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Grad rate of Surrey’s Indigenous students dipped in 2022-23: report

Work to remove barriers, provide opportunities ‘just beginning’

A year after pledging to improve graduation rates of Indigenous students in Surrey by up to 20 per cent within five years, a report shows the school district’s numbers have taken a turn for the worse.

According to statistics in the Ministry of Education’s latest ‘How Are We Doing?’ report, the 2022-23 five-year completion rate for Surrey’s Indigenous students was 50 per cent – seven per cent fewer than the five-year cohort of 2021-22.

Asked for insight into the decline, officials with the district’s Indigenous Learning department highlighted systemic racism as a contributing factor.

“I think with our new racial equity department and our focus on diversity, equity (and) inclusion, it is apparent that we do have systemic racism, and this ‘How Are We Doing’ report indicates that that is what we get when there is systemic racism,” Lyn Daniels, director of instruction for Indigenous Learning, told trustees at the board’s Jan. 17 meeting.

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“Indigenous education, it is a shared responsibility, and maybe one of the challenges is that, because we have a department, sometimes people in schools think that the department is taking care of it,” Daniels continued.

“But conversely, our mandate, or people-date, is to provide enhanced support, and so we are there to support (the students) culturally and socio-emotionally.”

The goal to boost Indigenous graduation rates in Surrey by 2028 is identified in the district’s 2023-2028 strategic plan, where the disparity between these students and their counterparts across both the city and province is described as “a pressing concern.”

Indigenous Learning principal Juanita Coltman told the trustees that the 50 per cent completion rate seen in the 2022-23 school year represents a 14 per cent decline in the number of Indigenous males completing school and a one per cent decline in the number of Indigenous females completing school.

Currently, 3,223 students in Surrey self-identify as Indigenous.

Efforts to boost the graduation rate include a ‘student success’ initiative which sees secondary principals and vice-principals from each of Surrey’s high schools, learning centres and programs meet quarterly throughout the school year, to “talk about how we’re going to make Indigenous education and their success a priority and a goal in their school,” Coltman said.

In addition, school-based Indigenous teams meet regularly to look at all the needs of Indigenous students in their school, “and they really target the ones that need intensive support,” she continued.

Grade 12s are a particular focus, she noted.

“Making sure that they graduate on time, but also that they’re ready for post-secondary or their career goals,” Coltman said.

“We spend a lot of time sharing strategies, reviewing results and hearing from students.”

Supt. Mark Pearmain said the next step for Surrey Schools is to track back and understand the individual stories behind the data, and “ideally be able to learn lessons to support the students moving forward… but also to understand if there was barriers that were put up or missed opportunities to support the students in their journey in Grade 10, 11 and 12.”

“So for us here, the work really is just actually beginning,” Pearmain said.

Trustee Gary Tymoschuk said while he was disappointed to see that the Indigenous grad rate had declined, the board knew when it set the goal to enhance it that it was “an ambitious objective.” Still, the hope had been for “an inch in the right direction rather than a step back,” he said.

At the same time, “we only started this a year ago.”

“Perhaps this is going to take a while to move through the system, if you will.”

Asked what positive findings were made, Coltman said in her three years with the department, she has seen “a lot” of successes, including a priority to ensure role models are in place. An Indigenous residents program is “flourishing,” she noted.

Asked what else the board can do to assist, Daniels said maintaining the emphasis on boosting the grad rate is key.

“We really appreciate the focus on this goal,” she said.

“We have to take our own advice and stay the course and continue the focus on Indigenous learners and continue to work with the principals and the system in transforming it.”

Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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