For the huge gap between high school completion rates for aboriginals and non-aboriginals to close, the percentage of aboriginal students dropping out of high school will almost certainly have to drop. In 2012/13, it did just that.
The provincial dropout rate among First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students for the school year fell from 8.5 in the year prior to 7.8 per cent. Standard rates just a few years ago were in the double digits.
Local results reflect the positive change. Red Deer Public School Division’s rate (5.9 per cent) has been halved over the last two years and Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division’s most recent mark is 3.5 per cent. In the Chinook’s Edge rural division last year, the FNMI dropout rate of 3.8 per cent helped to bring down the mark for the entire student population.
“That gives us the chance. If we have students staying in schools, obviously, we have the opportunity to work with them and try to improve the academic outcomes for them,” said Piet Langstraat, superintendent of Red Deer Public.
Despite the progress on dropout numbers, high school completion rates fell for a second straight year from the public division’s 2010/11 high water mark of 53.1 per cent. Four in 10 FNMI students among the last cohort earned their high school diploma within the standard time frame; the provincial standard stood at 43.6 per cent.
For the local Catholic division, the completion rate rose to 67.8 per cent, while Chinook’s Edge’s mark fell to 55.8.
Within Red Deer Public, nearly 10 per cent of all students are aboriginal, the highest rate among Central Alberta divisions. While the small percentage of FNMI students who wrote high school diploma exams in the division performed very well, by and large the student population is lagging behind.
The division has restructured the way it funds services for aboriginal students and hired a dedicated co-ordinator and multiple teachers. Dollars earmarked for FNMI services must either provide a direct benefit to struggling students, cultural awareness to the entire student population, or training for staff to deal with aboriginal student issues.
“It’s (about having) somebody at the school level who focuses on those students, who follows up when they’re not at school, who is the smiling, friendly face when students come to school in the morning,” said Langstraat.
“The research would say that the reason students drop out of school has nothing to do with academic achievement or anything like that. It has to do with ‘Do they feel a connection with an adult at school?’ So we want to really work to ensure that every student feels a connection with at least one adult at our schools.”
Data from the 2011 national census shows that 40 per cent of aboriginals aged 20 to 24 did not possess a high school diploma at the time of the count. Rates are worst in the Prairie provinces.