Another population is in even greater need than First Nations kids living in cities: the 113,000 Aboriginal students scattered across the Canadian hinterland. Sixty percent of these on-reserve students fail to finish high school, compared to 14 percent in the general population. Educators call this the “high school completion gap.” Shawn Atleo, Association of First Nations chief, calls it our “national disgrace.”
If Pathways works for First Nations kids in Winnipeg, could on-reserve kids become part of the “graduation nation,” too?
Beausoleil First Nation Reserve on Christian Island is two and a half hours north of Toronto by car and ferry. In 2009, 55 percent of the Grade 12 students from the island did not graduate.
So on a rainy evening last October, Vicki Monague, youth co-ordinator for the Beausoleil First Nation band, travelled to Toronto to meet with representatives of the Regent Park Pathways program and Pathways Canada, to learn about the program and its possible relevance to the youth of her own community. From the tenor of her questions, it was evident that Monague hoped Pathways might become a means of closing the high school completion gap.
At one point during the meeting, however, Monague observed that the student population of the Regent Park program, 900 kids, was more than twice the entire population of her village of 400 on Christian Island. The implications gave her pause.
The numbers give Pathways pause as well. To be economically viable, the program requires a critical mass of student participants, Hughes explains. “With 500 or 600 kids it becomes viable,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a much smaller group, the economies of scale are just not there.” (There are 52 high-school-aged kids on Christian Island this year.)
A Pathways program also needs a critical mass of well-educated volunteers. “For the most part, you don’t have that resource in these smaller communities,” Hughes says. “All things being equal, we would likely go to another urban centre where we know the program works, rather than a remote community — unless it was being done as a pilot project,” he adds. “I wouldn’t rule that out down the road.”
To the obstacles Hughes has mentioned, Monague is trying to find solutions: long-distance learning techniques employing new technologies; a role for the band council in hosting the Pathways project; Pathways-supported English-language classes for northern communities where little English is spoken; and the engagement of local resources when on-reserve students study in off-reserve schools, as is the case on Christian Island.
The most encouraging voice may be the voice of experience. Darlene Klyne in Winnipeg allows that the lack of a big, well-educated volunteer base could be an issue for reserves. “On the other hand, how big would it have to be?” she asks. “If you had a student cohort of 20 to 50 kids, if you could get even five regular tutors, four nights a week, you’d have a program.”
Might Pathways be one means of closing the high school completion gap? Says Klyne, “I certainly think it could.
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