Addressing attendance at Yukon schools

Students in the Yukon don't go to school nearly as often as they should. Yukon students missed an average of 20 days of school last year, but the trend is much worse for First Nations students, especially those in rural communities.

Students in the Yukon don’t go to school nearly as often as they should.

Yukon students missed an average of 20 days of school last year, but the trend is much worse for First Nations students, especially those in rural communities.

Last year, rural First Nations students missed an average of two months of high school classes and 30 days of elementary classes. Non-First Nations students missed 33 high school and 21 elementary days. Add that up over the course of a student’s academic career, and your average First Nation student misses more than two years of school.

It’s a problem that the Education Department has struggled with for years, and it is hoping that $50,000 from Victoria Gold will help improve things.

The money – coming from a Victoria Gold Student Encouragement Society fundraiser – will go to 11 attendance programs across the territory.

“It’s a very big problem,” said Silke Wissner, the principal at J.V. Clark School in Mayo. Her school is getting $4,000 to help train teachers how to navigate a community still struggling with the effects of residential school trauma.

“We’ll find that in the primary years they may miss a lot, but when they head into Grade 4, 5 and 6 they come a lot. Then it drops off again when they’re in high school,” Wissner said.

Education spokesman Chris Madden was on the committee that evaluated 22 proposals from schools, school councils and First Nations leaders. Each proposal was designed specifically to address low attendance numbers.

“We went through and looked at how much they were each asking for. We looked at what their initiatives were and we doled out the money as appropriately as we could. We had $182,000 of requests and only $50,000 to doll out, so it was pretty tough,” said Madden.

Robert Service School in Dawson City is getting $11,500 to start a mentorship program there. The proposal was submitted jointly by the school, the school council and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

“We had been grappling here in the community with students who are chronically late to school or not attending,” said Robert Service principal Ann Moore.

“We actually had been doing a little bit of mentorship already through our Tr’ondek Hwech’in Education Department, and we were having some promising results, but we didn’t have the resources to expand on it and build on it,” she said.

In Dawson City, as in most Yukon communities, the problems of keeping kids in school are complex and numerous.

The legacy of the residential school system has left many families distrustful of the school system, or simply unconvinced that school is a valuable pursuit.

“There’s always the component of the inability of the families themselves to get up in the morning and make it a priority,” said Sue Lancaster, Robert Service’s school council president.

“Some families struggle with being able to get up and out of bed and get moving for the day,” Lancaster said.

Because of that, Moore said that their mentorship program will also involve an outreach component for parents and families. There will be workshops to help families connect with the schools and feel like it’s a place they and their children belong in.

There will also be a staff training component, similar to the one in Mayo that will help new teachers learn to work in a challenging community that many are unprepared for when they arrive.

“As a new principal, that is something that has really struck me as something we need to be supporting families with. I see the impact of residential school trauma on pretty much a daily basis here. We do have to be cognizant of that. We need to help not only the families but the teachers learn how to navigate that and rebuild the trust and to rebuild any gaps in working together as partners in education,” said Moore.

The department isn’t the only organization looking for ways to address the challenges with First Nations education.

The Council of Yukon First Nations passed a resolution earlier this week at a leadership conference to create a First Nations Education Commission.

The commission is made up of the education directors from all 14 Yukon First Nations. Together, they will talk about ways to improve the education system and make recommendations that the CYFN can approve.

“The recommendations come to our leadership table for approval. CYFN will be the central authority on education and the chair of FNEC,” said CYFN Grand Chief Ruth Massie.

Massie said they’ve been trying to for three years to get a partnership between Canada, Yukon and all 14 Yukon First Nations. They’ve now got federal funding and the green light they need to start implementing the commission.

“Our education directors have direct links with the community liaison officers that work directly in the school system. If there are subject matters that are of concern, they can come back to the commission and they will collaborate with the Department of Education,” Massie said.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com