Graduating with distinction

"People aren't numbers," said principal Brendan Kelly, who just hours before the school's graduation ceremony called himself a proud "father" to the 560 students at Porter Creek Secondary.

The principal of the lowest-ranked school in the territory doesn’t like statistics.

“People aren’t numbers,” said principal Brendan Kelly, who just hours before the school’s graduation ceremony called himself a proud “father” to the 560 students at Porter Creek Secondary.

“We use data all the time in all facets of our lives, but when you’re dealing with education you’re dealing with human beings.”

The Fraser Institute report card of Yukon/BC secondary institutions ranked Porter Creek 209 out of 274 schools, and last within the territory.

It is an unfair assessment, he said.

“I can brag that we have a 98.9 graduation rate,” said Kelly, walking through the halls holding the speech he prepared to deliver to graduates.

“I have 90 success stories, not one. I have 90 graduates that are going to walk that stage with a diploma. We only had one, this year, drop-out.

“Students that go to Porter Creek have always had that uniqueness of that sense of belonging and knowing that people are here for them. We try to treat it as family. That’s Porter Creek. It’s not what some institute might say in Vancouver.”

The conservative think-tank’s report considers nearly a decade of information. Kelly has been at Porter Creek for two years.

“Change takes time,” he said.

And there are many changes, he said.

The whole methodology of how to improve student results and attendance rates is switching from the negative to looking at the positive, he said.

“I hate the word detention, I hate the word suspension and I hate the word discipline,” he said, curling his lip and stopping outside the school’s new “learning centre.”

It had about seven students inside and two teachers sitting at a desk at the side.

These are some of the kids with attendance problems, he explained, mentioning they’re happy because they don’t have a teacher on their back.

“You don’t change behaviour by punishing,” he said. “Our attendance policy is to keep kids in school. If we have an attendance policy that’s built around kicking kids out, you miss 15 days or you miss 50 days – then what have you done? Our attendance policy is based on being proactive and finding help.”

From September to March this year, there were 4,310 unexcused absences from Grade 8 students, 5,715 in Grade 9, 6,263 in Grade 10, 6,537 in Grade 11 and 5,072 in Grade 12.

“If you work in a job, not very many people have 100 per cent attendance,” he said. “While attendance is very important, in the end, it’s what you know and how you use that skill. For a great number of our students, attendance is not a problem.”

Plus a lot of those high numbers are because parents forget to call in, said Kelly, explaining the automated system that phones home when a child is reported absent.

If it happens three times, the teacher will call the parents. More than that, it may go to the school’s counselors, then to Kelly himself who sends home an abandonment of studies letter. Past that, staff follow the school’s “pyramid of intervention,” to decide what to do next – like they do with any serious issue that may come up with a child, which could range from bullying to drug use.

Drawing the line on how far you can go into a child’s life out of school can be difficult, says Dee Balsam, vice-chair of the Porter Creek Secondary School Council.

It is the council’s job to communicate between the parents and the school.

“The school is not the parent and there has to be a responsibility at the family level to deal with some of these issues,” Balsam said. “It’s difficult for the school to try and deal with it when the support from the home-front isn’t there. The parent is the parent. They, as well as the student, need to take responsibility.

“We recognize that between 9 and 3 there is a responsibility for the Department of Education to educate these kids, but we need a whole system that helps us do that.”

That system is coming, she said.

And after 27 years as a teacher, a director of education for First Nations students and a principal in Ontario, Newfoundland, Manitoba and the Yukon, Kelly has never come across a student without at least one concerned parent at home.

“Every conversation I have with a parent I start with, ‘I need your help,’” he said. “I have three kids of my own, I’ve been on the other side of that desk.”

Many students come from single-parent families, many have to deal with drug and alcohol addictions within the family and with themselves, many kids wouldn’t even be fed if it weren’t for the school’s meal program.

But the pyramid scheme is working, he said.

It’s all about partnerships, he added, noting the drug-dog program that used to run in the school was a great program.

But that program has been cancelled.

“Why should Porter Creek be the only one that would have that distinction,” he said, noting that, for it to continue, it should be territory-wide.

“Drugs are a problem in every high school in Canada.”

Putting televisions in the cafeteria is another tactic to help kids stay away from problems.

“It gives students, especially at lunchtime and break, somewhere to go,” said Kelly. “If you don’t have anywhere to go, or anything to do, sometimes you get in trouble.”

Kelly is sympathetic to struggles students face outside of the school.

That’s why he feels the Fraser Institute report is so unfair – it only judges on test results.

“Test scores are a snapshot in time,” he said. “Everybody has different things that affect their test scores. Most of them have other things that go on in their lives that affect it.

“It’s not fair to let someone in Vancouver judge our students.”

There were enough seats for more than 1,000 people set up in the darkened gym for Thursday night’s graduation ceremony.

The only lights are small glittering lines bordering the ramp to the stage.

“But the end of the day, it’s what the kids get on those BCPs (provincial exams) that decide if you’re going to be walking the stage,” said Kelly, sitting among the mass of chairs.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at