Iqaluit DEA tackles dropout rates

“You only need to look at the streets in Iqaluit to see how many kids are slipping through the cracks”

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS

Iqaluit’s school representatives are mobilizing an unprecedented campaign to deal with their most violent, troublesome and unsuccessful students, in efforts to stem the community’s drastic dropout rate.

The Iqaluit District Education Authority members will survey teachers and administration at the four schools in the coming months on how to help the large number of students likely to quit school.

Katherine Trumper, an IDEA member coordinating the survey, said they will look at how students should be disciplined without turning them off school, and how much extra tutoring the neediest students require to keep up with their classmates.

“You only need to look at the streets in Iqaluit to see how many kids are slipping through the cracks,” Trumper said in an interview this week.

“There’s too many.”

Nunavut students are more than three times as likely as their peers across Canada to drop out of school, according to the IDEA’s preliminary research. Interviews with four program support teachers and a school counsellor in Iqaluit suggested that only 30 out of 100 students in Grade 8 will graduate from high school.

The project was initiated by the IDEA’s chair, Christa Kunuk. She said she was inspired by one gruelling meeting earlier this year, when IDEA members and school officials were asked to consider suspending a student who had been violent at school.

Kunuk said she cringed at how “institutional” the first meeting seemed, with the authorities lined up on one side in a library, and the boy and his family in front of them.

However, Kunuk said they managed to improve the process by bringing in IDEA member Andrew Tagak Sr., to mediate in Inuktitut. They sat on couches in a circle in a school staff room, and eventually came to a compromise, where the student would receive anger management counselling while he was suspended.

Kunuk said this meeting was an example of how school administration needs to use more Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Inuit traditional knowledge, in their disciplinary policies.

“To me, IQ is like a feeling, an emotion,” Kunuk said. “I think we hit it off so well, because it was intimate. People were able to feel that they were able to voice their concerns.”

IDEA interviews with teachers revealed that students often struggle as soon as they begin school.

They said some kindergarten students are coming to class without basic language skills. One teacher reported students don’t know how to say words like “apple” or “pencil” in Inuktitut or English.

The problems don’t stop there. Teachers warned three-quarters of Grade 8 students in Iqaluit are reading below their grade level.

Teachers say some students struggle because they have learning disabilities, such a hearing problems, and others have behaviour problems, stemming from a traumatic event in their life.

As the second part of their research, IDEA members will look at what other schools are doing to help students at risk of dropping out, especially in aboriginal communities.

They are already looking to expand successful programs in Iqaluit, such the Uppigaaq program at Aqsarniit Middle School, where kids can have one-on-one time with elder Annie Demcheson. The Iqaluit Restorative Justice Society donated $5,000 so she could counsel students while she bakes bannock for them.

Darlene Nuqingaq, the school’s principal, said students who misbehave have sometimes improved after hunting with elders on the land. After the trips, the students come back to class with a more positive attitude.

“Sometimes, kids just need a place to go with an adult who cares about them,” said Darlene Nuqingaq, the school’s principal. “We look at every student as being ‘at promise.’ If something happens in our life, then we become ‘at risk.’ Then we look for ways to work through that problem. We’re trying to focus on the positive.”

IDEA members hope to finish their research by the fall. Then, they’ll make a presentation to bureaucrats with the Nunavut department of education, in hopes of boosting funding for programs to help their neediest students.

The survey is funded by $28,500 from the National Crime Prevention Strategy.

Nunavut’s overall dropout rate in 2003 was three times higher than the national average – the worst in the country among the territories and provinces.

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