By Jeremy Nolais
Redesigning and reopening a shuttered Calgary public school could go a long way to improving early literacy, high-school completion rates and other benchmarks for native students, says a top superintendent.
A report issued by the Calgary Board of Education to trustees and made public this week identifies the board is still below provincial averages in a number of key areas concerning First Nations, Metis and Inuit students but is making strides.
In 2012, about one-third of self-identified native students graduated high school within the standard three-year timeline, less than one-quarter planned to transition to post-secondary even six years after entering Grade 10, and 10 per cent of students ages 14-18 dropped out altogether.
CBE Chief Supt. Naomi Johnson said her team met with Alberta Education officials to discuss the issue last week.
“I think that they acknowledge and we acknowledge that our results are, really, not good at all,” she told trustees.
Even still, the board actually maintained or improved in every area monitored year-over-year and more help could be in sight.
The CBE has identified plans for an Aboriginal student centre at the currently closed Harold W. Riley school in Calgary’s southeast as its top modernization priority.
Johnson said the location was chosen for its proximity to native student populations in the city but added it would be able to accommodate young learners, possibly between the ages of 5-7, from all over the city.
Alberta Education has also begun discussions about bringing on an Aboriginal designer to give the building an authentic feel, she said, adding building solid reading skills at an early age would a primary focus.
“The ability to speak in their own language is compromised — their very much like English-language learners in many ways,” she said of native students.
Mount Royal University professor Kevin O’Connor, who has a Ph.D in education and served previously as a senior policy adviser on Aboriginal education issues for the federal government, said the current school system teaches kids to read until Grade 2 or 3 and then shifts to a “read-to-learn” approach.”
“Anybody who struggles with reading after Grade 3, essentially, and we have seen this not only in Canada but internationally, they start to really fall behind and then fall into those cracks,” he said. “The system’s set up to serve the mainstream of students and because of the lack of resources and funding, it’s really hard for teachers to address the needs of students if they don’t know how to read and are struggling with literacy.”
The provincial government has said it plans to green light a number of school modernization projects in the province before year’s end.