Aboriginal students in Brandon are scoring lower than their peers and falling behind in core subjects, according to a Brandon School Division annual report on student achievement.

The report compared the percentage of aboriginal and non-aboriginal students (kindergarten to Grade 9) that are meeting grade-level expectations in reading, writing and math skills. 

It found that when stacked against classmates, up to 40 per cent of aboriginal students were not meeting expectations in reading, writing and math.

Donna Forsyth, a professor at Brandon University, said it's not just about ability — it's about engagement.

Forsyth, who's behind new research examining the role culture plays in academic success, said students won't engage if material isn't culturally relatable and doesn't include them.

Students need to see themselves in the curriculum, in class lessons, she said. 

"The sense of belonging is integral to engagement, the feeling that 'I matter, I fit here, I am part of this story,'" she said.

"Once there is that feeling of belonging, then I think the intellectual engagement comes in."

Finding my way

Aboriginal students participate in Finding my Way, a program designed to connect them with their culture through weekly activities. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

The situation isn't unique to Brandon, Forsyth said.

In one study she did last year out of Sioux Valley high school, where the curriculum and lessons were made culturally relatable, almost all of the students were performing at or above provincial guidelines, Forsyth said.

"The results, I think they speak for themselves," she said.

The Brandon school division is taking the statistics seriously and is working to bring indigenous culture into classrooms.

An aboriginal learning specialist has been hired to weave indigenous culture into the curriculum. And for the first time, this year they'll have an aboriginal education committee to be a voice for the needs of those students. 

Finding their way

Three Brandon schools with large aboriginal student populations are also trying to engage kids through a special program called Finding My Way. The goal is to connect students with their culture through weekly activities, such as beading.

Grade 7 student, Bailey Muskego, has been enjoying learning about the fur trade as part of Finding My Way.

"It makes me happy. [We're doing] fun activities and learning something new," she said, noting the program is helping her in her other subjects.

"Yes it has. In [English Language Arts] we were talking about the past and yeah, I had a few things to say."

Being able to contribute like that, she said, has made her feel smarter.