Closing the ‘achievement gap’ for Toronto’s aboriginal students
Published On Sat Jun 16 2012. Louise Brown, Education Reporter
A world away from Attawapiskat, here in the big city where there is plumbing and heat and social supports on every corner, a hidden population of aboriginal students still tumbles through the educational cracks.
They are undetected on the public radar, lost behind more high-profile waves of immigrants who take their turn in the spotlight. But the largest group of aboriginals live not in scattered northern outposts, but in the GTA — some have called Toronto the biggest First Nation reserve in the country. They likely number 70,000 and they’re the fastest-growing group of homegrown Canadians, with nearly twice the birth rate of everyone else.
So it’s alarming that they still struggle with learning, even here in the south, in schools paid for by the richer funding formula of Queen’s Park, not the cash-starved portables on federally funded outposts.
But less than two years ago, a scathing 100-page report raked the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) over the coals for failing its aboriginal students, driving the board to launch a fistful of initiatives this spring to try to close the gap.
“They kicked the crap out of us — and rightly so,” admitted board superintendent Jim Spyropoulos. But it got their attention, and now he’s on a mission to spread the word down to the staff room and playground.
The report, “Decolonizing Our Schools: Aboriginal Education in the TDSB,” by York University professor Susan Dion, was blunt about what she called the “invisible kids; the marginalized of the marginalized.
“The TDSB is failing to provide aboriginal students with the educational environment and experiences they require for success,” concluded Dion. “The board has not yet recognized that staff lack understanding (about aboriginal culture and history); the depth of ignorance plays a significant role in perpetuating the achievement gap.”
That gap is alarming. Here in Toronto, Dion found one-third of aboriginal Grade 9 students in the TDSB are at risk of dropping out because they have failed or quit at least two of the eight subjects, compared to just 14 per cent of all board students. Also:
• Only 17 per cent of aboriginal students met the provincial standard in math in Grade 9 in 2007, compared to an average of 47 per cent of board students overall.
• Fewer than half of aboriginal students take Grade 9 subjects in the university-bound academic stream, compared to 72 per cent of all students.
• More than 70 per cent of aboriginal students in Toronto don’t apply to college or university, compared to half of non-native students.
What is the reason? Dion said generations of native Canadians have inherited a distrust of formal schooling born of the residential school scandal. Modern schools still don’t know how to reach out, especially in Toronto, where the aboriginal community is scattered. Teachers don’t know much about aboriginal history and culture and admit they haven’t been taught how to connect with students who can be shy or suspicious.
Yet a provincial pilot project discovered that when aboriginal children do get extra attention and encouragement, and lesson plans that reflect their lives, they become engaged.
The pilot project provided money for the board to hire 13 people to boost its aboriginal initiatives. After two years, the results were so promising that the board will continue to bankroll the push even though provincial funding has ended.
The pilot project was a wake-up call and crash course all in one, and it has prompted a number of new moves:
• This spring, the family of every child who was being registered for kindergarten faced a check-off box on the registration form to indicate if they’re First Nations, Inuit or Metis. School secretaries got sensitivity training in February in how to respond if a family said yes; in part they refer them to the board’s expanding Aboriginal Education Centre, which burns sweetgrass each morning, runs after-school programs and credit courses, and creates lesson plans for teachers, the latest one on how to discuss Attawapiskat in class.
• The Toronto District School Board has agreed to conduct a sweeping feasibility study on how to fix or completely overhaul the small First Nations alternative school tucked in an east-end elementary school. All options are on the table, even a new aboriginal school from kindergarten through to Grade 12, said Spyropoulos. Toronto’s aboriginal agencies recently called for a new aboriginal alternative school like the Africentric alternative school.
• A new alternative Native Learning Centre is expected to open this fall in the Kingston Rd. and Galloway neighbourhood within the new Native Child and Family Services East centre, where native dropouts will earn their credits in a culturally welcoming setting.
• All TDSB superintendents have been given a sobering presentation by Spyropoulos about the achievement gap and the need to make all schools more sensitive to the aboriginal children in their midst.
Shane McLeod is a native dropout who sees that the right kind of schooling can work magic
As a child, he learned nothing about his Ojibwa culture in class. As a Toronto father, however, he watched as his children’s west-end school began to wrap itself in First Nations awareness — Ojibwa classes, drumming clubs, native murals and smart learn-to-read books with native themes shipped in from British Columbia.
And he witnessed his twins, Julien and Vanessa, blossom.
“It helped me learn who I am. The art in the school makes me feel like I’m at home,” said 11-year-old Julien. “I wanted to learn my culture and my language, but Ojibwa is hard at first.”
When the twins graduated from Bala Avenue Community School and moved to a middle school with no aboriginal programming, Julien began to fall behind. By mid-winter McLeod had switched his twins to a school that celebrates their heritage.
“But for high school?” sighed McLeod, “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Bala, in the Mount Dennis neighbourhood, where more than 10 per cent of kids are aboriginal, has spent the past three years embracing the culture of these reluctant learners.
The school launched Ojibwa classes and 60 children now take it from kindergarten through Grade 5. It runs native drumming clubs, has commissioned native-themed murals, and added Ojibwa to the list of languages on the plaque that welcome visitors to the school. It also held a sunrise fireside ceremony on Remembrance Day.
