Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Changes intended to bridge aboriginal education gap in Alberta

Curriculum tweaks, new advocate coming

By Andrea Sands, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - Alberta Education will establish a new assistant deputy minister of First Nations, Métis and Inuit education as part of provincial work to narrow the troubling achievement gap in education, says Education Minister Jeff Johnson.

“One of our biggest challenges is that gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal kids,” Johnson said last week at a Journal editorial board meeting.

The department’s deputy minister of education, Greg Bass, sent out a letter Thursday to ministry staff announcing that recruiting is starting for the new position.

“This new leadership role will provide a focal point within the ministry and government for implementing (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) education policies, programs and initiatives,” the letter said. “It will help ensure that our work with partners — school jurisdictions, parents and communities — is well aligned, and that we continue to take a co-ordinated and collaborative approach to FNMI education in the province.”

Alberta needs to do a better job of making education relevant and valued in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, Johnson said.

“It’s embarrassing and it’s unfortunate, but I think there’s a real legitimate reason for that (gap), and it’s the residential schools. The generation who are parents now, or grandparents, their experience with education was not a good one,” he said. “Imagine people showing up and taking your kids out of your community and tying that to education, and what that does to your impression of education.”

At last year’s annual meeting, in Iqaluit, the Council of Education Ministers of Canada agreed to include the study of treaties and residential schools in the curriculum. Alberta and the Northwest Territories expect to present a proposal in July related to better training teachers about aboriginal issues, and to attracting aboriginal students who want to go into education and supporting them better, Johnson said.

“The smudging, respecting the culture, making sure that, in the curriculum, there is some solid education on the history of our province, the First Nations, the treaties, the residential schools — that is part ... of the solution,” he said.

Rewriting Alberta’s curriculum and making learning opportunities more flexible for students, so they can learn at their own pace, where and when it’s convenient, should help, Johnson said.

“To force every kid in the same system to sit at a desk for six hours a day, learning about the 1,400 different outcomes (in the current curriculum), ramming that curriculum down their throat, does not work in a remote, rural First Nations community. They just don’t go to school. They won’t come. So how are we going to make the education system more relevant, to inspire them to be there?”

In Fort McMurray, where the school district works more closely with First Nations groups and industry, the gap in graduation rates for aboriginal versus non-aboriginal students has almost closed, Johnson said.

“So there’s some great examples,” he said.

Jurisdictional issues make the matter of closing the achievement gap more challenging, Johanson said, because the federal government is responsible for education on reserve land. However, provincial officials are working with the federal government and aboriginal leaders to press for more funding and for better equality on and off reserves, he said.

The new assistant deputy minister position is good news, said Fred Hines, principal at Amiskwaciy Academy, an Edmonton public school that incorporates aboriginal culture.

Amiskwaciy Academy serves students from about 50 different First Nations communities across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The school provides many extra supports, such as a healthy breakfast and lunch program, an elder and counselling services, to its students, many of whom attend the school for short periods of time before returning to their home communities, Hines said.

“You’ve really got to be creative at hooking these kids and getting them back into learning, and learning in a healthy way,” Hines said. “It’s always adapting the curriculum, enriching the curriculum, working outside the curriculum, really helping the kids and getting their attention, but also allowing them input and incorporating their culture into their learning. That’s a really important piece — allowing them to express themselves.”

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