Success co-ordinator looks to improve FNMI education

“In order for us to help these people they need more than just an Anglophone exam,” trustee Bob Huff

Wolf Creek Public Schools’ (WCPS) newly appointed FNMI (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) student success co-ordinator position has continued to rapidly evolve, as she peels back layers to issues surrounding FNMI students, despite the role not officially coming into effect until September, 2014.

For an extended period of time, there have been concerns regarding FNMI students’ schooling and futures. From a seemingly apathetic attitude toward education on the part of some of the students to other priorities and cultural obstacles, success co-ordinator Shelagh Hagemann has her work cut out for her changing the mindset of the FNMI students, their community and of those outside the FNMI culture.

“It’s really important that we look at what works in our district . . . we have to look at our location and our relationship with Maskwacis,” said Hagemann.

Hagemann gave a presentation to the WCPS board of trustees Wednesday, June 4, informing them of the huge amounts of work that needed to be embraced by the division as a whole.

Within Alberta, 40 per cent of FNMI families have reported an annual income of less than $22,000 compared to the 22 per cent of other Albertan families. Also, 40 to 50 per cent of FNMI youths under 14 come from single parent household as opposed to 12 per cent of the rest of the province.

WCPS dropout rates are higher than the provincial three-year average. However, the number of students returning after those three years to complete their education is on the rise.

“I have always said First Nations students do better on a four or five year plan,” said Hagemann. She added that those extra years don’t only apply to FNMI students; there are many youths who need to learn at a different pace in order to find their own successes.

Regarding Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs), WCPS First Nations students currently sit below the provincial level of acceptable standard, and it is the same with diplomas.

“We have a low population of First Nations students writing,” said Hagemann, referring to the PATs.

In 2009, no FNMI students within the division wrote exams in the higher math and science class streams. However, in recent years that number is also increasing.

Hagemann explained to the board that the statistics used are slightly skewed because they only apply to those students who have declared themselves as First Nations.

While the numbers look “terrible” next to the province’s, Hagemann says the students are making headway. “Actually we’re having some success.”

Hagemann and members of the board feel it is the style of the exams, and a cultural rift the FNMI students may feel while writing that can lead to low scores. “In order for us to help these people they need more than just an Anglophone exam,” said trustee Bob Huff.

“The success of students can be based on PATs and diplomas, but not of these alone. We need to dig deeper,” said Hagemann.

Part of her new role is to explore into the problem of a lack of communication between schools and First Nations communities and the disengagement of the students. She wonders if these issues may be some of the root causes of low FNMI attendance.

Hagemann also feels there are cultural obstacles that can lead to a lack of attendance. For some of the students cultural ceremonies and the Powwow circuit, which can take the students all over North America, sometimes take precedence over school.

In First Nations culture, a death in the family can keep a student out of school for four days or more. With a week behind them and multiple classes to catch up on, the board said the pressure can be disheartening and students — not just FNMI youth — tend to give up and fall even further behind.

As the FNMI student success co-ordinator, Hagemann had a few recommendations for superintendant Larry Jacobs that could provide the support FNMI students need.

Hagemann recommends Jacobs and the school board hold WCPS staff more accountable to the idea of taking extra steps to include FNMI culture in the schools. “We need to make sure we’re developing professionally . . . if you don’t understand the culture you won’t be able to move forward.”

She is also looking to create a Wisdom and Guidance Committee, consisting of elders, school board members, parents, school social workers, and Hagemann herself to properly incorporate the culture into the curriculum without offense.