Moving on up?
There are signs of improvement but a lot of work remains for NWT's schools

Darren Campbell
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 07/98) - The 1996-97 statistics reported the highest graduation rate ever in the Northwest Territories and the 1997-98 figures indicate that rate will be even higher again.

Now for the bad news.

That 1996-97 graduation rate was just 27 per cent, far below the 1992-93 national average of 73 per cent.

Given those sobering stats, there is clearly a lot of work to do before the education system in the Northwest Territories catches up to the rest of the country.

And educators like Deh Cho Divisional Education Council director Nolan Swartzentruber recognize work needs to be done on that.

"I'm still concerned about our graduation rate," said Swartzentruber. "We still need improvement on that."

But there has been some improvement. Robert Slaven, manager of student records for the department of education, culture and employment, said there is a key reason for that.

"It looks like its from the grade extension that is being done all over the Northwest Territories," said Slaven.

Grade extension refers to offering more grades at community schools, including grade 12, so students from small communities all the way from Fort Liard to Pangnirtung don't have to leave home to finish their education.

Slaven said they have no way of accurately compiling drop-out rates in the NWT, but added the rate has always been very high. One reason for that has been that students from the smaller communities drop out when they are forced to move away from home to finish their schooling.

Curtis Brown, director of the Kivilliq divisional education council, said that is the reality of teaching in the North.

"I used to be in Rae-Edzo and one of the comments I heard was that students who went off to Yellowknife didn't fail because they lacked ability but they failed Yellowknife," said Brown. "They didn't have the family support system there."

Grade extension is one way of solving the drop out problem. Slaven said they already have over 300 graduates in the Northwest Territories for 1997-98. That is up from 295 in 1996-97 and 263 in 1995-96.

Also encouraging for NWT educators is the fact more Northerners than ever before are going for post-secondary education.

The latest territorial government post-secondary grants and loans figures -- the most accurate way of telling how many Northerners are going to college or university --show in 1995-96, 2,051 people got financial assistance. That is up from 1,849 in 1994-95.

But there are still significant hurdles to overcome in the NWT's school's. Such as the fact that while 636 students were enroled in grade 12 last year, just 300 graduated. And there is also the drop-outs to contend with.

Why is this happening? Why aren't students staying in school? Some educators say it is because the curriculum being taught reflects Southern culture, not their own.

"We haven't met our students needs as well as we could have," said Swartzentruber.

As an example, when J.B. Tyrrell Elementary School principal Mike Simms rolled into Fort Smith last year, he found 40 per cent of the students there had one special need or another.

"That is a atrociously high," said Simms. "Our challenge now is to light a fire under the kids, the community and the teachers to find a way to solve this."

He said school's all over the NWT must have curriculum's that respect the lives, heritage, and culture of the community they are serving. And that is vastly different from Fort Smith to Cambridge Bay.

Simms said the consequence of having a curriculum that doesn't reflect the students culture and heritage is a serious one.

"If you teach them Southern math, language and reading, you'll serve some (students) but a lot you will lose," said Simms.

Brown said there is hope in this regard. He points to two new curricula developed by the education department --the Innuugatigiit curriculum and the Dene Kede curriculum. He said these study programs focus on Inuit and Dene perspectives. He said that might help keep aboriginal students interested in school longer.

"It's making the education system more relevant to the communities and students in the system," said Brown. "But it may not solve the whole problem."

Brown said other challenges facing Nunavut's schools is dealing with a booming population, and making their students fluent in Inuktitut when their is a shortage of teachers at the high school level that teach it.