After they polish off Thanksgiving leftovers, local Grade 4 students can look ahead to a traditional meal on the other side of winter—the Wet’suwe’ten mini-feast in Moricetown.
Every spring for the last six years, Grade 4 students from across the Bulkley Valley school district are taught a unit on Wet’suwe’ten culture that finishes with the mini-feast.
Birdy Markert, district principal for aboriginal student services, says activities like that didn’t exist back when she was in school here.
“I find that our students are more connected—there’s more support for them,” she said. “I didn’t feel that as a student.”
Today, Grade 7 students study the history of residential schools and their impact. Soon students will also be able to study from a Wet’suwet’en history book. Grades 7 to 10 students might take a Wet’suwet’en language program now under review with the Ministry of Education thanks to the Kyah Wiget Education Society.
All students, aboriginal or not, have to feel they belong in a school to succeed, said Markert.
But for aboriginal students, the stakes are measurably higher.
Fewer than half of aboriginal students finish Grade 12 across Canada, compared to 80 per cent of the general population.
That statistic comes from an Assembly of First Nations panel that is currently touring the country to study the issue.
A similar imbalance shows up in test scores and graduation rates here in the Bulkley Valley, where aboriginal students make up a quarter of the entire student body.
But that gap is not equal across all grade levels.
“I find it’s harder for students when they get into Grade 11 and 12,” said Markert. Those are the key school years, she added, when successful students reach out for a dream career or a post-secondary education.
“To be really quite honest, I think that we don’t talk enough about what the future plans are for our kids,” she said. “We need to do a better job of having those conversations.”
To help them step up to high school and go beyond, the district has aboriginal support workers who welcome new students and follow up with them.
That’s something parents appreciate, said Markert. It means someone from the community is there to connect with their child and, if they skip a class, to say, “Hey, we missed you today. Where are you?”
Teachers and support staff also plan to give extra support to aboriginal girls.
In every other school district in B.C., girls tend to outperform boys. But for a long time, aboriginal girls in the Bulkley Valley have fallen behind their male classmates.
“It’s a significant trend,” said Markert. who made it the subject of her Master’s thesis.
One of her findings was that aboriginal girls do well when they feel strongly connected to a teacher.
Chris van der Mark, the district superintendent, said the strategies that work for aboriginal students will benefit all students in the district.
Teachers have worked particularly hard in the last three years at boosting day-to-day instruction in primary and intermediate classes, he said.
That focus seems to be working well for aboriginal students in particular, he said,
after aboriginal students in Grades 4 and 7 earned strikingly higher test scores last year.
It’s too early to say whether there’s a direct link, van der Mark said, and with an issue this complex and no one should expect a “silver bullet” solution.
But it’s a good sign, he said, and one reason why he is optimistic.