Aboriginal graduation rates present a challenge 

Integrating First Nations’ culture in classrooms is one part of Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement

Dalious McCullough from Squamish successfully graduated from high school and has now enrolled for an undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria.

Sounds quite ordinary, right? Not if you are an aboriginal student.

Educators often tally Grade 12 results for First Nations students with mounting dread; the gap between those who enroll and those who finally graduate can be remarkable.

Compared over a period of five years, the results vary, but one conclusion is obvious: graduation rates for aboriginal students are a challenge.

This year, for instance, 35 out of 47 aboriginal students in Squamish graduated from high school, bringing the success rate to more than 70 per cent. Last year, from a cohort of 35, only 11 graduated, and the year before that, only nine graduated out of 20.

Of all the things that hold back aboriginal students from stepping into a brighter future and jobs, there is one that's the most difficult to mitigate: it's the past. One legacy of residential schools is the distrust it seeded in aboriginal parents for the school system.

"They have had a bad relationship with the school system and parents are suspicious and reluctant that sending kids to school will take away their culture from them," said Juanita Coltman, the Sea to Sky School District administrator for aboriginal education.

Coltman said aboriginal parents are sometimes not educated themselves and they can lack parenting skills because they were raised in residential schools, and not by their parents.

"This carries on for generations," she said.

To bring about a change, an Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement was signed by the school district, local aboriginal communities and the ministry of education. The agreement's focus was to enhance the educational achievement of aboriginal students.

Coltman said academic tracking of aboriginal students, changing curriculums to reflect aboriginal culture, and sensitizing teachers to aboriginal culture are some of the things that are being done to make sure First Nation students succeed in high school and beyond.

"It takes time to change things," Coltman said, adding that, "integrating aboriginal culture in the classroom and educating the teachers about that culture is a big step."

More than 600 First Nations students are currently enrolled in the school district, but dropout rates are high, especially after Grade 10.

In 2007-08, for instance, 92 aboriginal students entered Grade 10, but only 66 went to Grade 11. There are several "push factors" that contribute to such a remarkable drop in these years.

"There is young pregnancy and there are drugs and alcohol, which leads to suspensions and sometimes these students just don't come back." Coltman said.

However, she added that the numbers may not reveal the full story. Some aboriginal students can drop out and enroll in band offices, while some return back to school after a few years.

Joy McCullough, associate education director for Squamish Nation, and Dalious's mother, said for things to improve, aboriginal parents and students will have to understand the value of education.

"I provided a home that was drug- and alcohol-free and I told my daughter that education is an investment you are making for yourself. I think she understood that."



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