Local school district making inroads in aboriginal education

But roadblocks remain in getting kids fully involved

Educators in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district are boosting the aboriginal graduation rate, one student at a time.

The district boasts a six-year graduation rate of 67 per cent for its first nations students.

While the district’s overall rate of 87 per cent, the province’s aboriginal graduation rate of 54 per cent.

There are numerous reasons why first nations students don’t graduate at the same rate as the overall student population, foremost is a lack of connection and sense of belonging, said Alan Millar, the district principal in charge of aboriginal education in the school district.

The last residential schools, with their legacy of abuse, closed in the 1990s, and Millar said there are students in the system now whose parents or grandparents were taken from their families at young ages and put in them.

For those current students, he said, there can be a mistrust of authority in the same way that a child from Northern Ireland may knowingly or subconsciously not trust the authorities of the UK government.

“There is still something standing in the way of our aboriginal children participating fully in our education system,” said Millar.

“But here in Maple Ridge, we are making some phenomenal inroads.”

New to his position,  Millar is not taking credit for the work that has been done.

In this district there are 1,105 first nations students out of the total population of approximately 15,000.

The traditional bands are Katzie and Kwantlen, with the former making up four percent of all students. Métis is the next most populous aboriginal group. Cree, Haida, Shuswap and a wide variety of tribes are also represented Most of these urban aboriginals are not connected with any band.

The province gives targeted funding on a per-pupil basis to try and boost the graduation rate among aboriginal students, topping up regular per-pupil funding with an additional $1,100 per school year.

The district uses this to put on cultural events to help aboriginal students have a sense of support, belonging and pride. It also helps educators in the district to understanding learning traits of aboriginal students.

Millar said district officials are proud to have been invited to on-reserve longhouse ceremonies and other events. Traditionally these events were not sacred or private, he said, but were welcoming celebrations. However, the government’s early policy of assimilation regarding first nations people caused them to become more guarded about their customs and traditions.

But at the heart of the district’s aboriginal education strategy is a case management system, started in 2011. The district regularly monitors the progress of students, especially those in Grades 10-12, ensuring that they have the credit counts necessary to graduate, monitoring their attendance, and watching their progress.

For the prior five years, the graduation rate in the district has been in the range of 59-63 per cent. But the 67.4 per cent rate last year was a 12-year high.

If students make it to Grade 12, their completion rate jumps to 94-95 per cent. The problem years are Grades 9 and 10 – a time when children who are struggling stop going to school.

In an attempt to combat this, the district will take a group of approximately 50 students on a Wow trip to post secondary institutions, where they learn about programs such as interactive robotics at UBC.

“It’s broadening horizons, and exposure to the variety of opportunities that await them,” said Millar.

While the 67 per cent grad rate for aboriginal students is better than most, local aboriginal education staff do not see their mission as accomplished.

“We can pat ourselves on the back that we are ahead of the provincial average, but there are still 33 per cent of our students who are not successful, and that’s not okay,” said Millar.

There are so many other issues and factors that affect native people – higher rates of unemployment, addiction, incarceration and suicide. In Canada, teen suicide rates are five to six times higher among aboriginal teens than the general population.

“As we work toward improving the success of aboriginal people, we will see those numbers decline,” said Millar.

“The important thing is that there is always hope.”