If you’ve ever had the good fortune to visit London, England and take a ride on their subway system (more commonly known as “the Tube”), you will be very familiar with the caution signs and audible warnings for all passengers to “mind the gap”. The “gap” in this case refers to the spatial gap between the train door and the station platform. Everyday passengers on the Tube probably don’t even hear the warnings because they’ve heard the same warning thousands of times. Tourists like me are more likely to take note of the warnings and be a little more deliberate as we take that last step on to the train.
In education, we commonly focus on successes and strengths as opposed to deficits. It’s certainly a philosophy to which I ascribe. That being said, while we look at our students and ourselves from the “glass half full” mindset, this does not mean that we shouldn’t be very cognizant of the deficits or the gaps in our learning.
From a district point of view, we probably don’t celebrate our successes nearly enough. With newsletters, celebration assemblies, “Student of the Week” awards, and lists of “5 Great Things”, our schools generally do a better job of celebrating success than we at the district level do.
In this regard, we have not been diligent enough in publicizing and celebrating some remarkable improvements in our six-year completion rates for First Nations students. In 2010/11, only 38% of our First Nations students were graduating within six years of entering secondary school, while our non-Aboriginal students were graduating at a 78% rate during the same year. Three years later, in 2013/14, 66% of our First Nations students were graduating within six years of entering secondary school, while our non-Aboriginal students were graduating at a 88% rate during the same year. Last year, in 2014/15, those numbers were at 62% for our First Nations students and 87% for our non-Aboriginal students.
While the gaps have certainly closed, we still have plenty of work to do. We all long to work in a district and live in communities where the gaps are no longer noticeable.
With an objective of minding the gaps, our most recent Superintendent’s Education Liaison Committee took a closer look at the achievement rates of our First Nations students and some promising practices that some of our teachers are using to engage their students.
The meeting began with a presentation on the district’s achievement data from Jerome Beauchamp, our Director of Instruction – Education Services and Dave DeRose, our District Principal – First Nations Education.
While some mention was made of the recent successes in the six-year completion data, the data also showed a significant difference in academic success between First Nations boys and girls. In 2014/15, 80% of our First Nations girls were graduating within six years of entering secondary school. During the same year, only 45% of our First Nations boys were graduating within the same six years. (It should be noted that there was also a gap between non-Aboriginal girls and boys with the girls completing at a 94% rate and the boys completing at 80% rate.)
Needless to say, the lower achievement levels of our First Nations boys should be of concern, but it should not be seen as insurmountable. As Jerome Beauchamp so aptly pointed out during our discussion, with approximately 50 First Nations students of each gender in each grade, every single student that we can support towards school completion will be a 2% improvement.
District and school leaders spend more time mining this kind of data. To their credit, the teachers are the ones in the trenches, and they’re the ones who work with individual students. Those students aren’t numbers. They’re young people with their own stories, their own strengths, and their own challenges.
After the sharing of the numbers, teachers, principals and education coordinators from our local First Nations communities shared some of their best practices. Not surprisingly, these strategies would boost success rates for ALL students, not just one demographic. Moreover, we know that what will work for our at-risk students will also work for all students.
These suggested strategies included:
- Connecting with students as individuals. Building relationships and holding students accountable.
- Communicating with students via social media and/or cell phones.
- Connection with students/families through community events.
- Fair and equal may be different based on a student’s environment/ circumstance. This matters in a teacher’s approach to a student.
- Rather than focusing on a student being late – recognize their effort to attend.
- Use positive terminology in schools – “welcoming bell” rather than “late bell”.
- Be mindful of students who have come from small schools and may have different learning styles.
- Recognize that the school system may need to be changed rather than the child.
- Schools need to learn cultural sensitivity.
- More opportunities are needed for teachers to collaborate about effective teaching strategies.
- Formal mentorship program for staff.
- Personalized learning – Use a student’s strengths.
- Open assemblies and meetings with an acknowledgement of First Nations territory.
- No locked classroom doors – Open, welcoming environment.
- Students mentoring students.
- Offer structured boarding situations for students coming to Williams Lake for school, enabling them to connect with other students and partake in planned activities.
- Programs to bring parents or other significant people to school. This helps community members become comfortable in the school.
- The importance of being sensitive to students who aren’t living with their families. Students may be dealing with issues outside of school that make classroom learning very difficult.
- “Real world” lessons
- Being able to connect with your students with a sense of humour
- Elders in Residence programs
- CORE Hunting Training
- Weekly Talking Circle
- More outdoor education
- Flexible schedules – Students being able to work at their own pace.
By understanding that a gap exists, we will more intentionally work towards minding the gap. If we all work towards that common goal, the gap should be less noticeable.
All of the student achievement data used in this post and much, much more can be found in the district’s “How Are We Doing?” Report.
I invite feedback and comments to any of my blog entries. As the administrator of the blog, I approve all comments before they hit the public domain. While I do not mind comments that disagree with my point of view, I will not post comments that I deem to be inappropriate, those which are personal attacks, or those which refer to specific personnel. I also will not post comments from anonymous or nicknamed sources. While one of my goals for this blog is to open a dialogue, it needs to be a safe environment for everyone involved. Thanks for considering this before making a comment. – Mark