Nanaimo school district is “a little disappointed” and reflecting on next steps to get back on track with the latest graduation statistics showing fewer aboriginal students graduated last year.
Ninety-seven aboriginal students were handed diplomas last year, a graduation rate of 52 per cent, according to the B.C. Ministry of Education’s latest completion rates.
It’s the third year in a row the district’s aboriginal graduation rates have slipped and a five-year low; only widening the gap between Nanaimo’s total student and aboriginal graduation numbers.
Scott Saywell, district assistant superintendent, says the reason for the decline is the loss of two aboriginal outreach program teachers who’d gone door-to-door and in some cases, got kids out of bed, to bring them to school, and the disruption of moving its VAST Learning Centre to a different school due to increasing enrolment. About 70 per cent of VAST students are indigenous and Saywell said some went to the Tsawalk Learning Centre, a local alternative program run by Vancouver Island West school district. He also said small numbers of students makes a big difference in grad rate.
“Except for these last couple years, we were on par with sort of the provincial average … so we’ve done some really good work,” he said. “To see us go down a couple years in a row is concerning and has us sort of taking stock of where to go next, but again, it is small numbers of students.
“We know we can correct that with a little greater focus.”
The top goal of Nanaimo school district is to improve aboriginal graduation rates and it hit a peak in 2013-14 when 64 per cent of aboriginal students graduated. Since then, the graduation rate has been in decline.
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The rate dropped to 58 per cent in 2014-15 and 56 per cent in 2015-16, for example, while the graduation rate of all students was 72 and 73 per cent respectively. In 2016-17, 72 per cent of all students, or 878, were awarded diplomas.
Provincially the numbers of aboriginal high school graduates have climbed, going from 60 per cent in 2012-13 to 63 per cent in 2014-15 and 66 per cent last year. The only time Nanaimo either met or did better in the last five years was in 2013-14, the ministry’s website shows.
Saywell did tell the News Bulletin he isn’t overly concerned about the district’s rates and overall it’s moving in the right direction by introducing indigenous ways of knowing and learning in schools and changing the “hearts and minds” of teachers and people in the district.
Saywell said when every staff member understands their role in improving the life chances for indigenous students, the district will be at par with the all-student grad rate.
“I can envision within about five years that our aboriginal grad rate is on par with our all student grad rate,” he said. “In the end it just requires sort of an unrelenting focus on improving those outcomes for aboriginal students.”
That the graduation numbers aren’t going up substantially in Nanaimo school district is disappointing for Chris Beaton, executive director of Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre and a partner in Tsawalk Learning Centre.
Aboriginal content has come into the B.C. curriculum in more significant ways in the last few years, there’s more resources available to support aboriginal students and the aboriginal graduation rate for B.C. is going up, he said.
“It really makes me question what we are missing here from Nanaimo, both from a community and school district perspective,” said Beaton, who believes everyone has a responsibility to come together and have a conversation with parents and students on what more can be done.
He also asks if decisions made by the school district in the last few years need to be looked at, such as not having an aboriginal education principal.
“When someone is left behind it impacts us all. Success of our aboriginal students should be important to everybody: school district, community, families, businesses,” he said.