A record number of students are preparing to graduate high school in Clyde River, Nunavut, this year.
Quluaq school's senior class has 16 potential graduates, says principal Rebecca Hainnu. That's double the number of graduates from the community's only school compared to last year, and triple the number who graduated in 2015.
Nunavut has the lowest graduation rate in the country at only 35 per cent in 2011 — that's 50 per cent lower than the national average, according to Statistics Canada.
"The number of graduates have increased tremendously," says Hainnu.
There are currently 337 students registered from kindergarten to Grade 12, "and we had four new additions to our school in the past two weeks," says Hainnu.
Within the past two years, the school has seen more than 100 students return after dropping out, says Hainnu.
"It's a sense of team, it's a sense of family, [and] of belonging that I think that we've established in the last few years," she says.
What's Quluaq School's secret?
Hainnu says that communication was key in the successful return rate of students.
"Communicating with students and parents has been I think the most important aspect of having kids come back," she says.
Hainnu and the vice-principal of the school have been inviting students who have dropped out to have a casual pizza lunch with them.
"Our sales pitch was, and I'm guilty of it, I would say, 'I'm inviting about 32 of you. I bought this many cases [of pop], if you're the only one who shows up, you can take the rest of the pop home,'" says Hainnu.
To her surprise, many former students showed up.
"We've had wonderful experiences during these lunches," says Hainnu.
There was one particular lunch when Hainnu says they had "so much fun" that she forgot to actually mention to the students to come back to school.
"But the next day, they were in registering. So they brought themselves back...I think they convinced each other. We did very little… They wanted to finish school."
Hainnu also has a personal approach.
"If a student has consistently missed a few days, I'm on the phone with them, I'll find them at the store, I'll see what's going on."
She says that the ability to speak Inuktitut has helped her connect with families.
"[Speaking Inuktitut] is a big benefit for me. Because I'm from the community and people are very comfortable in picking up the phone and just talking to me."
'School alone can't take credit'
The school values traditional culture and language — it offers bilingual education in English and Inuktitut. There are opportunities to learn traditional skills like hunting and sewing at school.
Students have told Hainnu: "I want to be book smart but I want to be land smart, too."
"But I must say that the school alone cannot take credit for students returning to school," says Hainnu.
Many community members and parents have helped promote education among the community's youth, she says.
The District Education Authority has also been working to improve attendance. Quluaq school has been throwing monthly and yearly celebrations for students who maintain good attendance, with certificates and prizes.
"They are celebrated [by the]... entire school," says Hainnu.
There's also a yearly career day in January where members of the workforce come in and promote completing high school.
A large Grade 11 class of 23 people is already being prepped for their graduation year, says Hainnu.
"I think the students are back because they are more informed of what to expect," she says.
"I think it's working."