Struggles and Success …. The Impact of COVID-19 on an Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program

A year ago, I posted an article on “Giving Matters” about the Martin Family Initiative’s (MFI) ground-breaking project: the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP). At that time, AYEP was offered in 51 schools across Canada and there were plans to expand to additional locations.

The 2019-20 school year started off very well. AYEP teachers were very impressed with their students’ progress; many reported evidence of students’ increasing knowledge of the economy and business, improved motivation to complete current studies and pursue further ones, increased self-confidence, and heightened awareness of the needs of their communities.

All this changed on March 11, 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Almost immediately schools across Canada were closed – many are still unsure when they will re-open.  Students were encouraged to participate in at-home learning for the remainder of the school year even though they were deemed to have completed their courses as of mid-March.

MFI determined that the best way to support AYEP teachers and their students was to upload the AYEP lessons and supporting resources to the Google Classroom platform. We also instituted weekly calls with AYEP teachers to provide support and advice. Many of the schools that offered AYEP-implemented remote learning using a range of tools and approaches including synchronous activities.  

MFI has experience with distance learning, but over the past months some Aboriginal student-focused issues have emerged: difficulty to complete on-line lessons, the lack of access to connectivity and devices, and concerns directly related to poverty that many face.

AYEP educators highlighted the IT-related obstacles that their students experienced including unstable or the lack of  internet connections and the need to share a single device – including one cell phone – with many other children in a family as they all attempted to complete on-line activities.

In one school, AYEP students rode their bikes to the school parking lot to connect to the internet in order to do their assignments.

Some of these students were forced to abandon their studies to find a job to help support their families. One student went to work on a fishing boat; others started jobs in grocery stores, in drugstores, delivering food, and as cooks in fast food restaurants.

Over the past months MFI has been very impressed with the deep dedication, flexibility, creativity, and compassion of AYEP teachers across the country. Besides using Google Classroom, they connected with their students using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Brightspace, Edsby, Google Docs, email, and phone. Some also delivered AYEP materials to their students’ homes.

Despite their difficulties, many AYEP students have persevered and completed their lessons thoroughly and on time. Many created video business plans for their proposed ventures instead of traditional hardcopy versions. One student was recently awarded a prize for academic merit and community involvement. Another is applying for a start-up grant to be able to launch his business.

MFI is very proud of the accomplishments of AYEP students and their teachers. They were faced with unexpected and momentous upheaval – and they are succeeding. 

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.

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