Funding crunch sees First Nations students 'missing out' on key school activities

Students and staff at the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation school west of Edmonton say the school is still lacking in many areas in spite of new investments from the Trudeau government. Teachers and children share the stories of their education challenges in the series Grading the Gap.

‘As a parent of a First Nations child it's very disheartening'

Student Kristina Alexis shows how students cram into a converted janitor's office which is now a classroom (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Kristina Alexis has a dream to go to university to become a lawyer, but the challenge of getting through high school is proving more complicated than she expected.

Funding challenges at the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, about 90 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, mean most classes at the Alexis Elementary, Jr. & Sr. High School are split between two grade levels.

Concentrating can be difficult when two teachers are teaching two different subjects in the same room at the same time.

"You get mixed up in class because you're hearing the other thing; there's another teacher. It's kind of hard," said Alexis, 16.

Now in Grade 12, she's always enjoyed going to school in her own community. She has a strong bond with the staff, but feels the students and teachers deserve better.

'That's not fair'

The First Nation receives about $9,500 per year from the federal government for each of the 200 children who attend the school.

While that number has risen about 20 per cent this school year thanks to new money provided by the Trudeau government, neighbouring provincially-funded schools are sometimes receiving thousands of dollars more per child, say Alexis school administrators.

As Alberta Education does not calculate overall per student rates, leaving school boards free to decide how to allocate funds, it's hard to nail down the exact difference in funding.

Statistics Canada estimates Alberta spends an average of $14,000 per student per year.

 "That's not fair," Alexis said. "I would like for them to give us money too, so that we're all equal because we do need more classrooms and we need textbooks."

Her classroom used to be a janitor's office.

And it's not just classrooms and textbooks the school needs.

Principal Alethea Wallace said years of chronic underfunding have meant the school is unable to offer a number of programs provided in provincially-funded schools.

"It's just really sad to see that the kids are missing out," Wallace said.

Alexis school principal Alethea Wallace says a lack of funding mean the students are missing out on programs. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

She said the funding levels mean the school at Alexis has no science lab and is forced to use the library as a classroom.

In addition, she said, there's no way to offer music, art or drama; programs that would be beneficial to students.

Wallace said her teachers are also paid much less than those who teach in provincially-funded schools.

'Disheartening' for mom

Alexis's mother Robin Roan-Alexis, who has two other children in the school, said the teachers are dedicated to helping the kids achieve success in spite of the barriers they face.

But Roan-Alexis sees it as unfair that children in the school aren't funded to the same levels as kids off reserve.

"As a parent of a First Nations child it's very disheartening," she said.

Roan-Alexis said it has always concerned her that the kids lack basic things like computer labs and are forced to learn in overcrowded classrooms.

"We should be giving them all the essentials that a First Nations child deserves like any other child," she said.

Parent Robin Roan-Alexis says Alexis teachers work wonders, but it's unfair that children in the school aren't funded to the same levels as kids off reserve. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

The federal Liberal government has promised an injection of $2.6 billion in First Nations education and $500 million in infrastructure funding.

Justin Trudeau made First Nations education his first funding promise in the 2015 election campaign, in a pledge he said would help improve the current situation with less than half of students on reserve graduating from high school.

It's money that's also supposed to help First Nations children improve in reading, writing and numeracy.

The CBC series "Grading the Gap" is examining the education funds that are provided to First Nations schools versus those in the general population that are provincially funded.

Long way to go

Alexis Chief Tony Alexis said he's grateful the promised federal money has started to flow. 

Alexis Chief Tony Alexis said the education funding gap is one of the biggest concerns for band leaders. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

But he said there's still a long way to go.

"We're still short easily 25 per cent," said Alexis adding that in spite of the situation, the school celebrated an impressive 58 high school graduates last year.

Chief Alexis said the increases to First Nations student funding are a good start, but what the band really needs is a new school to replace the ageing building.

That's another request the school is currently working on.

It's just really sad to see that the kids are missing out.- Principal Alethea Wallace

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said her government is committed to fairness and is showing that by making pledges in its budget.

"In this budget there was money to build education systems, and that's where we know we've got to go in terms of listening to educators to develop those systems," she said.

Student thinking of those who follow

Even if money is approved for a new school at Alexis it might be too late for Kristina Alexis.

But she's hoping the additional money available will result in changes that will make for a better school experience for those following in her footsteps.

She hopes they will get an education with the kind of programming that can harness children's passions and help them thrive.

"I like music. I really enjoy music or drama or a computer room — we don't have one," she said.

But without those things, Alexis is committed to continuing her studies in a converted janitor's office hoping to graduate with the sort of grades that will get her into university, and maybe one day to law school.