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Pilot project at Roseau important

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The pilot project that is keeping Roseau River students in their home school this year is a valuable first step into the future of broad, productive oversight of First Nations schools and education. The federal government helped broker this deal but it must be part of a bigger investment in the classes, curriculum and instruction for native schools in Manitoba and Canada, which remain mired in deplorable graduation rates.

Chief Terry Nelson, fed up with the quality of education for Roseau's kids, threatened to send all of them to the nearest public school, in Dominion City. The reserve students who go to off-reserve schools, he found, did better on tests than those at the reserve school. His interest in expecting more for all of Roseau's kids is commendable.

But sending them to school in Dominion City, paying the local school board the going rate, was expensive. The federal Aboriginal Affairs department worked quickly with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre to arrange for centre staff to help at Ginew School.

Help is welcome. But this offer alone will not improve academic performance or cut the dropout rate at Roseau. For that to happen, as the resource centre notes, there is need for improved, arm's-length oversight and direction of reserve schools, which historically have never had the curriculum and staff development, library and technological resources nor the standards and accountability requirements of public schools.

A survey in 2005 by Indian Affairs found that less than 20 per cent of First Nations education administrators -- and no one at the federal department -- believed reserve-based education was near comparable to that in public schools. A student in Grade 6 on the reserve could not transfer into the same grade with success in a public school. Students themselves said they thought they were two grades behind their counterparts. Indian Affairs data showed that of 5,485 students enrolled in Grade 12 in 1996, 35 per cent graduated. In 2002, that fell to 29 per cent, the Caledon Institute reported.

Ginew School suffers from the same problems plaguing native schools generally. Forty per cent of First Nation 20- to 24-year-olds do not get a high school diploma. Some of this stems from endemic poverty and native people's historical experiences with the education system. But band schools are also impoverished: Bands receive up to $2,000 per student less compared to public schools.

The Harper government has for years pressed First Nations to establish standards, best practices and measurement of academic outcomes. It is offering funding over three years to help bands improve and track literacy and numeracy and boost attendance.

The 55 band schools in Manitoba need more than that. Only a handful have school boards; there is no regional education authority. Bands need an umbrella authority to pool administrative expenses and experience, develop curriculum, share best practices, adopt good accountability. Chiefs and councils must trade off local control for professional, modern administration.

That costs money. Terry Nelson said he will take Ottawa to court to force it to fund his school at levels comparable to provincial funding, but that ignores the fact that public school boards tax locally to raise revenue as well.

The Harper government will lose this fight -- no court will rule in favour of Ottawa's funding agreements that demand bands provide programs comparable to public schools while omitting a federal commitment to comparable funding levels.

Three consecutive censuses have shown that on-reserve graduation rates have stalled at 60 per cent. The pilot project launched for Roseau River will show that there is so much work to be done. It is long past time for broad reform of education on Canada's reserves. The evidence is obvious that they need an arm's-length entity to give oversight, direction and programming expertise. This is where Ottawa must invest.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2011 A10

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