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Agreement aims to boost aboriginal graduation rates

Aboriginal excellence in schools has been overlooked for too long, says B.C.’s child watchdog.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the Representative for Children and Youth and the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) last Friday is working to change that.

“We must expect excellence and the highest achievement from our aboriginal children,” said representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

High school completion for aboriginal students in B.C. currently sits at 51 per cent; 45 per cent in Chilliwack.

Other provinces, like Saskatchewan, sit at just 20 per cent.

“While we may be doing better than other provinces, we’re not doing nearly as well as we should be,” said Turpel-Lafond. “Anything short of being on par with your peers, which is an 80 per cent graduation rate, is not good enough.”

Since taking office in 2006, Turpel-Lafond has been working with FNESC, an independent society committed to improving education for First Nation students in B.C..

The issues they feel need to be addressed include determining whether aboriginal children are ready to learn when they start kindergarten, providing better assessments and supports for aboriginal students with special needs, and keeping better track of students in foster care, who are moved around frequently.

“These are very specific issues at how we look at education, how we look at children, and how we make sure the needs of children, who we know are particularly vulnerable to poor achievement, are being addressed early, quickly and effectively so their level of achievement is equal to their peers,” said Turpel-Lafond.

The partnership between Turpel-Lafond and FNESC has been an eye opener for Tyrone McNeil, president of FNESC and vice president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in Chilliwack.

“Mary Ellen has shed light on a lot of the issues our kids are facing in school, in particular kids with continuing custody orders,” said McNeil.

A child with a continuing custody order is a ward of the state.

“With her support, we delved into the numbers and found that of the kids under continuing custody orders, only 14 per cent of males are graduating and 25 per cent females,” said McNeil. “Until she pushed enough buttons to find out those graduation rates, nobody had any idea. It was just on nobody’s radar.”

The MOU was not necessary to continue the partnership, but what it does, said McNeil, is publicly make others aware of their intentions for increasing aboriginal excellence.

McNeil believes it will also open more doors.

“She’s got a tremendous amount of authority to open more doors, but she’s got a limited capacity in education,” said McNeil. “So if she opens the doors and sheds light on key areas, we can step in and work with her to come up with remedies once the problems are identified.”

With this partnership, Turpel-Lafond has determined that more funding is required at reserve schools. She would also like to see the Ministry of Education appoint an aboriginal superintendent of achievement, who would be responsible for researching why aboriginal achievement is so abysmal and looking into ways for effective change.

“This partnership is really focused on the what, what are we doing to make this situation better,” said Turpel-Lafond. “We have to do things differently. We have to look at what is going to work to change this and make sure that we can improve these results child by child ... we have to see improvement in those results. MOUs, meetings, discussions are not going to be valuable unless we see improvement.”

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