Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Head of the class
Fisher River's education system keeps kids in school, churns out high school graduates
Ninety-seven per cent attendance. Ninety per cent graduation rate. Close to zero staff turnover.
It's a situation most schools in Manitoba can only dream of. And you simply can't be blamed for assuming this case exists only in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods.
But that's not the case.
This is Charles Sinclair School, a nursery-to-Grade-12 institution on the Fisher River Cree Nation, where community dedication is turning the corner on education.
Fisher River, about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, has handed high school diplomas to 134 graduates in the last five years.
That accounts for almost every kid on the reserve who should have graduated in that time frame.
"We are sitting around a 90 per cent graduate rate," said Nora Murdock, director of education on the reserve. "We're averaging about 26 graduates a year. That's pretty decent."
Provincewide, the graduation rate is just over 80 per cent.
Murdock cites a number of factors behind Fisher River's success, including a dedicated parent-run school board, the commitment of the chief and council toward education, a local workforce and a spike in salaries to retain workers.
Out of 30 teachers at Charles Sinclair, 22 are First Nations and 15 are from Fisher River itself. Having teachers from the same culture and even the same community goes a long way to calming the fears and distrust of parents and grandparents who grew up with the horror of residential schools or lived with their aftermath.
Fair or not, outside teachers are often seen as relics of the residential school system that once tried to assimilate First Nations kids and strip them of their cultural identity, language and family connections.
Principal Davin Dumas said there's also been heavy emphasis placed on attendance. Average monthly attendance in the first four months of this school year ranged from a low of 97.56 per cent to a high of 98.59 per cent.
The Indian Act lays out no standards for education on reserves, so Fisher River borrowed the curriculum and calendar from Winnipeg School Division No. 1. Students there take the provincial standards tests in grades 3, 7, 8 and 12. But the teachers also assess kids every year and work with the school board and parents to ensure kids don't fall behind.
He also said the school is adapting to teach kids with a view of changing economic needs and changing technology. Notebooks and pencils are giving way to tablets, computers and iPads. Incorporating technology into the classroom is critical to getting the kids to pay attention, Dumas said.
"We teach so the students will be more engaged in learning," he said.
Which isn't easy on a very limited budget.
One of the remarkable things about Fisher River is they accomplished improvements to their education system with the same funding shortfalls facing all reserves.
"We've been more creative in the way we use the funds we do get," Murdock said.
Murdock has about $5 million a year to spend on education, including physical operating costs, teacher salaries and tuition for post-secondary students each year.
One of the critical points was passing a bylaw requiring every cent be used only for education. Many First Nations, facing chronic funding shortfalls across the board, find themselves robbing one department to help cover a crisis in another. So housing money is used in health care, for example, or funds meant for schools go to keep people from freezing in unheated shacks.
Not in Fisher River.
One of the critical choices was to raise teacher salaries by 25 per cent over the last four years. It hasn't brought them quite up to par with off-reserve teachers in Manitoba, but it's close. And Fisher River hasn't had a teacher leave for four years.
James Wilson, the Manitoba treaty commissioner and an expert on First Nations education, said Fisher River is one of the standouts in Manitoba when it comes to education on reserves. Chief David Crate's interest and devotion to education is well-known, he said.
"They're always looking for best practices," Wilson said.
Murdock is pushing education beyond the local school as well.
Five years ago, the band launched a program to help their high school graduates through the transition to post-secondary school. Before the reserve sponsors the students to attend college or university, they have to complete 10 months of life-skills classes, learning things such as household budgeting and how to rent an apartment. Two of the eight months are spent in Winnipeg, where most of the kids will attend post-secondary school, to ease the transition to the city.
"We found a lot of students, not just First Nations students, don't make it in post-secondary," Murdock said.
In the five years prior to the enhancement program, there were 45 graduates from Charles Sinclair School. Only one of them went on to graduate from a post-secondary institution.
In the five years since the program started, 27 out of 94 graduates who completed the enhancement year went on to post-secondary education. Six have graduated and 21 are still enrolled.
Results aren't immediate, but the improvement is clearly there.
Fisher River is looking to incorporate the enhancement program into the final year of high school so students going on to college or university aren't delayed a year.
First Nations and non-First Nations leaders agree on one thing: Improving education for First Nations is a critical element to solving the myriad social problems on reserves. Everything from good governance to economic development depends on it. Better-educated people are healthier, wealthier and happier overall. The social cost of people who don't finish high school is estimated at about $4,750 per person per year for justice costs, social assistance and lost tax revenue.
But in Manitoba, some reserves post graduation rates below 20 per cent. In Pauingassi, a remote community on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, a stunning 97 per cent of adults between 25 and 64 do not have a high school diploma.
But research has shown high school alone nearly doubles the employment rate for First Nations in Canada, to about 60 per cent. If they get to university, the employment rate for First Nations is nearly 80 per cent, higher than it is for non-aboriginals with a university degree.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 J4
(1 of 23 articles for this week)