In 2014 the percentage of students graduating from Yukon high schools dipped for the first time since the numbers started to be accurately collected.
Meanwhile, six years after they were criticized by Canada’s auditor general over record-keeping, the Yukon Department of Education says it’s still too soon to say what percentage of those graduating are First Nations students.
Education’s annual report for the 2013/14 school year came out this May. It put the six-year completion rate at 65.47 per cent.
That’s the percentage of students who complete high school over six years starting in Grade 8. The year before, that number was 72.2 per cent.
But the general trend in recent years seems to show graduation rates improving. And the same data show that the number of students staying in school after six years is climbing - 13.67 per cent in 2013/14 compared to 9.8 per cent the year before and 5.71 per cent the year before that.
“So we’ve kept 13 per cent of them. They’re still with us, they’re still in school,” said deputy minister Judy Arnold.
“So we need to be able to say next year, what happened to this cohort of kids? Did it take them seven years to finish?”
Anecdotally, Arnold said the Yukon has a significant number of students who don’t graduate even though they are only one credit shy.
“So the scenario generally is, graduations often happen before the end of the school year. They walk across the stage, they graduate, then all of a sudden they don’t complete a course or fail an exam and now they’re short that course,” explained assistant deputy minister Mike Woods.
“So rather than coming back and completing that course, or doing the work needed, they’re just done and they don’t want to come back.”
Both Arnold and Woods agree that percentages in the Yukon can shift dramatically from one year to the next because of how small the overall numbers are.
In 2009, auditor general Sheila Fraser criticized the department for publishing “misleading” numbers when it came to graduation rates. The department was only looking at the percentage of students who graduated Grade 12 after already entering that year registered for enough courses to potentially finish.
The department started using the six-year rate but Arnold says the older data are too shoddy to give anything more than an overall number. They can’t accurately be broken down into subgroups like First Nations and non-First Nations or male and female, the way Fraser suggested.
Data from the department’s old computer system aren’t reliable when it comes to tracking who identifies as First Nations and who does not, said Arnold.
The next report will have students who have only been tracked in the updated system for the entire six years. That’s when the department will be able to start breaking things down in more detail.
Current annual reports do break down Grade 12 completion rates. That’s the number of students who start their final year compared with those who graduate.
For urban students, the completion rate was 46 per cent of First Nations students and 78 per cent for other students.
In rural communities, the completion rate was 55 per cent of First Nations students and 85 per cent for other students.
“We acknowledge we’ve got places to go, particularly for our First Nations kids. That’s the truth,” Arnold said.
The department says it has worked with the Council of Yukon First Nations on a joint education action plan that focuses on how to improve outcomes for the kids.
“I think we’re all discussing what the issues are, whether they’re social, whether they’re emotional, whether they’re cultural. Because we know if the cultural foundation is there, the kids feel secure and want to learn.”
Arnold said the department has a few new programs designed to help rural students and First Nations students. They have shown some initial success.
Blended learning out of Watson Lake, where students have a chance to take classes online, has shown some initial improvements.
Between 2013/14 and 2012/13, marks in Grade 10 English, apprenticeship of math 10, foundations of math 10, and science have all gone up. The most dramatic bump was in Grade 10 apprenticeship math, where the average went from 36 per cent to 67 per cent.
The number of students passing the final B.C. exam in the course went from 20 per cent to 75 per cent.
Another new initiative is the rural experiential model, which sees students from different Yukon communities get together and earn credits in new classes like First Nations fine art, hair and esthetics, quilting and robotics.
When the program was introduced in 2013, 72 of the 73 participants received two fine arts credits.
The next year, 99 of the 105 students did. In the spring of 2015, all 73 students received credit.
The programs haven’t been around long enough to know whether they will translate to higher graduation rates, Arnold said.
“We have more continued work to do. But we are monitoring closely in terms of A) keeping kids, that’s the first one, and then having them graduate.”
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