Success Among First Nations Students

December 7, 2010
Kelly Thomas
Glenwood School, Glenwood, Alberta

Higher graduation rate lies at the door of students’  home

Kelly Thomas

Photos courtesy of Kelly Thomas

There are many communities like the village of Glenwood, in Alberta. It’s small and located in a rural area next to Canada’s largest First Nation Reserve (Kainai, or the Bloods). What makes Glenwood unique is that the community school has educated First Nations students from the time of the residential school system through to the present. In fact, parents from the Kainai Reserve would send their children to Glenwood School despite being ordered to send their children to a residential school.

For more than 60 years, Glenwood School, which teaches students from kindergarten to Grade 9, has been educating First Nation students. In many cases, grandparents who attended Glenwood School themselves now have their grandchildren attending the school.

In Alberta, the low high school completion rate for First Nations students is a concern. Students’ completion rates are more than 30 percentage points below average. Given the long history of teaching First Nations students at Glenwood School, a question arose as to whether or not students who attended the school were more likely to complete high school than other First Nations students.

Thanks to funding from the ATA Educational Trust, a First Nations liaison, Shirley Chief Moon, was hired to locate all former students of Glenwood School who graduated from Grade 9 (between 1987–2002) to determine if they graduated from high school. Former students were surveyed on what had made the difference between graduating and not graduating.

Students from Glenwood School

Unfortunately, the survey found that the overall rate at which First Nations students graduated from high school remained about the same, even if students completed their beginning years at Glenwood School. In fact, the percentage of First Nations students who completed high school mirrored the national average. On the bright side, one group of students exceeded the national average of students who completed high school. These were students whose parents and/or grandparents had graduated from high school and who had provided support for their children. As well, nearly 80 per cent of these students had been cared for by educated caregivers.

Aside from the one group’s success, what dismayed the writer of this study, who has taught at Glenwood School for more than 20 years, was the seemingly insignificant influence that Glenwood School had had on its students. Although staff put in time and effort, tears and love, the overall high school graduation rate was similar to that of the rest of Alberta. Clearly, the overriding factor determining a student’s graduation from high school is family support. A student who has a safe place to go to and who enjoys a secure family life is more likely to be successful. This type of home life was offered by families that had been educated.

If Alberta is serious about increasing the graduation rates of First Nations students, then family support given to First Nations families must increase. An all-inclusive (wraparound) solution to the problem with more accountability at the home level for children’s education is required. Improvement does not lie at the door of the school; the answer lies at the door of the home.

Kelly Thomas is author of Where Are They Now? Reasons for Success Among First Nation Students at the Glenwood School. The research for the paper was sponsored by the EdTrust.

Read also the article
The ATA Educational Trust: Teachers and profession reap benefits of research.

More information about the ATA Educational Trust and how to donate is available here.