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Northern K-12 system not preparing students for post-secondary education, task force concludes

A federal task force on northern post-secondary education released its final report Wednesday. It highlighted a failed kindergarten to Grade 12 education system, and a lack of access to safe and affordable housing among 11 barriers to post-secondary student success. 

The task force was set up by Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal in October 2020 to investigate the successes and failures of the post-secondary school system and to identify barriers northerners face to receiving a post-secondary education.

It looked at research and plans from northern governments and post-secondary institutions, and invited people working in the sector to speak to its members. The task force also heard from more than 800 northerners through engagement sessions and surveys.

The report, titled An Urgent Need: Post-Secondary Education in the North, by the North, for the North made it clear that students across the North are not graduating from Grade 12 ready to enter the post-secondary education system.

“There’s the basic secondary education to qualify to get into an institution of higher learning. It’s just not meeting its target,” said one participant from the N.W.T. engagement session.

Upgrading is discouraging and costly

According to the report, more than 22 per cent of the former students who filled out the Task Force survey required two or more upgrading classes to meet the entry requirements for various post-secondary programs.

The report noted this is putting a significant financial burden on Indigenous governments.

As one participant from the Yukon put it: 

“Not only does it disappoint [students] to have to do upgrading but they have to do it for several more years. And the first nations pay for the upgrading.”

northern k 12 system not preparing students for post secondary education task force concludes
Melanie Bennett is the executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Melanie Bennett, with the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, said one of the most surprising findings is the lack of accountability in the kindergarten to Grade 12 system.

“It was clear in our consultation that a lot of the students didn’t have a full understanding of what graduation requirements were necessary and a lot of Indigenous students are graduating on what is known as an adult grad,” she said.

The report also showed that on average, First Nations students took longer to graduate.

To improve, the task force noted that the K-12 system needs to address the high turnover rates of teachers and principals, provide better career or academic counselling and advice to students. It also needs funding for more space and programming.  

The task force also recommends getting families more involved in their children’s education and better recognition and incorporation of the cultures, languages and learning styles of indigenous students.

Housing a major barrier

Students across the North expressed that inadequate housing has an affect on their ability to access post-secondary opportunities.

They shared that their housing situations are often unsafe or overcrowded, affecting their ability to study, or even to relocate to communities with post-secondary learning centres. 

A Nunavut engagement participant reported “I almost backed out of NTEP (Nunavut Teacher Education Program) because I had to make sure I had housing because I am expecting, if I wasn’t going to get housing, I would’ve had to find a job that provided me with housing.”

Finding adequate and affordable housing for staff is also a problem at both K-12 and post-secondary levels, making it harder to recruit and retain staff.  

The report recommended offering dedicated funding to build “new and/or renovate existing student housing in the North that reflects appropriate cultural, social, and environmental contexts.”

Bennett said another missing piece in the post-secondary puzzle is an appreciation for Indigenous culture and ways of knowing and being.  

“We heard over and over again in the consultation that a lot of students would start and then they wouldn’t finish because they just couldn’t be away from home or there was no connection for them when they went to post-secondary studies,” she said.

But she said this challenge also presents an opportunity to improve post-secondary education through land-based learning. 

The task force didn’t set any timelines, but is calling for the federal and territorial governments, Indigenous governments, post-secondary institutions, communities, families, and the learners themselves to look at the calls to action and consider how they can be accomplished.

The report also recognized the Yukon for having the only university north of 60.

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