Colville Lake, N.W.T., school struggles with attendance and funding

Colville Lake's high school students lack a dedicated teacher because funding was reduced due to poor attendance. It's a vicious circle that school and community leaders are trying to fix.

When attendance drops, teacher funding is cut, giving students less incentive to come to class

Like any other Canadian teenager, 16-year-old Lecy Gully spends her nights hanging out with friends and playing on her phone.

But Gully lives in one of Canada's most remote communities. Her home has no running water and like the majority of teens in Colville Lake, N.W.T., Gully doesn't go to school. She dropped out two years ago.

"I stay at home," she says.

When asked what she does, she says, "Nothing. I don't know. Just nothing.

"I wouldn't mind to go back to school."

We're trying to deliver all of the programs that all the other schools in the N.W.T. are delivering but we're doing it with a third or maybe a quarter of the staff.- Sheldon Snow, teacher

Without education, her dreams of leaving Colville Lake are next to impossible.

"I don't want to be down here in this small little community. It's too small," she says.

Colville Lake has a population of about 150. The community's school has two rooms for the 50 students in junior kindergarten to Grade 12. There are three full-time teachers.

In the main school room, boxes and filing cabinets are stacked high to divide classes, but they do little to block the noise. Next door is a one-room portable with a plastic divider that separates the junior kindergarten/kindergarten/Grade 1 class from the Grade 2/3/4 class.

In the far corner of the school, an area is blocked off for the high school students. It sits empty.

No full-time high school teacher

Sheldon Snow, who moved to Colville Lake from Cape Breton to teach a decade ago, now teaches the Grade 2/3/4 class. Three years ago, he was the full-time high school teacher.

Students draw in the part of Colville Lake's one-room schoolhouse that holds cultural studies. Classes for the younger students are held next door in a one-room portable. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

But last year attendance was down. For this year, under the Northwest Territories' funding requirements, the school lost its funding for a full-time high school teacher and a part-time teaching assistant.

"They use the same equation for the big schools in Yellowknife that they use for the small schools up here. It just doesn't work for us," Snow says.

"We don't have the funding so we're trying to deliver all of the programs that all the other schools in the N.W.T. are delivering but we're doing it with a third or maybe a quarter of the staff."

Now, the school's principal juggles his administrative duties while teaching the five students in Grade 8, 9 and 10 who occasionally come to school.

It's a vicious circle: no teachers mean no students, no students mean no teachers.

Students dropping out

Snow says teachers are pressured to pass students on to the next grade regardless of their ability. He says many of the students that do make it to high school grades are reading at a Grade 6 level and are doing Grade 5 math. By Grade 9, the majority of students drop out.

"Somewhere in between elementary school and high school, we're losing our children," says Snow.

Colville Lake is one of the N.W.T.'s most traditional communities, where trapping is a way of life. People in the community pride themselves on being self-sufficient, and school is not always the priority. Parents don't always make their children go to class.

Helping Colville Lake's youth learn how to balance between two very different worlds is Snow's ultimate goal.

"I think what we need to focus on now is who we do have here and instill the value of education in them, not just as teachers, but as parents at home. They need to let their children know that education is important," he says. 

"Even if you want to live in Colville Lake and be a trapper or work within the community, you still need to learn to read and write and be proficient in that."

Lobbying for new school building

Colville Lake band manager Joseph Kochon agrees it's not enough any more to rely on traditional skills; people need to learn to work in both worlds.

"If you want to survive on the land, you need money," he says.

"If you want to apply for work or you want to apply for a program, you have to fill out an application. Some of them are Grade 12, we ask them to fill out a simple application — and some of the questions we put on the application are simple enough — but they're stuck there."

For years, community leaders have been lobbying the territorial government for a new school building. Now, Kochon says the band is taking matters into its own hands, putting a proposal together to build the school itself and lease it to the territorial government.

"We have to do things ourselves," he says. "We've never relied on anyone in the past, so why should we do that now?"


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