Calgary Board of Education tackles disappointing scores, Indigenous student grad rates

Calgary Board of Education trustees are concerned about some disappointing high school achievement rates.

Schools seeing more teens with mental health issues, high stress levels, says chairperson

The Calgary Board of Education wants student test scores to improve next year and is taking steps to make it happen. (Getty Images)

Calgary Board of Education trustees are concerned about some disappointing high school achievement rates.

The dropout rate for Indigenous high school students jumped from 5.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent in one year — a 36 per cent increase.

That's higher than the provincial average, which dropped slightly to 5.8 per cent, according to a report released this week.

The board is looking to expand its Indigenous high school "graduation mentor" program to include junior high school students, board chairperson Trina Hurdman told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"Every single Indigenous student at the high school and now at the junior high level will actually have a coach or a mentor, a counsellor that keeps track of them, that helps them identify their goals and helps them achieve those goals," Hurdman said.

The program is inspired by the "very successful" program at the Edmonton Catholic School District, she said.

The Calgary Catholic School District has also pushed to break barriers facing Indigenous students to close the graduation gap with their peers. The district's Indigenous student graduation rate improved 41 per cent in six years.

The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for changes to education, as well.

At a meeting Tuesday, the CBE discussed the results of provincial achievement tests that Grade 9 and 12 students do each year. The trustees also presented a three-year strategy to improve education quality.

The Calgary Board of Education's newly elected board of trustees was sworn in on Oct. 27. From left to right: Marilyn Dennis, Lisa Davis, Mike Bradshaw, Althea Adams, Julie Hrdlicka, Richard Hehr and Trina Hurdman. (CBE)

The test results showed learning achievement rates stayed stagnant or declined slightly in multiple categories measured. Achievements rates dropped more dramatically for Indigenous students than they did for non-Indigenous students.

"The fact that they've declined is certainly a concern," trustee Lisa Davis said. "I think we just want to monitor and see if that's a one-year situation and/or beginning of a trend."

'Squeezing school in is sometimes a challenge'

The students also lag behind the province in math scores, so the board has promised to spend $2 million for "math coaches" to work in struggling schools.

The board is looking at a few potential causes — and other options to ensure students improve year after year, Hurdman said.

Reducing high school class sizes is a priority, she said, as is addressing how teachers can effectively reach an increasing number of students who are still learning English.

"There's also a lot more students that have identified complex needs that are coming to our classrooms," Hurdman said.

"We also see a lot more mental health issues, especially at our high school level: increasing levels of anxiety, increasing levels of stress, students that are involved in many, many, many activities — and squeezing school in is sometimes a challenge."

Hurdman took over as chair of the board last month. She previously raised concerns about how the board spent its resources, in particular on the superintendent's pay and pricey rent for its admin building.

In June, the board announced it would dip into research for nearly $10 million to balance its budget.

With files from Lucie Edwardson, Falice Chin and the Calgary Eyeopener