Centre targets aboriginal graduation rates in Nanaimo

NANAIMO – A new not-for-profit organization is looking to see every aboriginal student in Nanaimo school district graduate.

There is a growing gap in aboriginal graduation rates, and it’s up to the community to help fill it, says Nanaimo’s new champion for education.

“If a large group of our students – and a growing group – is not having success in education, it impacts all of us,” said Chris Beaton, executive director of the new, not-for-profit Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre. “We can’t get to the stage of being able to call ourselves a successful city if we don’t all move forward together.”

The not-for-profit launched in June with aims of raising the bar on aboriginal education.

As the fastest growing demographic in Canada, aboriginal youth are anticipated to fill national labour shortages and be major economic contributors, but experts agree education is key.

In the Harbour City, aboriginal students are still lagging behind non-aboriginal counterparts. According to the Nanaimo school district, 49.9 per cent of aboriginal students received their Dogwood diplomas in 2012 compared to a general graduation rate of 71.6 per cent. In 2011, 52 per cent of aboriginal students completed high school versus 69.6 per cent of students overall.

Graduation rates are not improving fast enough, according to Beaton, who calls the problem a local crisis.

The new Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre hopes to partner with local community groups this year to apply fresh ideas and solutions to lingering education challenges. It’s goal is to see a 100 per cent grad rate.

Solutions found could also be applied to non-aboriginal students struggling in the school system, the organization’s members say.

“This is a social issue as much as an economic challenge and [we need to bring] best practices to the table … in order to affect change because the reality is it’s not changing or changing at the pace anyone is happy with,” Beaton said.

Michael Leggett, a member of the centre’s eight-person board, said the organization is still exploring ways to achieve its graduation mission, but among the options is  advocacy work on curriculum content that resonates better with First Nations students. It also plans to focus on early childhood education, family activity nights and youth mentorship.

The centre will be reaching out to the private sector and other not-for-profits to take part in initiatives that help address education issues. Angie Barnard, co-owner of the Painted Turtle Guesthouse, said she looks forward to seeing the projects the organization takes on. She will be among those lending support.

“You achieve much greater results when you work together and I think it’s easy to own this issue because education is really the foundation of the future,” she said.

The centre’s mission kicks off with Aboriginal Family Night on Oct 8, an event where different aboriginal groups can share culture and build community. It also plans to launch the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative’s accounting mentorship program in Nanaimo, which will give high school students job shadowing opportunities.