When Cully Robinson arrived at Carmacks Tantalus School four years ago, there were no prospective graduates.
But the new principal was not discouraged, even after being warned this would be the toughest teaching assignment in rural Yukon.
“The families are very demanding here,” said Robinson from Carmacks on Friday.
“But I believe it’s because this community is turning a corner. I think this community is going to be the epicentre of change for aboriginal education, because the community has high standards.
“They don’t believe they’ve been well served by the system and they want more from it, and we think they deserve more here at the school.”
This year, four Grade 12 students graduated from Tantalus, bringing the total to 10 grads in the last three years.
“People are concerned about rural grad rates and First Nations grad rates and we think we have a spectacular grad rate,” said Robinson.
“And this is not by accident, it’s because of certain things we’ve put in place.”
Before Robinson arrived in Carmacks, the school had seen a total of 10 grads in seven years.
“You really have to have an attitude that aboriginal students can be successful,” he said.
“You also have to have an attitude that you want them to be successful, and then you have to put the conditions in place for them to be successful.”
Under Robinson, Tantalus School adopted a curriculum similar to BC’s, where students in Grades 10 through 12 must earn credits and write exams to graduate.
“And we are graduating every potential grad in the community — every kid who’s of age, and has the credits in place and has the capacity,” said Robinson.
To do this, he changed the school’s curriculum.
When he arrived, students were on a six-day rotation, changing teachers for each class.
“Even though we’re a small school, that was very stressful for them, so we decided to create a secure environment for our students,” said Robinson.
Now Tantalus sees one teacher guiding each class through all the subjects, which creates a strong, nurturing environment.
Currently there are 11 teachers and 110 students at the school.
The Grade 10 through 12 classes all have the same teacher and share a classroom.
“When you go in there, it’s like an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse ‘cause kids will be working quietly and individually and the teacher will be moving from desk to desk very quietly,” said Robinson.
“It’s a very quiet classroom, and I think they really adore her, she’s a wonderful teacher and has been teaching a long time.
“And she doesn’t give up on them, she creates a very strong nurturing atmosphere in there.”
Robinson’s curriculum changes bore fruit immediately — Tantalus started producing grads. And, next year, it has 10 more potential graduates already queued up.
“There are some aspects of our graduation classroom that are sort of like an alternate room — we’re very nurturing, we track student attendance, we talk to them and their families if they’re having trouble,” said Robinson.
“Some kids have learning disabilities and we support those — some kids need scribes, for instance, to write exams. So, we’re creating a platform for success.”
Many people working in First Nations’ organizations and governments didn’t finish high school, he said.
“But when you think of our 10 grads so far and 10 grads next year, we’re creating a big platform of confidence and potential for success for First Nations citizens who are going to be working within their own government.”
Little Salmon/Carmacks is currently negotiating with the Canadian government to create its own school for First Nations students.
But Robinson hopes it stays in the public school system.
“However, I respect their autonomy and their sovereignty and I wouldn’t put any roadblocks in their way,” he said.
“But I make no secret of my opinion and my bias that the public education system can serve First Nations students well.”
First Nations have experienced humiliation and failure within the public school system over many generations, he added, citing the lasting damage of residential schools.
“So, one can understand their suspicion of institutions and of public education, but I hope we’re showing success is possible within the public school system.”
Tantalus School does face some serious challenges, he added.
“We have a high number of individual education programs, and we have some severe behaviours here that are characteristic of kids that have been prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol.
“Some of our graduating kids have learning disabilities, and we could probably trace some of that to prenatal exposure too.”
But the community is putting its energy into making Tantalus a better school, he said.
“They told us they wanted more grads, and families are willing to organize themselves around that.
“And when the community, the school and the families are working together, a lot of good things happen.”
Carmacks is a very dynamic community, said Robinson. There’s healthy leadership within the First Nation.
“We work closely with them, and it works very well,” he said.
Five of Tantalus’s 11 teachers are graduates from the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program.
Robinson has also had First Nations people apply for jobs at the school, saying they’d graduated from Tantalus, when they hadn’t.
“Whether they don’t realize, or it’s not been made clear to them that they aren’t true graduates — this is something that troubles me,” he said.
For many First Nations, it hasn’t been made clear what graduation involves, he added.
“And I often wonder how many kids participating in native grad (in Whitehorse) are really going to meet graduation requirements.”
The Council of Yukon First Nations host native grad annually, and has contacted Robinson in the past asking for a list naming students who are the right age to graduate, regardless of whether they’ve met the necessary academic requirements.
“I think you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you don’t recognize an academic standard that gives you a Grade 12 diploma, and you sort of set yourself up for a sense of being done a grievance,” said Robinson.
Tantalus held its graduation ceremony on Friday night in the school gym.
Families enjoyed speeches, dinner and visits from various dignitaries, including Yukon MP Larry Bagnell and Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.