School reform will require effort by everyone: Schultz

To the casual observer, Yukon’s education reform project has produced a parade of reports but no noticeable improvement in the number of First Nation students who graduate. But Lizzie Hall, an elder from Pelly Crossing

To the casual observer, Yukon’s education reform project has produced a parade of reports but no noticeable improvement in the number of First Nation students who graduate.

But Lizzie Hall, an elder from Pelly Crossing, sees things differently.

She remembers how small she felt when she left her family at age 11 to attend residential school. Suddenly her culture and beliefs counted for little.

“In school we learned to lock stuff up in here,” she said, tapping her chest with clenched fists.

“Our language was taken away from us. The second generation didn’t know how to raise kids properly.”

“I don’t blame nobody for not going to school.”

Now, the territorial government asks Hall for advice before it tinkers with parts of the education system. She’s a member of the First Nation advisory committee that helps steer education reform.

As such, it’s her job to help figure out how to lure First Nation students back to the classroom.

It’s more easily said than done. But the fact such a committee now exists to be consulted is a meaningful step in the right direction, said Ed Schultz, executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

He sees another small step forward made at an education meeting held this week.

It brought together First Nation representatives, such as Hall and Schultz, with school principals, Education Department officials, school council members and students.

Hall and Schultz left the meeting hopeful about plans to allow parents and concerned citizens to be involved in the drafting of school plans.

Such plans are prepared by school staff with input from school councils.

They’re supposed to be reviewed by the department, but this has often not happened in recent years, according to a damning report by Canada’s auditor general on the Education Department,

released in February.

Changes are being made so that the plans will be continually revised with the help of more community members, said Bob Laking, chair of the association of Yukon school councils, boards and committees.

Getting more people involved will be the big challenge, he said. Specifically, much will rest on finding “the diamonds in the rough” — people able to make others excited about becoming involved with schools.

These changes won’t happen overnight. “It’s incremental. That’s the key,” said Laking.

If much of the territory’s plan for education reform sounds vague, that’s because it is.

It started with the Education Reform Project, which produced, after extensive consultation, 207 recommendations to change the school system in December of 2007.

These recommendations were then jumbled together, merged, and altered to produce a new plan, called New Horizons. The department has not released any to-do list for New Horizons, although it has promised to do so.

Pamela Hine, deputy minister of education, wouldn’t say when this would happen.

It’s not so simple, she said.

New Horizons is less of a plan than “a journey.”

“These are not just strategies to do strategies. These are changes to how we do business,” she said.

As for specifics? Some related projects are underway, such as “bicultural” programs that teach aboriginal culture in schools.

As well, the department recently announced it would create a student advisory council, which will share thoughts on how to improve the school system with Patrick Rouble, the education minister.

The New Horizons plan won’t remain fixed, but will keep on evolving.

“It’s a multi-year aspect,” said Hine.

Only 40 per cent of First Nation students graduate in the Yukon, according to the auditor general’s report. The territorial average is 63 per cent.

Closing this gap will require hard work by everyone, said Schultz. It’s a problem far bigger than the school system.

“It’s not just the Department of Education. I can’t stress that enough. It’s social services. It’s health care. It’s Justice,” he said.

“Everybody and their dog has to be committed.”

This includes First Nation people, too.

“It’s our families. It’s our children. It’s our problem.”

As for measurable improvements, that will take time.

“If it was that quick of a solution, we would have done it,” said Schultz.

“We’ve just started,” said Hall.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.