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New northwestern Ontario support program boosts graduation rates for Indigenous students

An innovative support program for Indigenous students at Dryden High School in northwestern Ontario is boosting graduation rates and helping young people realize their potential.

Program builds relationship between school, individual students leads to more successes, greater opportunities

Kieran McMonagle is the Four Directions First Nations, Metis and Inuit graduation coach at Dryden High School. She says the innovative support program, introduced by the Keewatin Patricia District School Board in northwestern Ontario is boosting graduation rates for Indigenous students. (Kieran McMonagle/kpdsb.on.ca)

An innovative support program for Indigenous students at Dryden High School in northwestern Ontario is boosting graduation rates and helping young people realize their potential.

The Four Directions First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) graduation coach program works to support each individual student while they're in high school, and then helps them transition into post-secondary life, whether that's university or college, starting a trade or entering the general workforce.

"It really comes down to the relationship, and relationships take time but it's well worth the investment," says Kieran McMonagle, the first FNMI coach, who began the program in June 2014.

"It's become a very tight-knit community within the school and almost a family situation. My favourite conversations to walk into are when my senior students are giving advice to the younger students, based on their experience," she said.

'All parents want their children to be successful'

The program also recognizes that students belong to families, and in many cases those families suffered greatly through the residential school system. So families are encouraged to join the program 'all on their time frame and where their level of comfort is, but we want to work with families and create an environment that students can be successful in. All parents want their children to be successful and education is a piece of that in this world," she said.

Relationships are built slowly and carefully, and often over the sharing of food, such as the annual feast in December, which brings together students and their families, along with staff and their families.

"It's a great way to see our staff are people too and they have their own kids and it really creates that level of understanding, " said McMonagle.

Indigenous students can face many barriers, from transportation to housing to hunger. The program helps out by paying for sports equipment to make it easier for a teen to join a team, or finding leadership opportunities such as a summer program at the University of Toronto.

First graduates heading to university, skilled trades

McMonagle was invited to be part of the recent 'Indigenize the Senate' event in Ottawa on June 6, and was asked to make a presentation about the program to the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. 

She explained that historically federally-funded schools have received less money than provincially-funded schools, leading to high staff turnover and often inadequate programming,  especially around literacy.

"It really comes down to, I think, inequity of opportunity, so through Four Directions we try to create that opportunity for equity so there's opportunity for equity in outcomes," she said.

In just four years, the graduation rate of Indigenous students at the school has risen from 30 per cent to 77 per cent, which is close to the provincial average, said McMonagle, with some graduates planning to go to medical school, become teachers, or enter the skilled trades, like welding.

'Powerful.. to see them recognize their potential'

McMonagle admits she gets emotional thinking of saying goodbye to this first cohort. "Working with them for that length of time and being so deeply connected, you're there for their triumphs, their struggles, you see trauma happen and you see them overcome it, so it's been really powerful to invest that time and just help them and see them recognize their potential."

Since its inception in Dryden in 2014, the Keewatin Patricia District School Board now runs the Four Directions graduation coach program in three others secondary schools, including Beaver Brae Secondary School in Kenora, Queen Elizabeth District High School in Sioux Lookout and Red Lake District High School.

Building trust.. Building relationships.. Building success.. Kieran McMonagle is First Nations, Metis and Inuit Graduation Coach at Dryden High School.. She's helped boost graduation rates among Indigenous students at the school from 30 per cent to nearly 80 per cent!.. 8:40

Board officials say since the program started there has seen an increase in self-identification among FNMI students. As well, they report that academic achievement gaps are closing with credit accumulation among Grade 9 students now on par with their non-Indigenous counterparts. They also noted a demonstrated improvement in student participation in athletics, arts groups, outdoor education, school dances, and ever growing attendance at school feasts and parent teacher interviews.