Why are native grad rates lower?
Poke your head into any elementary school classroom in the city and you will likely see a diverse mix of children.
White kids, Indo-Canadian kids, Asian kids and aboriginal kids, among others.
They play the same, they sound the same and they generally act the same.
But the numbers say they’re not the same.
According to the Kamloops-Thompson School District’s calculations based on the 2008-2009 school year, 25 students in an elementary class of 30 will graduate from high school within six years of starting Grade 8.
However, if that class has five First Nations students, the statistics say fewer than three of them will graduate.
The six-year completion rate for students entering Grade 8 in SD73 is 82 per cent.
For native students, it’s 58.3 per cent.
These are not First Nations children living in isolated villages in remote parts of the province.
These are Kamloops kids, many of whom enjoy swimming at the Tournament Capital Centre, going to movies at Aberdeen Mall and playing soccer on McArthur Island.
So, why the discrepancy?
“The question is simple, but the answers are complicated,” said Renee Spence, SD73’s administrator for First Nations education.
“A lot of aboriginal students don’t see themselves really reflected in the school. They don’t see a place for themselves.”
“The thing that usually gets kids to school is some kind of a hook — a course they love, a teacher, a sports team, an extra-curricular activity or a circle of friends,” Spence said.
“It would appear for our [aboriginal] kids, these sort of hooks are not playing as effective a role as they are for non-aboriginal students.”
The problem, Spence said, isn’t with aboriginal students failing Grade 12. In fact, according to SD73’s numbers, native students graduate at about the same rate as non-natives when they make it to the final grade in high school.
It’s just that too many of them aren’t making it that far.
Spence said the dropout rate among aboriginal students is partially a symptom of a systemic problem.
“There are historical influences at work here, in terms of the history of aboriginal people in school systems,” she said.
Often, Spence said, aboriginal students have parents who never put much emphasis on education. That attitude at home, she said, can make it difficult for a student to feel motivated to succeed in the classroom.
“If we can get our parents to be really placing an emphasis on education in the home and making it a place for education and homework, we know that we have a whole group of new allies to be helping us,” Spence said.
SD73 superintendent Terry Sullivan said the district is focusing on trying to bring the completion rates of native students more in line with those of the greater student population.
“We are losing aboriginal students through the transition to high school,” he said.
“We’ve put a lot of resources into trying to reduce that gap.”
One thing district officials are hoping will help is the installation of strong adult role models — called First Nations education workers — for aboriginal students within schools.
“That is really to make aboriginal students feel comfortable in the program and to have significant adults in their life on a daily basis,” Sullivan said.
“Whether they’re First Nations students or non-First Nations students, there has to be a significant adult involved in that student’s life for them to go on and complete high school.”
According to the district’s website, First Nations education workers are intended to “provide frontline academic, social, emotional and cultural support to students. They also act as a liaison between and among parents, bands, teachers, principals, students, counsellors and Ministry [of Education] and community agencies.”
Sullivan said the district — which spends $2.5 million annually on First Nations initiatives — is also setting up tutorials for aboriginal students and working with education co-ordinators from local native bands to devise new strategies.
“We’re looking at it from a variety of fronts,” he said.
“We’re trying to approach it from as many different areas as we can.”
Other programs include the Four Directions Storefront School, First Nations family counselling, a district principal of aboriginal education, school-improvement projects, Secwepemc language and history initiatives and academic supports.
The goal for SD73 is to achieve completion-rate parity between aboriginals and non-aboriginals by 2020.
“Once we get aboriginal students to Grade 12, we have almost parity now — they graduate at almost the same rate as non-aboriginal students,” Sullivan said.
“We’ve made extensive gains, but we have a long way to go still.”
The aboriginal completion rate for 2008-2009 was up more than three per cent in the 2008-2009 school year.
Those small increases are nice, Spence said, but more needs to and will be done.
“It’s just the most confounding challenge to bring these rates up,” she said.
“But, we’re going to continue to look at what we can do.”