I really do believe in the school and what we're doing
Dawn Marie Wemigwans, or "Miss" as her students call her, has a warm and effervescent personality and a huge smile. Dressed casually, she looks like a mom not "the principal." She is immediately approachable.
Students at St. David's School in the Donovan look forward to being called into her office, which is a converted classroom with a large reception area. There are books to read and an aquarium. It's an atmosphere where youngsters can speak openly instead of hearing a lecture.
About 40 percent of the students at this JK to Grade 8 inner-city school are First Nations and a sizable number are Métis. Many students face challenges, and their parents are often cautious about dealing with educators because of their own negative experiences in school.
"The director of education asked me to come to this school to put change in place," says Wemigwans. "To invite community into the building and to take down those structural walls we normally have. To bring an aboriginal world view to education. I mean a circle with everyone being equal, working to make everyone feel welcome and appreciated."
Community partners working in the school include Better Beginnings Better Futures; the Aboriginal Best Start Hub and the White Buffalo Road Healing Lodge.
Staff and volunteers serve breakfast to as many as 200 students each morning. Prepared bagged lunches are available. There is an after-school program. Families can access a "community closet," and they can get counselling if needed.
"This is a community school and we work with the community. When kids see everyone working together, it builds self-esteem. They feel good about who they are and where they come from. When you feel proud of who you are, then you are open to learning," says Wemigwans.
She doesn't live in the neighbourhood but she is so confident in St. David's, her daughter, Sequoia, attends the school. "I bring her with me...I really do believe in the school and what we're doing," she says.
Born in Blind River, Wemigwans attended Laurentian University, then studied at Nipissing in North Bay and the University of Toronto. Her first job was in Attawapiskat.
"I saw a lot and I learned a lot. One deals with a lot of tough situations," she says.
Moving to Sudbury, she taught at St. Pius XII in Minnow Lake, and later became vice-principal at St. James School in Lively. She developed a reputation for her creative approach to learning and her respect for diversity.
As the Aboriginal Lead for the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, Wemigwans implemented a voluntary aboriginal self-identification program that helped identify the needs of students. She also organized workshops and conferences for educators so they could learn about aboriginal culture.
She has been at St. David's since September 2010. The St. David's community is looking forward to moving to a new school in 2013. Wemigwans can't wait to implement all the possibilities she sees for students and the community.
In the meantime, she is working with what she has at a school that has seen better days.
"This is not an attractive school on the outside (but) we believe when you come in the door the good feelings take over. I believe every person in this building gives 120 percent to make sure these kids are successful. And I don't just mean academically," says Wemigwans.
"Dawn has made a change within the Donovan community," says her colleague and friend Tina Timpano. "It is Dawn's compassion and empathy toward others that make her an outstanding Community Builder."