Regina Public Schools is celebrating rising graduation rates for Indigenous students after implementing an "Aboriginal Advocacy" program at high schools across the city.

Since 2014, the on-time graduation rate for Indigenous students has increased by two per cent, putting public schools in the Queen City slightly above the provincial average (42.3 per cent compared to 41.8 per cent). 

That's roughly half the on-time graduation rate for non-Indigenous students, who are graduating from Regina Public Schools at a rate of 81 per cent — putting the overall graduation rate at about 74 per cent. 

'What a huge celebration'

"What a huge celebration," said Dawne Cassell, the Indigenous advocate at Thom Collegiate.  

Cassell spends her days helping nearly 200 Indigenous students with everything from college applications to cultural awareness, organizing activities like drumming and meetings with elders.

'Students need to see Indigenous people in roles just like everyone else.' - Dawne Cassell, Indigenous advocate at Thom Collegiate

She's greeted by mostly smiles and high-fives when she walks the halls, but added that being tough is part of the job.

"I'm constantly checking their credits, making sure that if they don't obtain the credit, how can we get it in another way," she said.

"Sometimes, it's working with teachers to offer tests at a different time, or encouraging them to go to a night school."

Cassell said constant supervision is key to making sure students finish school, and while she can't keep tabs on everyone, she makes sure to prioritize those students that need help most. 

She said the advocate's ability to relate to Indigenous students is the program's greatest strength.

"Students need to see Indigenous people in roles just like everyone else. We're teachers, just like the rest of the people in this building," she said.

"But we also know the struggles. There are a lot of barriers that come with being Indigenous, so understanding that and letting them know that, 'Yes, that's happened but let's move forward together and build a community where there is a lot of equality and opportunity.'"

Staying on track

Grade 12 student Brianna LaPlante is getting ready to graduate this June, a milestone she said Cassell is helping her reach.

"I wouldn't be brave enough to come back to school after missing a week due to family circumstances, or other things I'm dealing with, without Miss Cassell's support and encouragement."

Brianna LaPlante

LaPlante visits Cassell's office whenever she's 'feeling sad or overwhelmed ... because she gets it.' (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

LaPlante described herself as a well-rounded and successful student, but said she struggled to see herself that way because of racist and derogatory comments from classmates.

"Miss Cassell really helps me see past that and to see that positive path … She keeps me walking that journey that I feel as if I'm meant to be on."

LaPlante is hoping to attend the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program in the fall, something she said she wouldn't be considering without her advocate.

"I'm a non-status Aboriginal person and funding for schooling is very difficult for me, but Miss Cassell is helping me get my status card."

'An unreal feeling'

Cassell described seeing students like LaPlante get their diploma as her greatest reward.

"You work with these kids for so long, but at the end of the day when you see these kids walk across the stage … it's an unreal feeling," Cassell said, noting sometimes they're the first one in their family to graduate.

She said the importance of that first graduation can't be underestimated, especially for the younger generations.

"Those kids graduate, too, because they saw their older sibling or cousin do it, so you're breaking a lot of cycles."

Regina Public Schools recently hired its first advocate for elementary students at Kitchener Community School, which Cassell said is a step in the right direction.

"We're building a whole new community of learners that are so ready to take on anything, which is really exciting."