North

School attendance declining in small N.W.T. communities

School attendance in small communities has declined steadily in the last 10 years, despite sweeping changes to the education system designed to improve attendance and student performance.

Board chairs, superintendents reluctant to talk about the problem, says education minister

The Minister of Education, Culture, and Employment Caroline Cochrane, seen here in a file photo, says she hopes the next education minister prioritizes attendance in N.W.T. schools. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

School attendance in small Northwest Territories communities has declined steadily in the last 10 years, despite sweeping changes to the education system designed to improve attendance and student performance.

In the legislature on Thursday, Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli gave figures from the education department that show the disparity in attendance at schools in small communities and schools in Yellowknife is increasing.

In 2008, average attendance at schools in small communities was 83 per cent. By 2013 it had dropped to 79 per cent. Last year students attended an average of only 75 per cent of the time.

"These low attendance rates, combined with other realities, like the need for many students to upgrade [after graduating high school] in order to pursue post-secondary education, tell me we're not doing an adequate job preparing our youth for the challenges life brings," Nadli said in the Legislative Assembly.

At the same time, school attendance in Yellowknife dropped slightly, from 91 per cent in 2008 to 89 per cent last year.

I am hoping that the minister in the next assembly will carry this forward because it is not OK that our children are not going to school.​​​​- Caroline Cochrane, education minister

The minister of education said declining attendance is an issue education leaders are reluctant to talk about.

"Attendance rates are a huge concern. Everybody, in my opinion, has been blaming everybody else," said Caroline Cochrane in response to Nadli's questions.

"I brought it up at the education leaders meeting, which has all the [school board] chairs and superintendents from all of the regions ... I had to bring it up twice, because I think they're afraid of it."

A file photo of Tuktoyaktuk's Mangilaluk School. Attendance in small community schools has been declining steadily for the last 10 years despite the education department's efforts to address poor attendance. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

Cochrane said declining attendance is an issue everyone needs to tackle. But she said the education minister will not be meeting again with the board chairs and superintendents until after the October territorial election.

"I am hoping that the minister in the next assembly will carry this forward because it is not OK that our children are not going to school."

In 2012 the Department of Education began developing its Education Renewal initiative, a comprehensive overhaul of the education system in an attempt to improve student success, particularly in small communities.

One of the issues it attempted to address was attendance. To emphasize the importance of attendance, the department pointed out that a student with 80 per cent attendance will miss the equivalent of one school day per week. If that continues through elementary school and middle school, the student will have missed the equivalent of two years of school by the time they reach Grade 10.

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