Empty desks in the territory’s classrooms are nothing new.
Questioning Education Minister Caroline Cochrane in legislature on May 30, Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli said that in the NWT, the highest scoring attendance is in Yellowknife, at 89 per cent. The average attendance in the regions is 79 per cent; schools in smaller communities only reach 75 per cent.
And it’s gotten worse: the average attendance among small communities in 2008 was 83 percent. At the time, it was 91 percent in Yellowknife and 84 percent in regional centres. By 2013, it was 79 per cent in small communities, 88 per cent in Yellowknife and 82 per cent in the regions.
Missing 80 per cent, or a day per week, can mean that the average grade 4 student has missed half a year of school, or two full years by grade 10, according to the GNWT Education Energy Renewal initiative.
“Everybody, in my opinion, has been blaming everybody else,” Cochrane said of the trend. “They are saying, ‘Is it the parents’ responsibility? Is it the Aboriginal governments’ responsibility? Is it the community’s responsibility? Is it the teachers’ responsibility?’
“I brought it up at the education leaders meeting, which has all the [school board] chairs and superintendents from all of the regions … I said this is an issue. I had to bring it up twice, because I think they’re afraid of it.”
Concerns around attendance are nothing new, according to Curtis Brown, Superintendent of South Slave Divisional Education Council. Minister’s Cochrance’s comments “essentially echoed the concerns that have been expressed by NWT school board Chairpersons and Superintendents for decades,” he wrote in an email to News/North.
He wrote that less than 50 per cent of South Slave students had 90 per cent attendance. Almost 20 per cent has less than 60 per cent attendance — roughly equivalent to one in five students missing a little under half their school days.
In Canada, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 per cent of school days.
Tabled in legislature in 2013, the Department of Education’s Education Renewal initiative committed to tackling small community attendance issues, identifying the lowest attendance, graduation, numeracy and literacy rates.
Among the reasons students missed class, according to the framework, was irrelevant curriculum and poor teaching. It also said some parents and children didn’t take enough responsibility for consistent attendance.
“As such, student attendance is really the product of a strong school, not the reason for a school’s strength,” the report stated. However, six years since it was tabled, attendance rates remain stubborn.
Dehcho Divisional Education Council superintendent Philippe Brulot said there are “pockets of success” in small communities with Junior Kindegarten and Northern Distance Learning, which is to be offered to students in 15 communities.
Turning these pockets into “an education system that meets the needs of its learners” is shared with parents, communities and students, she said.
As for regional differences, she said, Yellowknife has “higher populations of residents that have moved to the North with a greater focus on standard societal pillars like education. In many of the smaller and remote communities across the North, there are socio-economic challenges and greater emphases on traditional lifestyles,” in addition to continuing legacy of residential schools.
Beaufort Delta Education Council Superintendent of Schools Frank Galway shared a similar sentiment.“It’s not just a school issue, it’s a societal issue,” he said. Reaching chronic non-attendees is a matter of building trust where it may have eroded, he said, referencing the Council’s efforts to Indigenize curriculum and create incentive programs to bring students back to the classroom.
While the resources in Yellowknife may be more scarce in smaller communities, he said Angik School in Paulatuk, which recently saw a 25 per cent increase in attendance, was an example of recent success.
South Slave Superintendent Curtis Brown attributed the gap between Yellowknife and regional attendance to a “plethora of factors”: the inter-generational impact of residential schools, socio-economic factors and poverty, increasing prevalence of mental illness, teacher turnover,and bussing and mobility in outlying communities.
“If half the class is staying home or late, those who are attending regularly see that as not unusual, and might be thinking, ‘Why not me too?'” he wrote about the effects.
The SSDEC has a 90 per cent student attendance target, with the expectation that five per cent more student will achieve 90 per cent attendance.
To promote attendance, he wrote, South Slave schools have handed out alarm clocks, and incentives and awards including bikes and electronics. Elders have knocked on doors, late buses have been sent to gather stragglers and student surveys have been distributed, asking for reasons behind low attendance. Parent workshops explained its value, and the board asked the Chief to include student attendance in a speech.
Nonetheless, the empty seats are persistent — and increasing — across the territory.
“Its awfully hard for students to be successful if missing that amount of school,” Brown wrote. “And awfully discouraging and difficult for the teachers too.”