This week the much anticipated report was released by the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education and outlines the need for a First Nations Education Act, a commission, regional authorities, adequate funding and a reporting and accountability framework. The 2006 Census reports that 60 per cent of First Nations and 75 per cent of Inuit students do not complete high school, while Metis and First Nations off-reserve fare better there is still a gap in educational completion.[i]
The panel report advocates for some essential first steps that are required in the relationship between the government and First Nations people on education. It is estimated that 40% of First Nations students are educated in provincial run schools off of their reserves so efforts in decreasing the education gap must be made both on and off reserves.[ii] In BC, they have Enhancement Agreements which are a working agreement between a school district, all local Aboriginal communities, and the Ministry of Education designed to enhance the educational achievement of Aboriginal students. EAs highlight the importance of academic performance and more importantly, stress the integral nature of Aboriginal traditional culture and languages to Aboriginal student development and success.[iii] What is important about the EA’s are that they work with all local Aboriginal groups. For example the Vancouver Memorandum of Agreement[iv] signatories include the enhancement committee, provincial representatives, First Nations, Metis, Aboriginal youth, student, United Native Nations, and Urban Native Youth Association. EA’s are intrinsically based on the principle that it takes a community to educate a child therefore all stakeholders including the student must be involved and an active participant. The inclusion of all stakeholders is imperative in moving towards increasing Aboriginal student success, as well as taking an inclusive approach that builds support of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, urban Aboriginal Groups, community organizations, and students. Another aspect of Enhancement Agreements is that they focus on promoting and connecting Aboriginal students to Aboriginal culture. The importance of pride in Aboriginal culture cannot be understated for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Firstly, many Aboriginal people live in urban areas and are not necessarily in their traditional territory, or perhaps they do not have one, and look to connect with their Aboriginal culture within the city. Providing this through the educational system makes sense as both student and parents connect to their community through schools. Promoting pride in Aboriginal cultures helps to promote self-esteem for Aboriginal students who often experience racism. The promotion of Aboriginal culture and cross-cultural understanding needs to happen with non-Aboriginal students, teachers, and other parents as well. One of the greatest barriers to academic success is the racism that Aboriginal students experience on a day to day basis that often results in dropping out or being pushed out.
What is so inspiring about the Enhancement Agreements in British Columbia is that they focus on an inclusive approach to Aboriginal education (First Nations, Metis, Inuit). I cannot stress enough the importance of targeting all constitutionally recognized groups in our education efforts so that they are inclusive of First Nations, Metis and Inuit. On that note the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation is doing excellent work and targets First Nations, Metis and Inuit for scholarships and bursaries to support those Aboriginal students that do graduate and continue on to post-secondary education.
The next important practices to decrease the Aboriginal education gap is hiring Aboriginal teachers[v] through employment equity for Aboriginal teachers and administrators as they have a vested interest in Aboriginal student success. Aboriginal employment equity should proportionally represent the total Aboriginal student population in their districts. For example, approximately 45% of students in school district No.85 (Vancouver Island North) self-identify as Aboriginal yet only about 5% of teachers in the district are Aboriginal.[vi] The importance of role-modelling cannot be downplayed in Aboriginal student success, whether it is at the K-12 or post-secondary level, Indigenization should be occurring within academic institutions and that includes students seeing Aboriginal teachers and professors.
The recommendation by the panel on First Nations education to implement a reporting and accountability framework is another excellent recommendation that needs to be tied to culturally appropriate assessments and data gathering. The Province of BC implemented data collection in the mid-1990’s[vii] which has allowed the province and school districts to set benchmarks and track progress. It is essential that all provinces in Canada begin to collect data and ensure Aboriginal self-identification. How can we know where we are going if we do not even know how we are doing, or how many Aboriginal students are in our school districts?
To decrease the education gap for Aboriginal students we must also start earlier, positive outcomes can and should be encouraged through the support of early childhood education through Aboriginal Headstart both on and off reserve. Research has shown the benefit of the Headstart in increasing graduation rates and decreasing the amount of crimes, in particular for females. Although research on Headstart is not conclusive I believe the benefits of early interventions are important to focus on in order to decrease the education gap.[viii] Aboriginal Headstart’s in Canada are offered through federal program for urban and northern communities and also on-reserves and what is important about these programs is they implement the cultural component for Aboriginal children as well as preparing them for the academic setting which I believe helps prepare students for school.
The last point that I want to discuss regarding Aboriginal education is the importance of promoting a culture of education by both parents and communities. There are a number of successful programs like Pathways to Education which have doubled graduation rates and decreased drop-out rates by 70%, and the program generates a whopping $24 social return for every $1 invested.[ix] Although it is expensive per person the program highlights the enormous potential for applicability on and off-reserve. Many years ago I was involved in a program in the U.S. called Futures for Children, the Futures through Leadership programs achieves a 95% graduation rate of Native American students by providing mentoring and training, family support, and leadership training.[x] I was amazed by the culture of education that is promoted amongst the majority of families in the U.S. and that is the culture of education that we must promote in Aboriginal communities. As Aboriginal parents we need to be thinking about the education of our children early, in elementary talking to them about their aspirations: what do you want to do when you grow up? We also need to ensure that they know what courses they need to take to and the grades they need to 1) gain admission to the University of their choice 2) the high-school courses they need to be taking in grade 8 to 10 and 11 to 12 to get into their pre-requisite courses in university. We cannot rely on high school counsellors to do this — we need to become active in our children’s education. I know what you are thinking – how can Aboriginal parents become active in their children’s education when they are a barely surviving? This is the exact culture of education that sees thousands of inner-city kids in American cities going on to Ivy League schools, and this is what I saw happening with American Indian students in the U.S. Many of the kids in the Futures for Leadership program went on to Harvard, Stanford and Princeton. We need to promote that type of culture of education here in Canada, provide family support, leadership training, and role-modelling and mentorship programs for Aboriginal children. We need programs that will not only target the best and brightest Aboriginal children but bring them together with those who are underachieving to raise the bar for them to increase their own attainment.
To decrease the education gap for Aboriginal learners is a task that will have to bring together both levels of government, all Aboriginal groups (First Nations, Metis and Inuit), as well as community organizations, families, students and Canadians. It will take innovative thinking to enact strategies that respect Aboriginal history and cultures and work to engage all stakeholders in changing a system that is not working for Aboriginal people.