The B.C. government deserves credit for the efforts it has taken to address the province’s sky-high first nations dropout rate.
Its strategy — consisting of nearly $65 million-plus in extra funding, curriculum-related initiatives and personal intervention strategies — is starting to pay real dividends.
High school completion rates among B.C.’s first nations youth slowly but steadily have been improving.
While only 47.3 per cent of first nations students finished high school in the 2006-07 academic year, by last year that number had grown to 59.4 per cent.
While this certainly signals strong improvement, first nations students still have a ways to go. Last year 86 per cent of non-first nations students in B.C. graduated.
The province appears to understand the necessity of closing the gap, especially since 11 per cent of the public school population in B.C. now is aboriginal, up from about eight per cent in 2002.
Clearly these kids are going to be an important resource for B.C. But their employment prospects will be greatly influenced by how long they remain in school.
Right now, no fewer than seven job-generating energy projects are on track for development in B.C., all earmarked for land in the vicinity of 56 first nations communities. The jobless rate in these communities stands at nearly 33 per cent. Oil and gas companies typically require high school diplomas, as well as specialized skills training.
To improve employment prospects for first nations students, the province has been allocating to school districts education funding of more than $1,100 per student.
About a year and a half ago, the government appointed veteran teacher and principal DeDe DeRose, a member of the Esketmc First Nation, as B.C.’s first Superintendent of Aboriginal Achievement.
DeRose works closely with a first nations education steering committee comprised of representatives from first nations communities.
Initiatives DeRose and others are deploying involve inclusion into the curriculum of aboriginal languages, history and culture.
A number of high schools have allocated special welcome rooms, staffed by first nations support workers who provide coffee and cookies, and personalized help to students.
Vancouver’s school board developed a pilot project in 2013, tracking first nations students in Grade 12, who needed an extra push to earn their high school diploma.
At Britannia secondary in Vancouver, for instance, with a large first nations student roster, the project tracked 26 students and offered them assistance such as morning wake-up calls, rides to school and tutoring.
The result? Of 26 students, 24 graduated.
In a study four years ago on strengthening first nations education, Simon Fraser University professor John Richards recommended “all aboriginal children have access to early childhood education, either on or off-reserve.”
Such programs would give the youngsters a useful head start and is perhaps something the province can plan for in future as money becomes available.
But it should be recognized, B.C. stands out among the provinces as a jurisdiction that has put money where its mouth is, assiduously tackling the challenge of urging its first nations young people to stay in the classroom.