-in mixture of online and face-to-face components made the program attractive to the organization, according to Derek Courchene, program liaison officer for the Manitoba center. The cohort of indigenous students will come to Winnipeg at times for virtual meetings with instructors at the institution, and to complete their online assignments.

The students in the cohort will complete two practicums at the university's community clinic on campus during their spring term. They'll also be on campus for two and a half weeks this summer for orientation, where they'll learn about the institution's standardized testing procedures and observe the assessment process in the clinic. Later, they'll have an internship in Manitoba, and a few courses will be delivered in block weeks with face-to-face instruction at the organization's main center in Winnipeg.

Students -- many of whom lack internet access in their homes -- will complete all of the remaining work online from the organization's Winnipeg center. Many of the program’s existing course materials are already hosted online, and the institution plans to bring students together via Adobe Connect and its learning management system D2L.​

Offering the program to this population of students will mean adapting the curriculum to their perspectives and needs, according to Meadow Schroeder, assistant professor in the university’s Werklund School of Education. The section about psychopathology has to account for the possibility that students from these communities don’t primarily see anxiety as a mental disorder, or at least see it in a different light than nonindigenous populations do.

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More material on how school psychologists should think and act when they’re embedded in a rural community with few other qualified peers in the area will be added as well. Ethical questions like what to do when dealing with a child’s friend are more likely to come up when the local population is small.

Schroeder hopes taking a closer look at the curriculum for this specialized program will also prompt reflection on how the existing program’s curriculum can be improved. She and her team think they’ll make fewer assumptions going forward about what students come in understanding about psychopathology.

Adapting a program for a particular population also prompts introspection about the proper rubric for assessment.

“I don’t know if we necessarily know the answer right now, but is it reasonable to expect that their scores on reading are going to be comparable to what we see in Calgary or Toronto?” Schroeder said. “Even some of the language development, if you have a different language spoken at home, how does that translate to learning at school and assessments we give?"

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