Chilliwack student Nathon Jimmie is determined not to let his future be determined by the past.

Faces behind Chilliwack’s graduation numbers

If it’s true that it takes a community to raise a child, something could be wrong with the Chilliwack community as evidenced in its graduation rates.

If it’s true that it takes a community to raise a child, something could be wrong with the Chilliwack community as evidenced in its graduation rates.

For more than five years, the Chilliwack school district has consistently languished below the provincial average in graduating students.

In the 2009/10 school year, just 69 per cent of students made it to graduation – 11 per cent below the provincial average.

Chilliwack is more in line with rural school districts like Fort Nelson and Cariboo-Chilcotin, where resources are limited, than it is to nearby communities like Abbotsford, Langley and Mission, which have 85.9 per cent, 82.5 per cent and 80.1 per cent successful graduation rates, respectively.

“We know we have kids coming into our schools who are very challenged,” said school district superintendent Corinne McCabe.

Chilliwack has a large aboriginal community, students with mental health issues, transient kids moving in and out of the district, impoverished families, a high rate of teen pregnancy, and issues with drugs and alcohol.

However, other school districts in the Fraser Valley face many of those same issues, but are still successful in getting their students to graduation.

So what makes Chilliwack different? Why does this community continue to struggle?

“I can’t answer that question,” said McCabe. “That’s what we’re trying to find out. Chilliwack’s numbers are not good … and we’ve been asking those questions for a number of years; we’ve been digging into the data.”

In the last two years, the district has invested heavily in technology, purchasing iPads and iPod Touches to become more relevant to today’s “screenager” student.

“The kids have changed – they have more ability to draw in information from so many different sources and we’re competing with that,” said McCabe.

“But the fundamental piece hasn’t changed and that’s about the relationship the kids have with the significant adults in their lives who help them to be successful – that’s at the core of it.”

The district is changing practices around student assessment and homework completion, giving teachers the tools to effectively educate their diverse classrooms.

“This is work we have to do with our parents, our community, our students and our schools,” said McCabe. “We’re working very hard to do the things we need to do to make [graduation rates] better, because what’s happening in the classroom, and the supports in the home and in the community, that will make it better.”

In the meantime, 31 per cent of Chilliwack students are headed towards failure.

The Progress interviewed a number of students who have faced mental health issues, had no parental support at home, lived on the streets, and weren’t engaged in school. These are their stories.

Out-running the ghosts

Nathon Jimmie is determined to free his future from the history of residential schools.

Ever since his great-grandfather attended a residential school in the 1930s, generations of his family have been suffering.

“I’m going to put an end to the cycle of pain, like right now,” he says.

It starts with graduation.

The 20-year-old will be graduating in June – two years after the timeframe prescribed by the B.C. education ministry’s six-year completion rate. In Chilliwack, he is among a limited group of aboriginal students to obtain his Dogwood.

First Nations students in Chilliwack make up 15 per cent of the student population. And yet, 45.4 per cent who started Grade 8 in the district six years ago graduated in the 2009/10 school year.

“We’re not doing as good a job as we need to with our aboriginal population,” admits school district superintendent Corinne McCabe. “Our aboriginal students are a challenge for us; they’re a challenge for the whole province.”

McCabe hopes that by signing the aboriginal enhancement agreement last year, which is a partnership between the Chilliwack school district, Chilliwack’s aboriginal communities and the education ministry, and by offering courses like Halq’eméylem and First Peoples, the success of native students will improve.

“The aboriginal community has to tell their kids it’s important to finish school, and our schools have to make it easier for those parents to support their kids,” says McCabe.

Many aboriginals, like Nathon, come with generations of baggage.

Nathon, who was raised on the Squiala First Nations Reserve, has endured abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcoholism and drugs, which he says stems from his great-grandfather’s days in an Indian residential school.

