OTTAWA -- There are more than 21,000 school-aged children living on reserves in Manitoba.
If current education trends hold true, roughly seven in 10 of them will never graduate from high school.
Most will bump along through a system that is underfunded and unregulated and drop out or be forced out long before they get to Grade 12.
But there is some hope on the horizon with a renewed commitment to improving education on reserves from almost every level of government.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has made education one of the pillars of his leadership.
Last week, an expert panel on native education appointed by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan held its final roundtable in Ottawa and should have a report for the minister by the end of the year.
Next week, a Senate committee will begin deliberating on a report on First Nations education after holding hearings on the subject throughout the fall.
Both reports are likely to recommend a national First Nations Education Act and the creation of First Nations school divisions to give more support and organization to First Nations schools. They will almost certainly also recommend more money.
"Right now, all the stars are aligned," said James Wilson, Manitoba Treaty Commissioner and an expert in First Nations education.
Reserve schools are quite literally the worst of the worst, with crumbling buildings, underpaid, sometimes undertrained teachers and spotty attendance.
One teacher at a school on an isolated reserve in northern Manitoba arrived this fall to find a school in chaos.
"The kids don't want to learn and the teachers don't want to be there," he said. "And nobody is monitoring them."
The school itself is horrible, he said, without much natural light, crumbling fixtures and dirt piling up everywhere. There is a gym but no gym teacher. There are library books but no library.
He estimates there are about 100 kids who attend school regularly in his community, but there are at least 300 school-aged kids on the reserve.
The school only goes to Grade 9. If kids want to go further, they have to move to Winnipeg or Thompson.
Most don't, he said.
More than eight in 10 residents on the reserve between ages 25 and 34 don't have a high school diploma.
Lorne Keeper, executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, said only 13 reserves in Manitoba have a high school, meaning 65 per cent of reserve children must leave home to finish their education. Moving to Winnipeg or Thompson is a difficult adjustment and more than two-thirds who try will fail.
Keeper said the 28 per cent graduation rate Ottawa cites for kids on Manitoba reserves doesn't reflect what happens on the reserves where kids can finish high school at home.
"In high schools on reserves the success rate is comparable to the provincial system," he said.
Wilson, once the director of education at one of the province's successful reserve schools in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, said the biggest problems are funding and accountability.
Manitoba governs public schools with 150 pages of legislation in the Public Schools Act and the Education Administration Act. Ottawa's rules and standards for reserve schools take up just three pages within the Indian Act.
"I think that is the beginning of the inequity right there," Wilson told the Senate standing committee on aboriginal peoples in October.
Most of the three pages are reserved for truancy, but attendance is little-enforced.
"There is nothing that even holds the government to account," he said.
There is no minimum number of days kids have to be in school and no standards for what they have to learn.
He'd like to see a national education act for First Nations accompanied by increased funding that empowers First Nations to create their own school boards and set their own standards.
A school division run by natives would ensure communities don't see schools as a return to the residential school era, Wilson said.
"If schools are seen in any way as a means of assimilation, communities will opt out. Schools used to be used as weapons."
The other big piece of the puzzle is money.
There are 57 band-operated schools on reserves in Manitoba, with 17,500 kids enrolled. Another 3,700 students from reserves in Manitoba attend provincial public schools or private schools off reserve. In 2010-11, funding for the schools included $293.4 million operating and $51 million in capital.
That works out to $13,840 per pupil for on-reserve students. On the surface, it's higher than the $10,364 per-pupil average in Manitoba public schools.
In reality, said Wilson, per-pupil funding for kids attending reserve schools is closer to $4,000 to $5,000. The difference is in the extra money Ottawa spends on reserve kids who attend provincial public schools.
Bands are also often forced to dip into education funding for other priorities such as health care or housing.
Statistics Canada data show aboriginal Canadians who don't have a high school diploma have an employment rate of 30.3 per cent.
The employment rate for those who finish high school is almost double, at 58.7 per cent. If they get to university, the employment rate is nearly 80 per cent -- higher than for non-aboriginals with a university degree.
The Canadian Council on Learning estimates it costs $4,750 per year in justice costs, social assistance and lost tax revenue for every person who doesn't finish high school.
There are nearly 32,000 aboriginal Manitobans between 25 and 64 in that category, costing governments more than $151 million a year. With the aboriginal population skyrocketing and more than one in four Manitobans under 18 now aboriginal, the cost to government and society of not acting to improve First Nations education will soar.
"It's gotten to a point where it's not just a First Nations problem, it's a Canadian problem," said Wilson.
Number of kids in Manitoba between five and 14 years old
Number of aboriginal kids in Manitoba between 5 and 14 years old (25 per cent of total)
38 per cent
Percentage of aboriginals in Manitoba between 25 and 34 without a high school diploma
42 per cent
Percentage of aboriginals in Manitoba between 35 and 64 without a high school diploma
16 per cent
Percentage of all Manitobans between 25 and 34 without a high school diploma
22 per cent
Percentage of all Manitobans between 35 and 64 without a high school diploma
Employment rate of First Nations people by level of education (employment rate of non-aboriginals by level of education)
No high school diploma 30.3 per cent (38.3 per cent)
High school diploma 58.7 per cent (63.8 per cent)
With a trades certificate 62.8 per cent (68.2 per cent)
With a college diploma 70.3 per cent (72.7 per cent)
With a university degree 78.4 per cent (76.6 per cent)
-- Statistics Canada 2006 Census/Canadian Policy Research Networks