Speak Magazine

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More Than Numbers

by JOSÉE ST-ONGE

The Naxi Youth in China are seeing high drop-out rates. In Canada, First Nations people are facing the same problems. Many factors are at play for Naxi and First Nations children. The odds are stacked against them.

WENHAI:Kids at school in Wenhai, a village in Lijiang, Yunnan province in China. St-Onge two weeks there in 2011. Photo by Kim Jay

The room has big comfy couches, lamps, and a computer. It’s meant to feel like a living room, but it’s a de-escalation room in Valley View School, located in Beauval, Saskatchewan. When students act out and must leave the classroom, they come here, where they can talk to someone about their troubles.

“There’s always food in the de-escalation room because a lot of times there’s hunger. We also want to put a bed in the back area because sometimes the kids are just totally exhausted,” explains Jed Prest. He is the attendance consultant for the Northern Lights School Division, including Valley View School.
Prest believes novel approaches to education will help curb the current drop-out trend amongst Aboriginal youth. The 2006 Census found that around 60 per cent of First Nations on-reserve residents aged 20-24 had not completed high school or obtained an alternative diploma or certificate.

Across the world, another minority group is struggling with similar statistics. They are the Naxi people, one of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. In the village of Wenhai, in the mountainous region of Yunnan, about three out of 10 students will make it to high school.

That’s compared to the neighboring city of Lijiang, whose population is composed of many different ethnic groups, including the Han people, who comprise most of China’s population. In Lijiang, around eight out of 10 students complete high school.“Although things have been improving and are quite dynamic, the urban-rural gap for these Naxi kids is particularly wide,” explains Marion Jones, a professor from the University of Regina, who has been studying Naxi people and their exclusion from China’s education system since 2005.

WENHAI: The small village sits in a secluded valley where farm animals run
free. Photo by Kim Jay

There are many factors contributing to a high drop out rate amongst rural Naxi kids. Just like Aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan, socio-economic factors are stacked against them.

“When you have a low socio-economic status, education is harder to deliver and it’s harder to keep kids attending, no matter who you are,” says Gerry Hurton, the Executive Director of Education for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

The 2010 Saskatchewan Education Indicators Report published by the Ministry of Education highlighted the fact that little over half of Aboriginal children under six in Saskatchewan were in a low-income family, compared to 15 per cent of non-Aboriginal children.

This poverty is compounded by the fact that the schools themselves struggle with a lack of financial resources. In Wenhai and other rural villages in China, the schools are subpar. The school buildings themselves are new but there aren’t enough teachers between the walls.

“It’s easier to get the money to build a new school then it is to necessarily get all the appropriate teachers to fill that school,” says Jones.

The problem is that rural Chinese schools can’t afford to retain teachers in their establishments. Government incentives are meant to attract teachers to rural areas are too small.

According to Hurton, First Nation schools are also struggling to attract teachers. This problem occurs because competing with provincial school salaries and pensions is difficult with the minimal funding allocated by the federal government.

A 2006 report by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy states that the funds from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC, formerly INAC) were capped at two per cent growth and did not correspond to provincial funding levels.

Without the funding necessary to attract long time teachers it’s harder for students to engage in their education. “The better that a teacher is able to form a relationship with the students, the better the learning seems to go,” says Hurton.
It is clear that the learning on First Nations is not going well. A 2004 study by AANDC found, through a series of focus groups with First Nation youth, that students in any given grade in on-reserve schools were about two years behind “city schools.”

WENHAI: Children in Menhai in May, 2011. Photos by Kim Jay

In rural China, things aren’t looking much better. For the children of Wenhai, junior high is a rude awakening. The students must walk several hours to a boarding school in another town. They are also hit with the realization that they are behind in their schooling.

“It becomes really rough for the kids. They are away from home, they are struggling, and they know that they have to do well,” says Jones. “There are a lot of kids in tears and there are a lot of kids who then drop out.”

China’s competition-driven school system can be a pressure cooker for students who are already disadvantaged. Aboriginal students also feel the pressure, but in a different form. Many families struggle with poverty, addiction and the unpleasant
reminders of Indian Residential Schools.

All First Nation schools are combating these unstable family situations in their own way. Some, like Cowessess Community Educational Centre (CCEC) in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, are luckier than others. The Cowessess First Nation Band is the fourth richest in the province and supplements the school’s funding from AANDC.

