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'They just believe in you': Indigenous students' graduation rate soars by 41% at Calgary Catholic schools

Walking across a stage in cap and gown wasn't a priority for 16-year-old Cauy Healy after his mother walked out on him — until recently. But now he's one of many Indigenous students thriving in the Calgary Catholic School district thanks to a new push that has dramatically increased graduation rates.
Cauy Healy, 16, was struggling after his mother left him on his own. He's now considered a leader in his school and is on track to graduate. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Walking across a stage in cap and gown wasn't a priority for 16-year-old Cauy Healy until recently. 

His mother walked out on him last year — leaving him to fend for himself.

"It was really hard," said Healy. "I started not coming to school and my grades started to drop." 

Healy, who's a student at Father Lacombe High School in Calgary's southeast, was more concerned about finding a way to support himself than going to class.

But Healy is one of a growing number of kids who are benefiting from a push within the Calgary Catholic School District to break down barriers facing Indigenous students and close the gap between their graduation rates and those of the rest of the population.

Cauy Healy 1:00

The percentage of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students within the Calgary Catholic School Division who complete high school has risen dramatically over the past few years.  

The rate has improved by 41.5 per cent in six years.

In 2011, only 57.1 per cent of Indigenous kids graduated within three years of entering Grade 10. That number climbed to 80.8 per cent by 2017.

That's 27.2 per cent above the Alberta average for FNMI students. It's even higher than the provincial rate for non-indigenous students.

"You can't stand by and do nothing," said Frank MccLernon, supervisor of instructional services for the Calgary Catholic School District.

Frank MccLernon, with the Calgary Catholic School District, says boosting graduation rates is a priority within the school division. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"When we see there is a gap that exits between our indigenous students and our non-indigenous students, we have to do something about that. The status quo isn't acceptable."

Supporting Indigenous students has been identified as a key priority for the school division. All Indigenous students are monitored closely, staff are given extra education, and all schools — no matter how diverse — are expected to incorporate First Nations culture and history in their programming.

At Father Lacombe High School, there are regular bannock breakfasts, and students are currently practising for a dance performance that highlights the origins of the dreamcatcher.

"We want them first of all to recognize and appreciate who they are themselves and give dignity to who they are," said Chris Brochu, principal at Father Lacombe.

Students at Father Lacombe High School practise a dance routine for an upcoming performance that will highlight the origin of the dreamcatcher. Students are also crafting a large dreamcatcher for the recital. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Breaking down the barriers

There are also targeted supports in place. A special team, including two social workers, is deployed to schools with high indigenous populations to help struggling families and ensure students' basic needs are being met. 

Father Lacombe high school principal Chris Brochu says the school incorporates indigenous culture into its programming with regular bannock breakfasts, guest speakers and projects, including a dance performance. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

 "We have a good number of students who are dealing with trauma. We have students who are homeless. We have students here who are struggling to find their basic needs," said Brochu.

"We want to take away as many barriers as possible to give them reason to want to come to school and learn," she said.

A Family First

In Healy's case, staff helped him find a place to live, ensured he had food to eat and secured financial support so he could stay in school.

It is the combination of one-on-one supports and the affirmation of his cultural roots, with the Kainai First Nation, that made the difference.

"Sometimes I don't even believe in myself. But the teachers we have, they just believe in you and show you so much support ... that you believe you can go the extra mile to become something that you weren't supposed to be," said Healy, who is now thriving.

His new goal is to be the first in his family to graduate high school. 

"I find it a big deal to be able to graduate and walk the stage and my grandma to be there and see that happen in her lifetime."

Cauy Healy will be the first in his family to graduate high school. He's one of 44 Indigenous students attending Father Lacombe High School. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

About the Author

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon, and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca