Systemic shortcomings are causing Yukon students to miss class, study finds

The report makes 14 recommendations for changes to Yukon's school system.

Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office found a third of Yukon students missed at least 10% of school days

Students from Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse pose with a bison they harvested during a class trip in 2019. A new report from Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate recommends more academic credit for activities outside the classroom. (Porter Creek Secondary School)

A report from Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate Office finds high rates of school absenteeism and says systemic problems are to blame.

The report, published Monday, found that nearly 3,200 students — roughly a third of all students — missed 20 days classes or more in a single school year at least once over the last three years. And it found that more than 200 students missed at least 80 days in a year.

Annette King, the child and youth advocate, said 20 days amounts to 10 per cent of the school year, a figure that qualifies as "chronic absenteeism" and one that signals major problems down the line.

"The research shows that if you missed more than 10 per cent of a school year, you are likely to be struggling academically in future years, so this is a problem," she said. "It's widespread." 

Absenteeism in Yukon schools is 'widespread,' says Annette King, the territory's child and youth advocate. (Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office)

The rate of Yukon First Nations students who experienced chronic absenteeism was 55 per cent, nearly double that of non-Indigenous students.

Interviewers talked to students, teachers, parents, administrators and First Nations leaders for the report. They found widespread frustration with a school system rooted in colonialism that includes unhelpful policies and lacks supports for students.

The study found the only systemic responses to students missing class without permission are fines of $100 per missed school day for parents, and suspensions for students.

Fines are rarely issued, but neither of those options make sense, King said. Yet, she added, the education department has no funding dedicated to tackling the problem of absenteeism.

'Nobody even really notices' when kids miss class

"It was quite appalling how many young people say they don't feel welcome at school or when they've missed a few days, nobody even really notices," King said.

Students missed class for a variety of reasons, including racism and bullying, mental health and a lack of support, "personal factors" such as hunger or homelessness and school environments that aren't representative of the community.

The report makes 14 recommendations. It calls on the government to immediately place clinical mental health counsellors in all school. It also calls for more First Nations representation in schools and for schools to offer academic credit for experiential and on-the-land learning. And it calls for alternatives to suspension and expulsion, plus restorative approaches for students with behavioural issues.

King said the report shows the urgent need to put First Nations practices and values at the centre of the school system. 

"We heard many, many people that want elders in the school," she said. "We heard that young people want to be able to learn in different ways and be outside and on the land. And that's not just Indigenous kids. What's good for Indigenous kids is good for everybody."