By Chris Marchand
An initiative designed to close the achievement gap between self-identified First Nations students and the rest of the student body is showing some positive results after a year at Dryden High School (DHS).
Kieran McMonagle is one of just two First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Graduation Coaches in the province of Ontario, a pilot initiative launched by the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in the 2014-15 school year under the name Four Directions.
DHS was chosen to host the program because of community’s rapidly changing demographic. Thus far it seems to be working.
Credits earned early in high school are an important determinant of graduation success down the road. Historically at DHS, approximately 55 to 60 per cent of FNMI students achieved eight or more credits in Grade 9, compared to 83 per cent of their non-FNMI counterparts. In 2014-15, 80 per cent of FNMI students at DHS reached that benchmark with significant improvements in marks within those credits.
Numbers don’t really come into it for McMonagle, who says Four Directions is a holistic ‘experience’ that will try to address any barrier in a student’s life that puts them at risk of disengaging from school, be it transportation, finances to participate in extra-curricular activities, poverty, or even access to healthy food.
“You’re looking at all aspects,” said McMonagle. “School is just a piece of the puzzle — in order to be successful here you need to be successful in other parts of your life. If something’s going on at home, or with a friend-group it’s really hard to focus on that piece.”
Keeping kids from slipping through the cracks of the education system means building strong, trusting relationships with not only students, but also their families.
“If a family comes here from the far north, they might not be aware of some of the resources we have in the community, so we try to link community partners to expand that family’s network of support. For example — if a student lives in Wabigoon and isn’t able to participate in extracurricular activities because their parent(s) don’t have a car, we can arrange transportation. That’s something that will tie a positive experience to the school.”
McMonagle says the relationship building process with her first cohort of Grade 9 students has opened an important dialogue in a community with a complex relationship with the institution of education.
“We’ve given kids the opportunity to have a voice, where they may not have been comfortable having one before,” said McMonagle. “We have a trusting relationship and they’re able to tell me things that they may not feel comfortable telling a teacher or an administrator. Maybe the family had a negative experience with school in the past? I reach out to those families, I go to their homes and meet with them in different places until they’re comfortable enough to come here. Now we have parents dropping in all the time to check-in on their kids. It’s great to see that growth in the community of people who are involved with the school.”
A similar initiative has begun this fall at Kenora’s Beaver Brae Secondary.
McMonagle’s mandate is to hopefully carry over the successes of her first cohort of students into a total of 16 credits at the end of Grade 10 — a benchmark the board has found to be an accurate predictor of graduation success.
Coming from a Métis heritage, McMonagle says she’s inspired daily by the students, parents and community partners with whom she interacts.
“To see people pushing through their struggles and being successful in what they choose to do and raising healthy and happy families,” she said. “To know that there is support out there and they can ask for it. We’re not here to judge anyone, we’re just here to make sure that these kids have the life they deserve, because they’re really great kids.”