Troubled northern Alberta schools still bottom of pack

New data show students in the Northland School Division continue to have the poorest outcomes in the province, three years after an inquiry team proposed major changes in the vast northern Alberta district.

Northland Division shows some gains in individual communities

Student attendance and marks at Mistassiniy School in Wabasca, four hours north of Edmonton, are some of the worst in the province. High teacher turnover, family struggles with addiction and vast distances to get to school are three of the biggest barriers. The Northland School Board says it has a plan to improve teacher and bus driver retention. (CBC)

New data show students in the Northland School Division continue to have the poorest outcomes in the province, three years after an inquiry team proposed major changes in the vast northern Alberta district.

"When we look at the aggregate numbers, we are not very happy. We're disappointed," said Colin Kelly, the official trustee for Northland, who was appointed after former education minister Dave Hancock fired the 23-member board.

Results released Wednesday for provincial achievement tests (PATs) — standardized exams that measure student performance in Grades 3, 6 and 9 — show Northland students achieved only marginal success compared with the provincial average. Of the students who wrote the Social Studies Grade 9 PAT, for example, a mere 12 per cent of those in the Northland School Division achieved the "acceptable standard," compared with the provincial average of 73.6 percent.

Results for the English Language Arts Grade 3 and 6 PATs were better — 60.3 and 62.3 percent respectively, compared with 89.2 and 90.9 for the province.

School attendance, which has been a chronic issue in the 22 remote communities that make up the division, also slipped — dropping from 86 percent in 2009-10 to 77 percent in the last school year.

Individual successes

Despite the division-wide drop, superintendent Donna Barrett said gains in marks and attendance have been made at a handful of schools.

In May, CBC News visited Mistassiniy School in Wabasca, which has consistently ranked at the bottom of the Fraser Institute's Alberta school rankings. The principal, who moved there as a teacher four years ago, worked with staff to set up an in-school TV newscast, which has helped entice more students to come to school.

Attendance at the school has improved, climbing from 62 to 65 percent between 2009-10 and last year.

At Gift Lake School, which CBC News visited in 2011, principal Barbara Laderoute has focused on making the school building more inviting to students and staffing more consistent. PAT results there jumped considerably in the last year — from 78.9 and 47.4 percent in Grade 3 Language Arts and Math, respectively, to 90.9 and 80.0 percent.

"It's those kinds of initiatives that are needed," said Barrett.

Barrett said schools continue to struggle to provide reliable transportation and to keep their buildings in good condition. In 2010, mould at the division's second-biggest school, Athabasca Delta in Fort Chipewyan, forced classes to be moved to the community's arena.

"[If] you have a safe, comfortable environment, you have quality teachers, you have good transportation so you can get to school everyday. ... The community is involved with the school. When you've got all those elements in place, you see the results," Barrett said.

Barrett said the division is addressing transportation issues by recruiting more bus drivers. She said the pool of teachers will also become more stable as more local people graduate from a new teacher training program. Nineteen community members graduated from the program this year.    

"So that the people who are in the schools know their schools, they have relationships with the community, they understand the context."

Board still not re-established

Despite gains at individual schools, there is growing frustration with the way the Northland School Division is run. The inquiry report recommended that an elected board of trustees be re-established, and Kelly expected elections to take place this year. But a statement from Alberta Education said Kelly "still has much work to do before a board of trustees can once again take over governance."

"What do we need to do to get an elected board back in? I'm not getting any answers," said Jeff Chalifoux, the outgoing chair of the local school committee in Grouard, and part of a group of education advisers to Colin Kelly.

"Is it because we're predominantly Aboriginal that we're not being trusted to make decisions on behalf of our children?"

Is it because we're predominantly Aboriginal that we're not being trusted to make decisions on behalf of our children?- Jeff Chalifoux, Grouard school committee chair

Kelly said he believes in local representation and has encouraged the local school committees, which are made up of elected members, to make recommendations on school administration.

"However, there is no doubt that we are very much looking forward to an elected board of trustees coming back to Northland School Division."

Jeff Johnson, who was appointed education minister in May, was out of the country and unavailable for an interview. Rick Hayes, executive director of FNMI and field services with Alberta Education, said in order to reinstate the board, a change to the Northland School Act is required.

"There needs to be consultation. Consultation needs to occur, which takes time. To get around to all 22 communities in Northland takes a lot of time and energy to get people there and engage the community to make sure that that legislation reflects that. So all of that work is underway."

Provincial Achievement Test results for Northland School Division
(% of those who wrote exam)

Course20122013Province (2013)
Language Arts Gr 359.3%60.3%89.2%
Math Gr 350.7%42.9%82.8%
Language Arts Gr 668.8%62.3%90.9%
Math Gr 642.0%39.2%79.8%
Science Gr 649.7%39.1%85.4%
Social Studies Gr 640.7%30.2%80.7%
Language Arts Gr 928.7%36.6%87.2%
Math Gr 914.7%14.6%74.6%
Science Gr 916.7%17.1%81.5%
Social Studies Gr 917.9%12.0%73.6%


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