Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement signed 

Sea to Sky district's aboriginal graduation rate rises 37 per cent since 2009 agreement

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Local First Nations leaders and school officials were on hand at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre last Thursday, Jan. 23 to sign a five-year agreement, the second of its kind, to support aboriginal learners in the district.

The Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement is a commitment by local First Nations communities, School District 48 (SD48) and B.C.'s Ministry of Education to continue working together to ensure the success of the Sea to Sky's aboriginal students. The district has overseen the fastest growing aboriginal student graduation rate in the province. The six-year completion rate for aboriginal students in the corridor has more than doubled in that time, from 35 to 73 per cent.

"The success of Aboriginal students in the district is a significant tribute to their hard work," said SD48 board chair Rick Price in a release. "It also reflects excellent collaboration and effort on the part of our educators and local Aboriginal communities."

The main goal of the first enhancement agreement was to improve aboriginal graduation rates, said district administrator for aboriginal education Juanita Coltman, and several programs were put in place to achieve this goal.

Each secondary school in the district has an aboriginal student success advisor that tracks success, assists in post-secondary planning and meets with other district advisors on a monthly basis. There's a district-wide Shared Learnings committee with a representative from each school that meets regularly to discuss how to integrate aboriginal content into curriculum and learning resources, Coltman said. Elected First Nations leaders work alongside district staff, teachers and principals throughout the process and give recommendations on improving aboriginal student success.

Even with soaring graduation rates among the district's aboriginal learners, Lil'wat director of education Verna Stager said there's still plenty of room for improvement.

"There's still work to be done around respect (for aboriginal students) and engagement in language and history," she said. "The very important thing ... for First Nations students is to have a sense of belonging and connectedness. They really need to have relationships to learn well, they need to feel they know their teacher and that their teacher knows them and cares about them."

Improving literacy and numeracy rates as well as aboriginal students' health and fitness are other considerations moving forward, said Stager, who said she's seen a better appreciation among district education providers of the specific needs of aboriginal learners since the first agreement was signed.

"There's been improved buy-in by the staff to look at what the aboriginal students might need and how they learn best," she said. "Through the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement, as much as possible we try to zone in on the actual learning of the students."

Stager said she'd like to see the corridor's aboriginal students better prepared for post-secondary success in the future, whether that be for university, college, trade or a career, a sentiment that was echoed by Coltman.

"We're doing a great job of getting our kids through school to graduate, but we now want to raise the bar and get them up to C+ or better in their grades," she said. "Getting through with Cs is good, but it's not really going to prepare you for anything after school, so we're really looking at our achievement goal to get our students up to meeting and exceeding expectations and help them be prepared for post secondary or a career."

There are approximately 610 aboriginal students in the Sea to Sky, representing nearly 14 per cent of the district's student body, according to 2012-13 statistics.

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