[Editor's note: This article is last in a six-part series on native youth speaking out about their challenges and their dreams. The 14 young people interviewed for this series are introduced in part one.]
A decade ago, when Ken Watts was booted out of Grade 11, he stood a good chance of becoming one of the 62 per cent of aboriginal kids in Alberni School District who do not graduate from high school. Thanks to family encouragement, as well as an alternative school tailored to the specific needs of native students, he received his high school diploma -- and a BA as well.
This past March, Watts was one of the signatories on a Memorandum of Understanding between the Unified Aboriginal Youth Collective and the Provincial Government of B.C. The MOU acknowledges that "listening to the aboriginal youth voice is part of the process of building a relationship between the province and aboriginal people which is based on respect and reconciliation."
Watts calls the signing of the MOU "ground-breaking" for two reasons. First, he says, it is the first time that such a diversity of native interest groups, representing both urban and on-reserve First Nations as well as Métis youth, have come together to speak with one voice.
More importantly, he says, is that this agreement seems to be for real. "I was worried that it was yet another agreement on paper. Our people sometimes get sick of all these action plans, protocol agreements, MOU's."
But Watts says that early results are apparent. "We've already been contacted by several provincial ministries who say they want to work with us in several different areas. It's starting!"
Alternative schools make a difference
Alternative schooling programs are one example of successfully responding to the specific needs of aboriginal youth. Port Alberni's Vast Learning Opportunities Centre, for example, steered Watts from being a high school drop-out to a degree-holding community leader and current male youth representative of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.
"Lots of First Nations kids don't feel comfortable asking questions in front of a group," explains Watts. "At Vast, there is lots of support in an intimate environment. You can do your work, and go up and ask the teacher in a one-on-one situation if you have a question."
Tom McEvay, Vast's principal of alternative adult and distributed learning programs, emphasizes that Vast is not what he would call a "full-service" high school. McEvay explains that traditional institutions emphasize the needs of the system, e.g., group intake once or twice a year, set course start and finish dates, a group graduation date.
"We focus on the needs of the clients," he explains. "Many of the students who come to us are somewhat marginalized in society. They don't have the capacity and support systems in their lives to get answers -- they may not have a family structure, they may not know how to find transport for an interview, they may not know who to call for information."
McEvay explains that the Vast program takes a holistic view of needs. "We know that higher-order needs, such as education, cannot be met unless their basic needs -- food and shelter, safety, connectedness, and self-esteem -- have been met." To that end, Vast liaises closely with social agencies that help its students, for example in finding housing, or day care, or employment.
In a previous article in this series, Pat Lucas of Port Alberni, who dropped out of school for a spell to care for an ailing father, framed his choice this way: "No matter how old you are, you can still go back and get an education. That chance is always there, but your parents might not be."
Learning on a flexible schedule
Rigid schedules, dictated by calendar or clock, are not a part of traditional First Nations culture. The flexibility that Vast's system offers gives many First Nations students an opportunity to continue their studies in a way that better suits them -- a far better alternative than simply dropping out. Vanessa George can still work several days of the week, and fit her schooling around the work schedule. Belinda Lucas appreciates both the flexibility and the independence. "At the alternative schools we can concentrate more -- you don't have the teachers right in your face, and they let you work at your own pace."
Last year, Vast celebrated the high school graduation of 75 young people who were not flourishing in the traditional school system -- 35 of whom were First Nations. In the Alberni School District as a whole, which historically has had one of the lowest graduation rates of aboriginal kids province-wide, 90 per cent of the First Nations kids who registered for Grade 12 in 2009 graduated that year.
In North Vancouver, about 10 per cent of the student population at Carson Graham Secondary School is aboriginal. Fourteen years ago, recognizing that a high percentage of aboriginal students were not finishing Grade 12, the school started a special stream to help increase "transition rates" -- the rate at which kids move up through the grades.
The First Nations Integrated Studies Program (FNISP) still teaches kids the same material, in terms of core courses such as math and English, as the mainstream program. But it does so with a Coast Salish cultural influence, and with native teachers who are culturally sensitive. Smaller class sizes of only 12 to 15 students allow for lots of one-on-one time between students and instructors.
North Vancouver Aboriginal District principal Brad Baker explains that, at first, FNISP was implemented only for Grade 8 students, to help "boost up their basic skills" upon entering high school so that they could successfully re-enter the main stream. Since then, the program has expanded to grades eight through 11.
"The aim is not to have kids in this stream the whole time," explains Baker, "but that they can come in to it for part of their schooling," giving them a chance to catch up if they have been slipping behind. And they still must complete their final Grade 12 year within the main stream.
It is clear from the Squamish youth I spoke to that the FNISP stream has helped them out. They appreciate the better teacher-student ratios and the one-on-one time, and LanLan and Sarah both said the extra support they received through the program helped them to catch up on weak reading skills.
Options for adult learners
Baker acknowledges that graduation rates -- when counted as kids finishing high school within five years of entering -- are still low for native youth at Carson Graham SS. But he points out that transition rates are now much higher. This means that more kids are graduating after taking an extra year or two.
Moreover, school-leavers have at least achieved a higher grade level before abandoning school, and so are far more likely to go back to finish their diploma later in an adult learning centre. And to that end, the Squamish Band has a half-time adult learning centre on-reserve called Eslha7an, currently attended by about 50 teens and adults.
Ken Watts feel that these are exciting times for aboriginal youth. And he emphasizes that today's youth are tomorrow's leaders. "The utilization of technology by our youth is very exciting," he says, referring to the conversance young people today have with the Internet, and to their better development of reading skills through use of the media such as Internet and texting.
"I don't mean any disrespect to the older generations, it was just a different time for them. But as today's young people move into positions of leadership, it's the start of new times for us."
Watts notes how many young people are already moving into leadership roles -- he knows several elected chiefs across the province who are under 30 years of age -- and he also draws attention to the youth of current AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, who is 43.
The young people that I spoke to all clearly value formal education, and recognize that it opens doors and gives them choices about their futures. Helping them make their way through high school means supporting them: through alternative programs such as Vast and Carson Graham's FNISP stream; through providing them with healthy recreational opportunities, such as the sports teams that have helped Vanessa and Belinda to stay on track and avoid drugs and alcohol; and through creating healthy environments in homes and communities, so that teens may continue to live with their families and have the emotional support from them that completing high school requires.
"I do feel negative at times," says Watts, "looking at the social issues out our own back door, or the problems on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Those are our community members there, and there are dark parts, not only in our history, but in the current state too."
But he points to the importance of looking forward, trying to fix things rather than be critical. "My dad wrote an article about criticism. He said that if you just criticize, and don't come up with solutions, you are only hindering the process."
Watts feels that this MOU between aboriginal youth and the provincial government will lead towards solutions, giving native youth more of a voice about both what the problems are and how to solve them.
"No single agreement is going to create happiness in all aboriginal youths' lives. But this agreement works towards keeping aboriginal youth engaged, and also to informing non-aboriginal youth more about our culture. They are all pieces of a puzzle, baby steps along the way, leading to something bigger."