Western Nunavut school official pleads for hamlet help on student attendance

Half of eligible children aren’t attending school in Gjoa Haven


Here's one of the slides shared by Catherine Keeling, the executive director of Kitikmeot School Operations, with the region's mayors Oct. 4 in Cambridge Bay. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Here’s one of the slides shared by Catherine Keeling, the executive director of Kitikmeot School Operations, with the region’s mayors Oct. 4 in Cambridge Bay. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

At the Kitikmeot mayors meeting in Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina talks about the housing shortage in his community of about 1,300 people. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

At the Kitikmeot mayors meeting in Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina talks about the housing shortage in his community of about 1,300 people. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

(Updated, Oct. 5, 11:35 a.m.)

CAMBRIDGE BAY—With about one in every two school-aged children attending elementary school in the western Nunavut community of Gjoa Haven, and school attendance lagging in the region’s other four communities, the executive director of Kitikmeot School Operations appeared Oct. 4 before the Kitikmeot region’s annual meeting of mayors with this message: please find ways to ensure kids in your community attend school.

“We really need to unite everyone possible,” the KSO’s Catherine Keeling told the mayors of Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak and Kugaaruk, who, with their senior administrative officials, met this week in Cambridge Bay.

Incentives such as offering certificates and even handing out iPads for good attendance have failed, Keeling said.

And other efforts, such as fines, withholding child tax credits and getting family and social services or the RCMP involved when kids don’t go to school haven’t worked, or are not feasible or even legal.

So Keeling said a combination of increased hamlet input and more parental involvement may help improve school attendance among the region’s 1,500-plus school population.

Nunavut’s current Education Act makes it clear that all school-aged children in the territory are required to “attend school regularly and punctually, unless they have a health reason reported to the principal, or are involved in traditional activities on the land, living at an outpost camp, or attending home schooling,” Keeling said.

According to the Education Act, it is the duty of a parent to promote regular and punctual attendance by the student.

“The DEA [District Education Authority] and principal/school team are required to create and implement a policy to promote attendance in their community,” she said.

The DEAs and schools have done and are doing what they can to improve attendance, but now everyone needs to step up, Keeling said.

What’s needed is a community-wide effort to increase school attendance, she told Kitikmeot mayors.

Keeling suggested they hold community consultations to get people together to determine, as a first step, why some kids go to school and others don’t.

Boosting attendance is important, Keeling said, because, among other things, the number of teachers assigned to each community every year is calculated on the attendance rate of the previous year.

The attendance numbers for the Kitikmeot in 2016-17 are revealing and shocking at the same time, although Keeling cautioned that her department is still double-checking some of the figures.

The education department found:

• In Kugluktuk: About seven in 10 students attended Kugluktuk High School in 2016-17, down from eight in 10 students in 2014-15. While 13 students graduated in 2014-15, only eight graduated in 2016-17. At the Jimmy Hikok Elementary School, attendance has remained steady at about 70 per cent from 2014-15 to 2016-17;

• In Cambridge Bay: Fewer than six in 10 students attended Kiilinik High School in 2016-17 compared with more than seven in 10 students in 2014-15. That rate of attendance is lower than in 2001-02 when nine in 10 students showed up to school every day. However, the number of high school graduates increased from four in 2014-15 to 11 in 2016-15. At Kullik Elementary School, attendance has held steady at about 80 per cent;

• In Gjoa Haven: Attendance at the Qiqirtaq High School dropped to a new low in 2016-17, with only six in 10 students attending school. That was down from 2014-15 when seven in 10 students showed up. Still, seven students managed to graduate in 2017. At Quqshuun Elementary School, attendance remained the lowest in the entire region, with only about one in two students attending school;

• In Kugaaruk: The community lost its only school, Kugaardjuq School, to fire this year, but school attendance continues to be steady with more than eight in 10 students attending school since 2014-15 and about eight graduating every year; and,

• In Taloyoak: The rate of school attendance is about 80 per cent with four students graduating in 2016-17.

Overall, in Kitikmeot schools, the attendance rate stood at about 69 per cent in 2009-10.

But now, according to our calculations, the rate has dropped to about 58 per cent.

At the Kitikmeot mayors meeting, more information about the complexity of the challenges facing Gjoa Haven, the community with the worst school attendance at the elementary school level (48 per cent in 2015-16, and 50.2 per cent in 2016-17) surfaced.

Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina said it’s even hard to find teachers willing to come to Gjoa Haven due to the lack of staff housing. This has obliged two unrelated teachers, a man and a woman, to share a unit, he said.

During other discussions at the meeting, Sallerina also cited the pressure of overcrowded housing in the community of about 1,300 people, the lack of child care, and the high cost of healthy food which means “our community is living on junk food.”

Kugaaruk, on the other hand, has managed to maintain relatively good student attendance despite its only school burning down last February due to arson.

Since then, the hamlet has been involved in ensuring the community’s 300 or so students were able to get back to school.

Classes moved into the hamlet’s old office building where students now attend school in shifts while they await portable classrooms to be installed. The new $32-million school won’t be ready until 2019.

Keeling returned Oct. 5 to the mayors meeting to add a special thanks to the Hamlet of Kugaaruk for its help and partnership with the education department after the school burned down.

“Kugaaruk has set a model for us to achieve with respect to collaboration and cooperation,” she said.

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