Scurrying to respond to a withering report by auditor general Sheila Fraser, Yukon Education Department officials vow swift action on the report’s recommendations.
Fraser found numerous shortcomings in how the department plans for just about everything, from the number of teachers it hires to how it maintains crumbling facilities.
As a result, the Education Department can’t demonstrate how it’s doing its job — educating the territory’s children.
Most of the plans Fraser requested already exist, said deputy minister Pamela Hine. The department just needs to compile them, she told members of the Public Accounts Committee on Friday.
“It’s not like we’re just drawing straws or have a dart board in the department,” said Hine.
A long-term strategic plan will be complete within six months, she said.
Among the more damning problems identified by Fraser is how Yukon reports its graduation rate. By excluding students who drop out before reaching Grade 12 from its tally, the territory has substantially inflated it.
The territory’s method of calculating the graduation rate is “misleading,” said Fraser.
“I have to admit, when I came in as deputy minister, I had concerns about how graduation rates were being reported,” said Hine. She was appointed in June of 2007.
Yukon’s five-year graduation average is 63 per cent. This places the territory below all provinces, but above the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Yukon falls well below Canada’s graduation average of 75 per cent.
Yukon’s graduation rate ought to be comparable to that of the national average, said Hine.
“We have a long way to go,” she said.
But the department still has not defined an official graduation benchmark. A report released in the autumn suggested that the department should aim to have all students graduate.
This may not be realistic, said Hine.
The department’s last annual report, written under Hine’s management, acknowledges that other jurisdictions calculate graduation rates differently and that officials would consider changing their method in the future.
The Yukon’s method of calculating graduation rates has been used since 1995, said Hine.
“My understanding is that’s how jurisdictions were doing it at the time,” she said.
The department report also claims there isn’t enough information to calculate the graduation rate of Yukon aboriginals. This is not true, says Fraser’s report.
She pegs the aboriginal graduation rate at 40 per cent, according to numbers gathered from the department.
Hine blamed an aging database that runs on software that is no longer supported. A new database should be built by 2013, but improvements will be seen before then, said Hine.
Absenteeism has climbed in recent years, Fraser found. The average number of days a student misses has climbed over five years to 21 days from 16.
“Cold weather,” suggested Christie Whitley, assistant deputy minister of Education. Parents keep students home during extremely cold days, she said.
As well, some First Nation students miss classes in September to go hunting. Schools are trying to offer their own hunting trips to accommodate this tradition, said Whitley.
There are likely other reasons, she added. But to find them out, you’d have to ask students themselves.
These missed days are likely compounded by the fact that the Yukon has one of the shortest school years in Canada.
The Yukon’s low graduation rate matches several demographic trends across Canada, said Hine. The territory has a large aboriginal population, and across the country, aboriginals disproportionately drop out of school. Rural students also fare worse than urban students.
But, Yukon students are less isolated than their counterparts in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, said Hine. Yukon only has one fly-in community.
Schools face far greater expectations than they did a generation ago, she said. Then, school consisted mostly of “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, plus phys-ed.”
Today, schools are expected to feed students through breakfast programs, to ensure children do their homework, and to teach students life skills and parenting.
This shift isn’t a bad thing, but it does put extra stress on the system, said Hine.
If the department does manage to deliver all this, she said, “I think that’s something Yukon could be proud of.”
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