Almost all parents, educators and some employers in the focus groups expressed frustration with Nunavut’s primary and secondary education system.
They identified ‘school readiness’ as one issue – the preparation children receive before they enter the school system Children must make the difficult transition from the more traditional, extended family where learning is informal and continuous to the more formal ‘southern’ school system In the school system, young children have fixed start and stop times, more sitting and less activity, fewer educators per child and some set curriculum. Teachers report that the transition is easier for children who are accustomed to having adults read to them and for children who have some experience with other activities that enrich early learning. Many children arrive in preschool or elementary school without such experiences.
The experiences they do have – being with parents and grandparents on the land, living in a multi-generational household – are not helpful to them in this new environment. Pre-school programs such as Head Start or child care with an early learning focus are reported to be a place where the two worlds can connect and bridges built between them.
Nunavut students who leave before graduation may be pulled out by family responsibilities, pushed out by a system that does not serve them well or may drop out for many different reasons. Whatever the reason, the premature school-leaving rate is alarmingly high. The Statistics Canada Youth in Transitions Survey shows 3% of 17 year olds in southern Canada left high school without completing their studies. Non-completion rates in Nunavut are reported to be as high as 75% in 2001.10
In an effort to staunch the loss of students, Nunavut has adopted a policy to advance students more or less along with their peers, to encourage them to stay in school. Educators then have students in the class who have not completed the prerequisite work for the current material. This practice may be well intentioned, but it ignores and does not cover over the lack of the necessary literacy and other fundamental skills students need to succeed.
Educators describe the overwhelming task of teaching with too many students in the classroom, many of whom lack the literacy skills to absorb what is being taught. They describe high absenteeism rates and the inevitable discouragement students feel when they are in over their heads.
In a further attempt to promote school completion, Nunavut has a compulsory attendance policy that took effect in 2002. A very recent paper analyzes the impacts of this policy11. The paper’s author taught in a Nunavut community and uses that experience to examine in detail the policy’s requirements. The paper argues that the policy is the wrong one to increase school completion; it is not effective in a situation where the problem may be with the school or the system itself, rather than with the parents and families. The author argues that it does not give local communities sufficient flexibility to achieve higher attendance locally.
There are schools where local partnerships, leadership and encouragement of culturally appropriate content have achieved remarkable results. In Sanikiluaq’s Nuiyak school, half the teachers are Inuit and half are non-Inuit; one co-principal is Inuit and one is from the Toronto area. This school was selected as one of 10 case studies to demonstrate successes in Aboriginal education12.
The report of the case studies identifies elements common to the schools, including:
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10 Kwarteng, E. Fredula. “Implementing Nunavut Education Act: Compulsory School Attendance Policy”, Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue #55, September 8, 2006. Available on-line at http://www.umanitoba.ca/publications/cjeap/articles/kwarteng_nunavut.html
11 Ibid. p. 17.
12 Fulford, George, et al. Sharing Our Success: More Case Studies in Aboriginal Schooling, Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, Kelowna, BC, February 2007. Executive summary retrieved from http://www.saee.ca/publications/A_035_HHH_EXECSUM.php. Additional information from “Nuiyak School Gets an A+”, by Derek Neary, Nunavut News/North, March 26, 2007. p. 3.
13 Fulford, et. al. Sharing Our Success, Executive summary retrieved from http://www.saee.ca/publications/A_035_HHH_EXECSUM.php