End the education blame game

If you're a rural First Nation student, half of your peers aren't likely to complete high school. That's according to six-year averages published in the Education Department's annual report for 2010-11.

If you’re a rural First Nation student, half of your peers aren’t likely to complete high school. That’s according to six-year averages published in the Education Department’s annual report for 2010-11.

Compare that to the graduation rate for other rural students, at 72 per cent. It’s a big gap.

Many of the reasons for this education gap are complicated and difficult to solve. But one is not: many students simply don’t show up for class, and this is especially the case for the students who struggle the most.

In 2010-11, rural First Nation students missed 35 days of class, while other rural students missed 24 days.

Whitehorse students fared better, but not by much. First Nation students missed 26 days of class, while other students missed 17 days.

Anyone who misses more than a month of school in one year could be expected to lag behind his or her peers. But imagine how these absences add up over the course of 12 years in school.

If we’re to take last year’s numbers as typical, your average rural First Nation student would miss 420 days throughout grade school. That’s more than two entire school years.

Other rural students miss more than a year and a half of school.

In Whitehorse, First Nation students nearly miss a cumulative two school years, while other students miss more than a year.

If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that the latest numbers show graduation rates appear to have improved since 2009. But they leave much to be desired.

As for absenteeism, the Yukon has one of the highest rates in the country, and in recent years, it’s gotten worse.

Why is this happening? The kneejerk response is to somehow blame the government. But we spend more per pupil than elsewhere in Canada.

Maybe this money isn’t being spent as wisely as it could be, but if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that responsibility for the Yukon’s low graduation rates need to be widely shared.

Here’s one suggestion. Parents need to do more to ensure their kids attend class. And others need to do more to support these parents.

We don’t want to diminish the challenges faced by many parents. A large number struggle to pay the bills, particularly those who are raising children alone. Add prevalent substance abuse, overcrowded housing and a tangled thicket of social woes, and parenting can often be overwhelming.

That, in turn, creates challenges for kids. It’s hard to concentrate with an empty belly. It’s hard to sleep when your parents are fighting. Rural students often must travel to Whitehorse to complete high school, far away from their families.

And it’s often hard to see the point of attending when your peers have dropped out.

Each year, at-risk students overcome these challenges and graduate. We should celebrate those successes, but we also shouldn’t forget the large number of students that don’t make it.

Many First Nation families also continue to struggle with the legacies of residential schools. One result is a reluctance to endorse today’s school system. That’s understandable. But, with respect, we’d like to suggest this attitude is also self-defeating.

To get a good job, you need to be able to read, write and work with numbers. This applies to cultures worldwide that have faced oppression, and First Nations here are no exception. There will always be something to complain about when it comes to the school system, but fixating on this at some point becomes a form of blame-shifting.

Want to lift future generations of Yukoners out of poverty? Ensure today’s kids go to school. And for that to happen, attitudes need to change.

It’s hard to imagine having such large numbers of dropouts and absentees without the tacit consent of the community.

It’s a problem for the entire territory. The mining boom could create thousands of well-paying jobs. Do we want Yukoners to hold those positions, or will we let them go to Outside workers? Miners want to hire qualified local talent, but it’s currently on short supply.

Of course, the Education Department could do more. But we shouldn’t wait for it.

Maybe we don’t need another government program. Maybe we need a social movement.

It would start with friends, families and neighbours giving parents the support they need to ensure their kids attend class. This is already happening. It needs to happen more.

You could even use a catchy slogan. “Together today for our children tomorrow” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?