Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Cultural teaching' proves impediment to literacy

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It is called the great divide and no time more clearly demonstrates it than when over 80 per cent of publicly educated Grade 12 students proudly march across stages to receive their diplomas in June.

While this compares to a paltry 30 per cent graduation rate for on-reserve students, the point is not to bemoan this shortfall but to applaud the Seine River School Division for doing something to turn this situation around for aboriginal students in Manitoba.

Theirs is a model worth studying.

Michael Borgfjord is the Seine River superintendent but he didn't start out that way. He began his career as a teacher in northern Manitoba where, he says, there were many days when he felt like the student, given how much the community was teaching him.

"It humbled me living on a reserve for four years," he said.

It allowed him to see the inequity northern students face on an ongoing basis.

Borgfjord is clearly passionate about seeing aboriginal students succeed but he's more than that. He is a game changer in our community and he is already making a difference.

"We need to raise the bar and set it high, by not only focusing on literacy but by tracking how our kids are doing and using those results to further improve what we do next," he said.

Ah, the word that makes so many educators cringe -- measure!

Yet that's at the core of the Seine River program, turf where so few others dare to tread.

Each year, the province of Manitoba offers grants to facilitate aboriginal academic achievement. While divisions are required to report on how their share of the $7.5-million province-wide budget is spent, Seine River has chosen to base its reporting on academic outcomes.

As Borgfjord describes it, Seine River has integrated the use of its AAA grant into their wider assessment strategy -- a measurable approach that ensures every single elementary student is assessed on literacy.

Results are cross-correlated by age, grade level, gender0 and by aboriginal self-declaration.

What the leadership team has learned so far is fascinating.

Though they don't know all the reasons why, what they have found so far is aboriginal and non-aboriginal students perform roughly on par with each other until around Grade 4.

After that, literacy rates -- reading and writing -- for aboriginal students begin to falter.

In other words, not only did the Seine River leadership team spot the fissure leading to today's great divide, but they are doing something about it.

With funds from the AAA grant, they hired literacy specialists to target students who were beginning to falter in Grades 5 and 6.

Not the usual type of aboriginal targeting where those falling behind are tracked into "cultural teaching," but a high-standards push on addressing the core literacy challenges facing so many disadvantaged students in Canada today.

Without question, aboriginal education is a difficult thing to define. To some, it is synonymous with special education, which means placing identified students into "high risk" groups. This harkens back to the streaming of ages ago when the mantra was aboriginal children could only learn with their hands and succeed in an environment of their peers.

To others, aboriginal education means arts and craft. Getting students to colour medicine wheels or make dream catchers and often pulling them from core literacy classes -- the ones they most need to succeed in mainstream Canada today.

By focusing on literacy and giving students access to aboriginal content directly integrated with Manitoba essential learnings for social studies, and via the treaty education initiative, Michael Borgfjord and the leadership team at Seine River saw beyond the superficial approaches of medicine wheels to outcome-based learning.

"In my opinion, we need to prepare all of our students for a post-secondary world which is why we have focussed on literacy," Borgfjord said. "Sometimes, all kids need is a push to excel to their full capabilities."

Borgfjord is being modest because he and his leadership team are doing much more than that. In setting high expectations for aboriginal students, they're ensuring aboriginal students set those same high expectations for themselves. For this, they deserve far more than an A for effort.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2012 A12

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