It was halfway through the school year, and nearly a thousand Grade 4 students across Delta sat down to write their first provincially-mandated exam.
Their pencils were poised over the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA), a test that looks at how well students are doing in the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic.
For the 40 students with Indigenous ancestry who wrote the test in February, 2017, the outcome wasn’t good. Sixteen didn’t demonstrate the basic skills expected for reading and math, and 22 students — or more than half of the writers — missed the mark in writing.
Although the numbers showed slight improvements for Grade 7 students, it still didn’t match the non-Indigenous success rates: of the 39 Indigenous students who wrote the tests, between 27 and 29 students met or exceeded expectations in each of the three categories — around a 70 per cent success rate.
It’s significantly lower than Delta’s overall success (87 per cent of all Grade 7 students in Delta who wrote the FSAs met or exceeded expectations in writing, and 78 per cent of all Grade 4s did as well), but that doesn’t come as a surprise to Ted Johnson.
As the director of learning services, equity and success at the Delta School District, it’s Johnson’s job to know where students are struggling and to come up with ways for the district to support them. He keeps his eye on trends in the schools, and notes where students — or in this case, a subset of students — are falling behind.
“For us, and I think for most districts, it’s knowing the whole student,” Johnson said about analyzing data like the FSA marks. “We look at report card marks, classroom marks, what’s going on. We’ll talk to the teachers who know these kids specifically and what’s going on for them.
“I can’t emphasize enough that while the FSAs are an indicator, there are so many indicators we have in schools, in the bricks and mortar, that give us a broader picture of who the kid is and how we should be working with those kids.”
But as far as indicators go, the FSAs are a strong one — pointing to a continuation of stalled success and academic barriers for Indigenous students in Delta and across the province.
In most communities around B.C., Indigenous students have difficulty with the FSAs, and these struggles continue into the high school years. In Delta, only 72 per cent of Indigenous students who wrote the English 12 exam in 2015/2016 had a C+ or higher. (That number was 75 per cent for non-Indigenous students, the smallest difference recorded. In the past 15 years, Indigenous student’s success rates have been an average of 22 percentage points lower.)
The 72 per cent is a significant improvement over past years, but an English 12 C+ is a basic requirement for most universities in the Lower Mainland. Any students who don’t make the grade are unlikely to get a university education.
High school completion rates are also low. In 2005, when the province declared that it would eliminate the graduation gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students in 10 years, only 46 per cent of Indigenous students graduated within six years. In the 2016/2017 school year, there was still an 18 percentage point difference between the two groups province-wide.
Delta also hasn’t achieved parity in the graduation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, although it has had greater success than the province as a whole. In 1999/2000, 45 per cent of Indigenous students in the community graduated within six years; that rate has risen to 80 per cent.
“We’re trying to be inclusive. We’re focusing on getting everybody’s grad rates up. So it’s great to see our Aboriginal kids or kids with ancestry are doing the same,” Johnson said.
For Juanita Coltman, a member of the Nuxalk nation and the K-12 policy manager at the First Nations Education Steering Committee, better graduation rates for Indigenous students is a positive improvement. But simply reaching parity shouldn’t be the goal.
“We shouldn’t just reach parity, we should be beyond that,” she said. “Doing better than non-Aboriginal students. Why not?”
It’s not an unreasonable proposition. Between the 2008/2009 school year and the 2013/2014 school year, the Fort Nelson school district was able to increase its Indigenous student graduation rate from 55 per cent to 100 per cent — a number that was higher even than the non-Indigenous student rate.
The question is how.
“First Nations know they’re not doing well, but they can’t make the change happen on their own,” Coltman said. “And so, we really need to help other people be accountable and to help make those changes happen.
“And until other people see that this is the work they have to do, then it’s not going to get easier or get better.”
It’s not an easy task. School districts have been working since 1990s to address inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements were first created in 1999 to improve student performance by forming partnerships between the provincial government, school districts and local Indigenous communities.
But Rhiannon Bennett, Delta school trustee and member of the Musequeam First Nation, said those agreements saw failure as the student’s problem.
“Enhancement agreements were really focused on the individual Indigenous students, with that underlying sort of assumption or bias that it was the students being the problem. That the students needed to work harder and the students needed these things to succeed,” she said.
Now, districts need to shift their focus and look at “what are the barriers in the system that are preventing success,” Bennett said. “Because there’s nothing wrong with Indigenous students.”
There is nothing wrong with Indigenous students. It’s a statement that’s upheld by the people who work with those students every day — Johnson, Coltman, Bennett, district administration and support teachers. But something is preventing those students from succeeding.
For Bennett, that something is government policies, often going back decades.
“The efforts of residential schools and colonization and government policy was to kill the Indian in the child,” she said, with tears were creeping into her voice. “Like, that was government, that was the law of the land to kill the Indian in the child.”
It’s a topic Bennett speaks passionately about. Graduating from Delta Secondary in 1997 as one of the district’s 148 students with Indigenous ancestry (the district now has more than 600 students with ancestry), Bennett has worked as an Aboriginal enhancement support worker in Richmond and a family outreach worker for the Musqueam First Nation. Since 2014, she has been a Delta school trustee — the first Indigenous woman to hold that position.
Removing policy barriers is “really what’s motivating me in a lot of the work that I’m doing and why I chose to run for trustee,” she said. “All the work [is part of] my personal journey of healing and being a strong, proud hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam woman.”
(Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ is pronounced “hun-kuh-meen-uhm.”)
Part of that work is Bennett’s involvement in the equity scan, a provincial pilot project that looks at how districts can remove barriers to success for Indigenous.
Originally intended to take one year, the equity scan is a province-wide attempt to tackle systemic racism in schools. Delta and five other districts are the guinea pigs in the process, experimenting with different ways to re-evaluate personal approaches to Indigenous students.
“This is really innovative and groundbreaking work,” Bennett said. “We’re inventing the wheel in a sense for this process.”
In Delta, there are 30 people in the cross-cultural and cross-discipline committee who are working together to create a program for the district. Diane Jubinville, district vice-principal of Indigenous education and a woman with Cree ancestry, is one of them.
For her, one of the key parts of the equity scan was looking at individual biases within the school system from an Indigenous lens.
“People don’t even understand the power they have when they walk into a room and you’re a white male, [of] European descent,” she explained. “I think that space needs to be opened up so that we can understand what we mean when we say we’re coming through an Indigenous lens.”
Although the pilot project was scheduled to only take one year, it has since been extended to two. For Delta, this means more time to work with stakeholder groups and ask questions about where they are falling behind when it comes to equity.
“Some of them are rather personal questions, so [it’s] really getting the staff at the district to look at themselves as well, and [acknowledge] that there’s systemic issues,” Bennett said.
“The system has issues, and this system is comprised of individuals who have been trained and doctored into the system,” she continued. “So it’s about trying to change the system and addressing the individual parts of the system, which is the people as well.”
In the next two weeks, we will be taking a look at the different ways the Delta School District is supporting Indigenous students academically, as well as the role culture plays in student success. Read part two in the series here.