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Aboriginal student completion rates soar in Peace River South

Coach/mentor program credited with 19-point increase in completion rates in five years.
Dwayne Gladue dances at SD 59's Aboriginal Family Appreciation Night June 21, which marked National Aboriginal Day and the re-signing of the district's Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement with the province. The district has seen significant improvement in its Aboriginal student completion rates since introducing a coach/mentor program.

Aboriginal student completion rates at South Peace schools have jumped almost 20 per cent in five years, a level of improvement district officials say is almost unheard of in British Columbia.

Between 2011/12 and the last school year, the six-year completion rate among Aboriginal students in School District 59 improved from 58.4 to 77.5 per cent, according to a report presented at a school board meeting Jan. 18.

Aboriginal students have seen such success that overall completion rates have improved nearly five points in that same timeframe, Superintendent Leslie Lambie said.

“That’s an incredible achievement, and I believe a direct result of a very carefully designed program and the very hard work of many people over nearly a decade,” Superintendent Leslie Lambie said. “It is paying off for Aboriginal students.”

Province wide, 63.8 per cent of Aboriginal students graduated with either a B.C. Certificate of Graduation or a Dogwood diploma within six years of enrolling in Grade 8 last year.

In its 2015 report, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission “recognized the significant role the education system played in the colonization of First Nations people,” according to a report from the B.C. Auditor General.

Director of Instruction Christy Fennell, who is in charge of Aboriginal education in SD 59, said the province provides funding to address gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

“It really becomes historical,” she said. “There’s always been a huge gap between how Aboriginal students do in the K-12 education system compared to non-Aboriginal students. As the ministry looked at that year after year, it became clear something needed to be done.”

Lambie credited a coach/mentor program designed for Aboriginal students with much of the improvement in the district.

The program assigns one teacher at each school to be a “grad coach” who assists First Nations students with graduation requirements and goal setting.

“One of the things we discovered is kids were arriving in Grade 12, and they thought they were going to graduate that year, but they were short no matter how hard they worked,” Lambie said. “The coaching happens so that kids are always getting ready, they alway know what they have to have in front of them, and (the coach is) drawing their attention to it.”  

Before SD 59 introduced the program, just four of every ten Aboriginal students in the South Peace were completing school within six years of starting Grade 8—among the worst rates in B.C.

“A 20 per cent increase over five years in terms of graduation rates for Aboriginal students, that’s unheard of in this province,” Lambie said.

SD 59’s overall completion rate last year was 82.6 per cent, one point below the provincial average. Five years ago, the district was almost six points behind the rest of B.C.  

Aboriginal students made up a third of last year’s graduating class in Peace River South.  

Oilfield impact

Another trend pushing completion rates higher could be the decline in the number of oilpatch jobs, many of which do not require a high school diploma.

It’s a trend that’s been observed in Alberta schools, which see completion rates drop when there is a strong demand for oilfield labour.

School district trustee Richard Powell said Peace River South schools were likely seeing a similar trend.

“I would suspect in the past some students have not graduated because they’ve gone right to the workforce,” he said. “But I don’t think we have any data on that.”

Since late 2014, Northeast B.C.’s unemployment rate has gone from being too low to measure to over 10 per cent, as the region struggles with a loss of oilfield jobs.

In that same time, the school district’s completion rate among male students has gone from 67.7 to 77.9 per cent.