Alberta plans to stop punishing kids who miss too much school

Alberta's Education Minister David Eggen hopes a new approach will help get kids who are missing school back into the classroom.

Education minister wants ‘positive’ approach to dealing with absenteeism

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen said he move away from the current approach to deal with absenteeism from schools. (CBC News)

Alberta Education plans to take a "less punitive" approach to the way the system deals with children who continually miss school.

Minister David Eggen said the current model involving a provincial attendance board is not effective and doesn't get to the root causes of why kids aren't in class.

"We can make it less punitive and try to dig in more to why we have chronic absenteeism and how we can take steps to fix that," Eggen said.

The attendance board, which has been around since the 1980s, listens to cases when schools are unsuccessful in getting students back into the classroom.

But Eggen said the quasi-judicial board is like a court, and is not the best way to build trust with families and children who are having problems.

In a move to try to make students feel supported, Eggen is setting up a new office of student attendance and re-engagement, which he expects will begin work in September.

New model to tackle underlying causes of absenteeism

"This is a group that can look for specific problems and look for the wider context as to why a student might not be attending, and try to build supports that would allow them to change that behaviour," Eggen said.

The changes are especially important to Indigenous communities, Eggen said, where the legacy of residential schools continues to make it difficult for people to trust the education system.

The new engagement team will be able to access resources and counselling support to help build programs that will tackle the underlying causes of absenteeism.

"To maybe create something positive to turn that around," Eggen said.

The idea of the new approach was applauded by an official with the Northland school division, which runs 24 schools in northern Alberta.

'It sounds like a better approach'

The division, which has had long-running issues with low student marks and attendance, has chosen not to refer many families to the attendance board in the past.

"Because of just seeing that it doesn't work," said Lois Byers, the government-appointed trustee for the division.

Byers said in the past only about one-quarter of students who went before the board actually began attending school more regularly.

"Punishment works for a little while," she said. "It doesn't change behaviour, so we need more than just punishment."

The confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations said it is studying Eggen's plan.

 Craig Makinaw, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Alberta, said a new strategy has been needed for some time.

"It sounds like a better approach," said Makinaw. "As long as you work with families and help them, they'll be better off down the road."

Makinaw said an important next step would be for the government to meet with First Nations chiefs and councils before any changes come into effect.

Those are all conversations the government plans as part of a number of education initiatives in First Nations communities, a spokesperson for Eggen said.

Minister Eggen said any measures that can improve student attendance and graduation are worth considering.

"I think we can be more successful," he said.