Education key to NWT prosperity

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With another school year closed and a new one to open in September, it might be beneficial to look at school absenteeism rates and the impacts they have on the North.

The territory’s most precious resource – above diamonds, gold or any natural resources is our children. They are the North of tomorrow. To get the most out of them and to ensure the North is led by its own, it is imperative that students attend class every day. Yet in many regions of the NWT, class attendance numbers are staggeringly low.

This is especially the case outside of Yellowknife in small communities where attendance rates in school are as low as 79 per cent and in some cases as low as 75 per cent.

This is a figure lower than a decade ago where the average attendance among small communities in 2008 was 83 per cent.

Education minister Carolyn Cochrane made note of this fact when asked about them by Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli in the legislative assembly May 30.

So what is being done? The fact is this problem is nothing new and for the NWT continues to be a major problem despite study upon study showing the negative impacts that school absenteeism presents.

A study from the Academy of American Pediatricians earlier this year, for example, received national media attention in part because it pointed out that even as early as kindergarten, if students are missing school on a daily basis, it will catch up with them later in their education careers as non-attendance increases the chances for poorer grades as well as other negative outcomes further down the road, such as unemployment or drug and alcohol addiction.

In 2013, under then Education, Culture and Employment minister Jackson Lafferty, his department released the Education Renewal and Innovation Framework: Directions for Change document.

The document calls for partnerships with communities and more efforts to address the educational needs of Northern students. That document had followed a damning Auditor General of Canada’s report in 2010 which slammed the territory for having no plan to deal with poor student performance, low secondary school graduation rates, and failures in
Alberta Achievement Test results and diploma examination results.

We understand there are many systematic and societal reasons for this problem. Education has become stigmatized in many corners of the NWT and mistrust has developed, especially in Indigenous communities where horrors of the residential school system are still fresh in mind.

We also understand that if the school curriculum is not offering Indigenous students β€” representing roughly half of the NWT population β€” content that is relevant to their lives, it is understandable why they may not want to attend.

Where there is mistrust, those relationships must be rebuilt. Schools must build and maintain relationships with the communities they serve, with staff who engage students and understand their cultural background. But the communities being served also have a responsibility to respond.

Because, make no mistake, with continued failure to ensure all youth in the territory are attending school from K to 12 on a daily basis, those not showing up will face extreme difficulties later in life, which will not only negatively impact them, but their families and communities.

That said, we must point out that in answering Nadli’s questions on school attendance, Minister Cochrane appeared to be painting a target on everybody but herself.

“They are saying, β€˜Is it the parents’ responsibility? Is it the Aboriginal governments’ responsibility? Is it the community’s responsibility? Is it the teachers’ responsibility?’ Those questions are not okay for me,” she said.

We can appreciate her frustration but she is the education minister. These are her numbers. The government embarked on its education renewal efforts six years ago. What is she doing to address these abysmal figures?

This is everybody’s problem but she is the minister.

Cochrane and her government must lead the way.