As an organization dedicated to learning and youth, Classroom Connections feels a strong responsibility not only to advocate for educational change, but to lead in taking action. As a result, Classroom Connections began the Change it Up initiative to synthesize what we know and pilot test new approaches to education. We started the journey by forming partnerships with Indigenous communities, where the need for alternative approaches was critical.
Our first Change it Up! pilot projects were in Chipewayan Prairie First Nation (2010-2011) and Montana First Nation (2011-2012). With over 80 Indigenous youth involved, the programs had an average retention rate of 86%. Project results included significant increases in resiliency and pro-social behaviours, improved literacy and basic skills and significant decreases in at-risk behaviour. Although neither program was created as an employment program, over 60% of participants gained employment or returned for school.
In looking to expand the success of these projects, we worked with Bigstone Cree Nation (2012), to further test the value of individual programs and how they worked together. This resulted in the Discovering Strengths website to help remote communities learn more about strength-based approaches and gain access to the combination of programs that had proven successful.
Both of our pilot projects included an entrepreneurial component that proved highly successful. In discussions with Samson Cree Nation, the leadership was particularly interested in how a focused entrepreneurial program could address both high unemployment and a limited community economic base. And Change it Up! Entrepreneur was born (2012-2015) – a hands-on entrepreneurial training program based on the proven Change it Up! philosophy and programming. To increase available support for our entrepreneurs, MentorNation, was created to provide an online platform that matches Indigenous entrepreneurs with business mentors across Canada. As a result of these programs, 33 new businesses were started in the community and 83% of participants gained employment or became self employed.
The Entrepreneur program also led to the start of a social enterprise restaurant, Nipsis Café (2015-2017). Initial participants gained experience in all aspects of business start‐up, from restaurant design to menu planning. The Café developed into a hospitality training centre, with a full sit down restaurant. The ownership of the café was then successfully transferred to two local entrepreneurs and Change it Up! graduates!
In response to local labour shortages, Change it Up! Trades program was created, in partnership with Samson Cree Nation and Portage College (2012 – 2014). The program was designed to address the significant barriers many Aboriginal youth face when attempting to enter apprenticeship. This included an alternate model for demonstrating readiness for College trades programs as well as targeted programming to enable individuals to address gaps and build competencies related to abilities, understanding and behaviour. Thirty three community members completed the program and 85% went on to Portage College, with 84% becoming employed or apprenticed post program.
Our latest program, CiU Employability Essentials (2017-2020) was designed to respond to changing labour market needs and to build the essential skills needed for the workplace. Employment focus has included specialized cleaning, security and service industry. This initiative also led to the creation of the CiU Professional Development training, containing Curriculum, a Usage Guide, and Facilitator Training.