Residential schools were created by the Canadian government in the 1840s as a way of “civilizing” its aboriginal communities by trying to forcefully assimilate indigenous children into European culture. Aboriginal children were taken from their homes and families into schools where their native language and culture were not accepted. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

Nathon’s great-grandfather was physically and emotionally abused. His brother, who was thrown down a flight of stairs, was killed. Outside of school, the great-grandfather sought relief through alcohol and violence.

“The pain and anger he carried from residential school, he put that upon his children,” says Nathon.

Nathon’s grandmother, who became addicted to medically prescribed drugs, continued her father’s anger with her own children. And even though his mother stopped the physical abuse, she became an alcoholic just like her grandfather. She dropped out of school at 16, had Nathon, her first child, at 17, which meant “we were to live a life of struggle.”

After his parents split up when he was 13, Nathon became a surrogate parent to his two younger siblings. While his mom did shift work, Nathon had to clean the house, prepare lunches, cook dinner, put his brother and sister to bed, and make sure they got to school on time.

His grades suffered.

“I couldn’t really live life as a kid. I had a lot of responsibilities, a lot of pressure. I couldn’t just go home and watch TV or hang out with friends, I had to help around the house, and somehow fit in homework, too. It made schooling a lot harder.”

When Nathon, who had already been held back in Grade 1, failed Grade 7, he was ready to give up on school altogether.

“I’d already been through that process of being teased, frowned upon, asked why I’m this age, but not in that grade with my peers – I didn’t want to go through that again.”

It was his mom’s faith that kept him going.

“She always told me that I’m going to be a lot better person than she ever was, that I’m going to move on with my education, I’m not going to struggle like she did – that’s what pushed me.”

For years, it was common to hold students back a grade if they failed to meet passing requirements. But now, school districts like Chilliwack are rethinking that practice – especially in middle school.

“We’re trying to find better ways of helping kids be successful at middle school so they don’t have to repeat a grade,” says McCabe. “And we’re looking really hard before we have kids repeat a grade, because there’s lots of evidence that says retention at that age is not beneficial – there are too many social issues attached with it.

“Usually if a kid is struggling, there are reasons why they’re struggling and just retaining them isn’t going to solve those problems. Repeating a grade isn’t going to fix the problem, you have to do something different for the student.”

When Nathon’s mom got laid off, she built a marijuana grow operation in their basement to survive.

“She felt that was the best thing to do. She was just trying to find any way to put food on the table, clothe her children, provide for us … it was survival. Financially, we needed it.”

For a little over a year they survived on his mom’s marijuana earnings. Although Nathon questioned the decision at first, it didn’t interfere with his life. He and his siblings never went downstairs, he didn’t know how small or how large it was. His grades even started to improve; he made the honour roll in both Grade 8 and Grade 9.

“And then, bam, another downfall,” he says.

In Grade 10, the grow-op was busted. His mom was arrested.

When the police arrived in the middle of the night, Nathon threw clothes into a bag, dragged his brother out of bed, and ran to his grandfather’s house “before they could take us.

“I wasn’t going to let that happen. I knew right away they were going to try and split us up and put us into foster homes … Foster homes are generally European white homes, not native homes and I think it’s really important for aboriginal people to stay with aboriginal people.”

The day Nathon turned 19, he sought guardianship of his siblings. For more than a year now, he’s been caring for his sister and brother and attending classes at Chilliwack secondary.

At times, it’s tough.

“There were times where I wouldn’t go to school, where I’d wake up and feel depressed. I was my own boss, my own person, if I didn’t feel like going, I wasn’t going to go.”

And unlike his siblings, he didn’t have a parent to shoo him out the door.

Without the support of his band, he’s not sure he would have succeeded.

“My band has been a really huge support throughout this whole process. They gave us hardship money when we first started out; found us a place to live; set up and paid for my little brother’s counselling sessions once a week … and all my graduation stuff, they’re paying for.”

Nathon hopes his graduation will be a positive example, for not only his brother and sister to live by, but for all First Nations kids.

“It would have been really easy for me to give up. But ultimately, I wanted a good life, I didn’t want to struggle like my mom.”

kbartel@theprogress.com

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