“Our Band has really stepped up and says ‘We value education,’”says Nicole Bear, the vice-president of CCEC. “The Band took the initiative and put in extra money, over and above our funding.”

Her school hires two school therapists as well as a prevention worker to help reach out to students who are dealing with difficult personal and family issues. The school, with the support of Treaty Four, has implemented programs that address everything from health to literacy for students.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Education also recognizes that innovative solutions are needed to tackle high drop-out rates. The First Nation and Métis Education Achievement Fund, established in April 2011, was created to provide additional funding to provincial schools.

“It gives school divisions an opportunity to implement various initiatives that will have a positive impact on high school completion and overall achievement,” explains Simone Gareau, executive director of Student Achievement and Support at the ministry.

Gareau says schools are encouraged to develop their unique ways of reaching out to students and keeping them engaged in school. Ideas like the de-escalation room in Valley View School are part of a holistic approach to education.

There are no de-escalation rooms in the school in Wenhai however, and that’s not the only thing that’s lacking. In this remote mountain village, the Internet is also noticeably absent. Without connectivity, the Naxi children that are educated in Wenhai are once again disadvantaged.
“When you also think about how important these new technologies could be in terms of creating an effective learning environment and providing supplementary materials, that’s a big gap,” explains Jones.
First Nation and provincial schools also struggle with connectivity issues. “Some of them may not have the sufficient bandwidth to access all of the services,” says Gareau.
“That is being worked on and, in the near future, band schools, as well as provincial schools, should all have equal opportunity to access online resources.”

WENHAI: Children in Menhai in May, 2011. Photos by Kim Jay

New technologies are expensive and many First Nation schools cannot afford them on their limited budget. Bear is grateful that her band has the means to keep up with the technology.

“A smaller band or a band that doesn’t have as much money. Think about those ones, they would definitely be underprivileged,” says Bear.

Having access to Internet is crucial, as more and more learning is now conducted online. The province even offers online Cree classes for high school students in an effort to have a more culturally sensitive curriculum. This is one area where the Ministry of Education is striving to make progress.

According to Hurton, that is a step in the right direction.

“If students see themselves in the curriculum, or at the front of the classroom being part of what they are being taught, it’s definitely going to help their engagement,” says Hurton, “They’re going to want to come to school and learn about who they are.”

It’s a concept that is being applied at the Cowessess First Nation school. “In our school, we teach Native Studies for their social science credits as well as Canadian studies,” explains Bear. “You’re taking the history of your own people.”

According to Bear and Hurton, First Nation schools have a better retention rate than provincial schools thanks to these efforts. Unfortunately, there are no statistics to support their claim because AANDC doesn’t monitor those numbers. “We’re not funded like a school division,” explains Hurton. “We don’t have a database or the manpower to keep track of that stuff.”

While including Native Studies in Saskatchewan’s curriculum is a positive change, such policies can also have unwanted consequences. In China, Naxi children are obligated to learn their own language in school. This policy was put in place to preserve their culture, but, by doing so, children are spending less time focusing on Mandarin and English.

“When it comes to determining whether they can go on to higher levels of education, their own language doesn’t count in the exam process, only English and Mandarin count,” explains Jones. “So they are mandating that they have to take time out of English and Mandarin studies to learn their own language and then they can’t succeed.”

It is clear that there is no silver bullet when it comes to curbing dropout rates. What is clear though, is that the consequences of not graduating high school are significant. In his report Bridging the Aboriginal Education Gap in Saskatchewan, Eric Howe writes that “if a Métis male finishes high school as opposed to dropping out, his lifetime earnings increase by 78 per cent. For North American Indian males, the increase in lifetime earning is 120 per cent.”

For high school dropouts in Wenhai, the prospects are also glum. Most males will stay in the village to farm and will have few marriage prospects. “This is where education is so important because it is this great leveler,” says Jones. “Because it is often used as a tool for rationing employment, getting the education piece under control can make other change easier.”
And change is what Gerry Hurton,     Director of Education for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations wants to see. While some aspects of education in Saskatchewan are getting better, it is clear that much more needs to happen to properly address high drop-out rates amongst Métis and First Nation populations.
“Education is the key. The thing is that you need to fund it properly,” says Hurton. “Because education can make a difference, education does make a difference.”

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