Principal Lisa Beischlag tracked down a bright new series of learn-to-read books from British Columbia that portray aboriginal children in a modern setting — not in teepees. With titles such as Hot Moose Stew; My Grandpa; Picking Blackberries and Long Powwow Nights, the Eaglecrest Books titles are in brisk use in the classroom.
While it’s too early to measure test scores, Beischlag said aboriginal children are coming to school more regularly (there used to be attendance problems) and their scores on a holistic yardstick that measures “resilience” have “shot through the roof.”
Shane McLeod has seen this happen with his own kids.
“I’m one of the dropouts, so it’s amazing that I’m working in the school system now,” said McLeod, who works at Bala as a lunchroom supervisor. He started pushing the school for aboriginal programs and other parents added their voices. “I wanted to know how to teach my kids this culture I never learned myself growing up.
“They started Ojibwa lessons and loved it. We started an after-school drumming club, which was awesome,” he said. “We did a cooking course for six to eight weeks. . . and they’re thinking of a ‘moccasin club’ to show girls the traditional way our ancestors did this.”
Martha Toulouse grew up on the Sagamok First Nation near Sudbury and speaks Ojibwa easily with relatives. She now teaches Ojibwa at two Toronto grade schools, including Bala.
Grade 4 student Margret Nahwegezhic said her father is native, so “it’s part of my background. I want to learn it and when you travel, you can use it.”
But there are also non-native children in the class. Toulouse is teaching the word for winter (bboon) and cold (ksinaa) and today (nangua).
Grade 3 student Brianna Hickens-McLeod said, “I want to learn to speak with Ojibwa people so I can understand them when I travel around the world. But it’s hard to pronounce some words.”
This is what professor Susan Dion and the school board’s Jim Spyropoulos call their goal — aboriginal education spreading beyond just native students.
High school began as a disaster for Lucas Nadishaakas. Distracted and disengaged, he was poised to become another native dropout. But the soft-spoken teenager with a learning disability wants to get his high school diploma so he can go to Royal Military College.
His mother Tracey King had a hunch her son, who is part Potawatomi, part Ojibwa, would thrive if he were immersed in an aboriginal environment — native poetry in English class, beginners’ Ojibwa instead of French and credit courses in native history that delved into the residential school tragedy. She was right.
After nearly two years at the small alternative Native Learning Centre tucked inside Church Street Public School, Lucas has earned almost half the credits he needs to graduate.
“We learned the residential schools wanted to kill the Indian in the child,” Lucas said. “My grandfather went to a residential school. That made me disappointed to be Canadian. There should be at least a little bit about aboriginals in all school curriculum.”
He’s doing a project on his mother’s home reserve of Wasauksing Island near Parry Sound. He’s a member of the Mississagi First Nations near Sault Ste Marie. A medicine man gave Lucas his spiritual name — Black Bear.
“This school makes me proud of who I am and is more focused on my culture. I’m more comfortable here.”
Social worker Cyndy Baskin is a professor at Ryerson University; she has her PhD in sociology and equity studies in education.
But at 16, the Micmac student dropped out of school because she was fed up with not seeing her people reflected in her textbooks. Today she fights that battle on behalf of her 13-year-old and other native children as head of the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee, which finally is starting to put promises into action.
“I’m so excited; aboriginal education is exploding right now. We’re a lot more visible. Good, bad or whatever — at least you’re hearing about it.”
It’s not a moment too soon, she said.
“We joke about Toronto being the largest aboriginal reserve in the country, but our students drop out of high school like flies. It irks me that we blame the families and the victims; my son does not have the risk factors for dropping out — he’s not from a single-parent family, he’s not living in poverty, he doesn’t live with substance abuse — yet school was still not welcoming for him,” she said, “and every year there has been some incident that comes up about our history or heritage.”
One year the teacher wore a sports T-shirt with a redskin mascot; Baskin and her husband explained to the teacher it was an offensive stereotype.
When her son was in Grade 3 planning for a class trip to Pioneer Village the teacher asked students to dress like pioneers. Her son said, “I know they’re colonizers. I don’t want to.” Baskin pointed out to the teacher that it made her son uncomfortable to play the role of a European settler. It’s an oversight the teacher promised not to repeat.
In Grade 6, her son’s class was studying pioneer houses, but he asked if he could make a model of an aboriginal house of the same period; the teacher said yes.
Today Baskin makes presentations to teachers, as does the staff of the board’s Aboriginal Education Centre, led by Cathy Pawis, which has put together a reading list and a lending library for classes. The province rewrote two high school Native Studies textbooks; written and reviewed by aboriginals. Still, Baskin is shocked at how little her social work students know about aboriginal history; at how land was stolen and children shipped to residential schools.
“I say Canadians have a reputation as peacekeepers; that’s the face we show to the world. But we will not truly become those peacekeepers if we don’t educate them to what we really did,” said Baskin. “Why teach about the Holocaust, and slavery — but not this?”
In Ryerson’s bachelor of social work program it’s now mandatory to take a course called “Aboriginal People and Social Work.” That’s Baskin’s doing.
“The gap is bridgeable if we start with the kids and bring aboriginal children into the education system.
“The gap in aboriginal content in the curriculum is bad not just for aboriginal students but for every Canadian.”
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