For some students of Takla First Nation, leaving their remote community of 250 people to attend Grade 10 in the big city can be dangerous. Within a year-and-a-half of starting high school in Prince George, about 30 per cent of Takla teenagers slip from the system.
“It probably takes close to nine months for them to get affiliation with a crowd with riskier behavior and get comfortable enough to start venturing out of their comfort zone,” said Tamatha French, youth and elder liaison for Takla. “They might come back to school the next year, but then maybe they don't do so well because they're skipping, they're drinking, or doing drugs. And then, we probably lose them.”
That’s unacceptable, said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association. “I don't know the details, but that particular statistic is unacceptable to me and should not still be happening. We know better.”
If the district has a large dropout rate of Indigenous students after grade 10, they need to find out why, said Higginson. “We need to be honest and open about it in order to fix these problems and understand them.”
Takla students attend a local reserve school from Kindergarten to Grade 9. The nearest high schools are 200 to 350 kilometres away in Vanderhoof or Prince George. A parent may move with the student to the city, but often, students stay with extended relatives or families they don’t know.
"For most kids, that's a hard situation to get through," said French.
Currently only 27 Takla students attend School District No. 57 (Prince George), but Indigenous students from many nations make up about 30 per cent of the school population – most live locally – and have about a 53 per cent graduation rate, said Pam Spooner, SD57 director of Indigenous education. “Our grad rates are horrible.”
Provincially, over the last two years, 69.4 per cent of Indigenous students graduated within 6 years of enrolling in Grade 8, whereas, 89 per cent of all B.C students graduated high school in 2018/19, according to the Ministry of Education.
It’s important to see where the board and the institution have fallen down, and to say how we can make things easier, said SD57 School Board Chair Trent Derrick.
Earlier this month, in response to requests from Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and McLeod Lake Indian Band to have representation on the school board, the SD57 board supported the creation of two additional elected Indigenous trustee seats.
Whether the Ministry of Education will allow elected trustees to represent strictly Indigenous wards, or permit SD57 to add two new seats to the board, is unclear. Altering the composition of the board will require changes to a ministerial order and changes to trustee representation will have to follow B.C. school trustee election guidelines, according to an emailed response from the Ministry of Education on Nov. 13.
The SD57 board will be developing its five-year strategic plan in the new year, which could be a good time to bring all Indigenous stakeholders together to help the district better understand their concerns, Derrick said.
“That will allow us to review what worked, what didn't work, and how we can improve on it,” he said.
“We just want to be able to support our students and give them the tools they need for success,” said Jayde Duranleau, youth councillor for McLeod Lake Indian Band, located about 150 km north of Prince George.
Having a trustee seat is step in that direction, Duranleau said.
“This has amazing potential to improve the conditions for Indigenous students and improve learning for all students,” said Laurie French, president of the Canadian School Board Association (CSBA) based in Nova Scotia. “A number of provinces already have designated elected seats for Indigenous trustees in a mix of formulas.”
How Takla will fit into the evolving SD57 ‘formula’ is unknown. Meanwhile, Tamatha French (no relation to Laurie) and others are forging ahead. They have set up after-school supports for students, including community-building gatherings, academic tutoring, and elder mentoring.
The Nation is also in the midst of negotiating a Local Education Agreement with the district and developing land-based programming for its students, including a three-year guide outfitting program that will meet all learning outcomes for a high school diploma.
“It's a matter of thinking outside the box,” said Spooner, who oversees an array of programming and supports for Indigenous students. “Being creative and innovative with what they're doing on the land and tying it to curriculum.”
A lot of students don't see themselves in the standard curriculum, which sometimes lacks depth and doesn’t always present Indigenous people kindly, said Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief Mina Holmes, whose council represents seven nations in the northern interior.
“There’s racism in the material, but also in the system itself,” said Holmes.
The Tribal Council supported the bids for trustee seats, and wants even more Indigenous presence at all decision-making levels, said Holmes.
“It has to be more inclusive, and it needs to be well thought out,” she said. "Our students, they are important, they matter.”
@FranYanor / Fran@thegoatnews.ca
Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat