Gerald Angus is not allowed to fail high school.

If he does not show up for class, his school calls home. If he misses an assignment, he is directed to the homework club. And when his transcripts show he failed a course, like Grade 10 math, a crew of teachers and counsellors helps him make up the credit.

Mr. Angus, a student at Britannia Secondary School, is part of a program at the Vancouver school board that helps Grade 12 aboriginal students cross the high school finish line.

Nearly 40 per cent of aboriginal Canadians have not finished high school, which economists call one of Canada’s greatest public policy challenges. In a report late last year, TD economists Francis Fong and Sonya Gulati said: “There is a crying need to boost high school completion rates.” The Vancouver school board has made it a focus by intervening for every Grade 12 aboriginal student who is at risk of not graduating on time.

Mr. Angus, 17, said he would not be on track to graduate this year without the help. “It’s good to keep me in class, so I don’t fall back,” he said. “They make sure I’m always attending class and I’m always working.”

The Vancouver school district launched a pilot project in the last academic year and identified 26 aboriginal students in Grade 12 who would not graduate because they were missing credits. Parents were brought in for meetings to understand how close their children were to graduation. Teachers and aboriginal support staff were assigned to help the students prepare for tests, and even made sure they ate breakfast or arranged a ride to get them to school on time. In the end, 24 students graduated. This year, the school board has focused its resources, whether it be tutoring, counselling or specific instruction, on 75 students. The district uses a database to track what help is provided.

The program stands out against past approaches, said Steve Cardwell, superintendent and chief executive officer of the school district, and could be a unique way to address the high dropout rate among aboriginal students.

“Every individual has a different story, and we need to be attuned to that individual story to ensure that they are successful, rather than trying to provide blanket support that can sometimes be hit and miss,” Mr. Cardwell said.

Deborah Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, called Vancouver’s initiative a good first step. “I think, long term, there has to be broader systemic changes to the education system overall in terms of recognition and respect for aboriginal people, across the grades and in different subject areas,” she said.

And some experts wonder if support should begin earlier. John Richards, who teaches in the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University, said British Columbia is ahead of other provinces because it provides school districts with extra funds for aboriginal students. The amount comes to about $1,100 each. Pathways to Education, an inner-city program for low-income high school students, has had success off school grounds.

Prof. Richards said aboriginal students’ problems typically arise in early primary grades, because few are held back. “The first priority should be on much-expanded pre-kindergarten, early childhood and early primary in schools – reserve and provincial – with high aboriginal student cohorts,” Prof. Richards said. “It can make quite a difference.”

The Vancouver school district said that while it is focused on Grade 12 students, it is now tracking children through their schooling. A spokesman said youth workers are developing individual plans to get younger students to complete credits, and that could include rides to school or wake-up calls.

Warren Williams, an aboriginal education worker at Britannia Secondary, an inner-city school with a large aboriginal student population, said the individualized work has been profound.

“It focused people’s work, energy and attention throughout the district. It’s about regaining that trust. It’s a slow process, but the more people are working towards it, the quicker the process will happen and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jan. 23 2014, 8:22 PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 05 2014, 11:42 AM EST