A Barrier to Overcome: The Phenomena of Native Dropout
No student should have to make the choice to drop out. If we are concerned about justice, then it is the responsibility of each of us to address this issue. (Wilson, 1991)
Despite the growing participation in post - secondary education, the level of education is still the single greatest barrier Aboriginal people face in joining the wage economy in the NWT (Jewison, 1995)
As I look around the high school in which I teach, I see an alarming decrease in the number of students sitting in classes. I am distressed at what I think to be a horrible trend developing across the Canadian north. I have taught in an lnuit school of Taloyoak for the past five years and I have observed informally dramatic decreases in the number of students who attend school regularly. Jewison (1995) reports that about 76% of the students in NWT leave school before graduating from grade 12. The effects are even seen in the younger grades; last year our grade one class in Taloyoak had seven non-attenders.
Despite the efforts of many to create a community high school in Taloyoak, the students are not coming. Community high schools are new to many northern communities. In the past our students were sent to larger centres like Yellowknife or lqaluit. Our school has beautiful new facilities, an art room, a music program, new lockers, a breakfast program, cultural inclusion programs, a room with 25 new computers, a computer bulletin board system and many other extracurricular incentives. Even so, our dropout rate is high and student motivation is low.
As a teacher, I am very concerned and frustrated with the poor attendance and high truancy rates of our high school. I have spoke to other teachers in communities in our region and the problem of dropouts is common. We need answers. Thus, this research paper attempts to come to a better understanding of the phenomena of early school leavers or dropouts.
While researchers differ as to the causes of this phenomenon, we know the consequences of dropping out are many. Brady (1996) reports that early school leavers suffer higher unemployment rates, longer between job periods and lower wages. Now that the new territory of Nunavut is in its last phase of completion, there is more need than ever to graduate Inuit students to take on their new roles.
Unfortunately, the biggest barrier I see to my students' education is not their intelligence but rather their attendance. Jewison (1995) confirms this belief in the opening quote of this paper. The population of Native students3 who exit the education system prematurely is noticeably higher than that of the general population (Brady, 1996). There are many opportunities for these students. The key is to have more Aboriginal students graduate from grade 12 and go on to some sort of post secondary education or training. The question is: What is causing the low attendance rate and consequently the low graduation rate among Native youth?
Mackay & Myles (1995) explain that much of the early research on the phenomena of Aboriginal retention and dropout locate the main 'cause' in socioeconomic factors such as family background and social economic status. However, more recent research has explored the effect of school culture or climate on the dropout situation (Mackay & Myles, 1995). There is also strong research that focuses on cultural discontinuity as a factor in student dropout. The articles I will share support both of these explanations as well as providing alternate ones. Throughout this paper, I will attempt to make these findings relevant to the lnuit population living in my region.
Research has illuminated a number of 'causes' or issues that address the problem of dropouts. Each of these so-called 'causes' effect the major stakeholders in differing ways. In the case of early school leavers or dropouts, the main stakeholders are students, teachers, parents, and school boards or administrations. When discussing 'causes' of a problem, one tends to want to place blame for problems on a sector of society. However, the various factors that contribute to Aboriginal retention and dropout are many and overlap in the responsibilities of the stakeholders.
This paper does not intend to place blame on any one stakeholder. On the contrary, there is knowledge to be gained by understanding the various factors effecting the dropout phenomena. Understanding can lead to partnerships between these stakeholders. Partnership is the key to gaining greater numbers of successful students in high schools. This research paper will also explore the factors that contribute to higher rates of graduation.
As stated earlier, previous research in the phenomena of dropouts has focused on social economic status as a primary factor. Social economic status is a major influence on a student's educational success. Brady (1996) reveals the strong correlation between the economic situation of Native students and their inclination to dropout. Native students who come from single parent, low economic status homes are twice as likely to dropout than other students (Brady, 1996). Jewison (1995) confirms that poverty is one major cause of developmental delay and that lnuit students face other challenges including those caused by living in over-crowded homes. In some cases language problems are linked to social economic status factor like the parents' lack of education and lack of reading materials at home (Mackay & Myles, 1995). Although, social economic status is of significance importance, it is not the only factor which contributes to the dropout phenomena.
Further research has provided another theory to explain the situation. The Cultural Discontinuity hypothesis (Brady, 1996) states that there are culturally based differences in the communication styles of the minority students' home and the predominate Anglo culture of the school. These differences lead to conflicts, misunderstandings and failure for students. Brady's (1995) research focuses on the structure and climate of the school, which causes students to ultimately dropout. One of the purposes of secondary education is to instill the values, attitudes and beliefs of the majority; these values tend to be those of the sub urban middle class (Brady, 1996). Unfortunately, this Cultural Discontinuity is experienced as conflict and results in reduced academic performance, behavior that brings students into problems with teachers and finally the leaving of school. Any student who does not adopt the dominant values or conform to middle-class standards will not thrive in the school system.
Wilson (1991) supports this Cultural Discontinuity theory by stating that serious conflicts result when students are taught by people from cultural backgrounds different than their own. She goes on to report that since education is communication, understanding the cultural context of learning is important. The issues arise in the understanding of the non-verbal behavior that used to transmit of information. Inuit people use many non-verbal signals in their communication. These signals are not easily comprehend by non-Inuit people. Non-Native teachers in our school often report a lack of communication with parents and students. This is an example of one aspect of Cultural Discontinuity.
In the past, Inuit students were often sent to southern, white dominated schools and spent little of their childhood within their own culture. This practice resulted in many students who had negative experiences with education and thus dropped out. Today many community high schools are established. However the NWT is still forced to conform to the southern standardization system from Alberta. Thus Culturally Discontinuity issues are not resolved by simply having community high schools.
Cultural conflict is most at work in the classroom, reflecting the fact that teachers are key agents in the socialization of children from cultures different than the dominant (Wilson, 1991). In a study of Canadian Sioux Indian students, Wilson (1991) discovered that the students' performance was directly related to different structural setting, both institutionally and culturally for which all of the students were totally unprepared. Prior to transferring into the white dominated city high school, students she studied had done very well in the elementary reserve school. The elementary school was very Indian oriented, respected Indian spiritualism and had many Native people as members of the staff. In contrast, the city high school had a huge Anglo European background population and a staff of 75 teachers, all white. There was little if any communication or visitation between the city and the reserve. The Indian students were the only persons who had to live in two settings, an Indian reserve and a predominantly white city. To receive a high school education, students were forced to move between the two cultures of these areas even though these communities were extensively different. Students had clear ideas about why they were facing failure. They felt isolated in the school, isolation from the system, from the white students and from the teachers. Because of this isolation, Indian students spent most of their time with other Indian students who were also living through this traumatic situation.
Wilson (1991) also speaks of the enormous trauma of prejudice and racism in which the students dealt with regularly. They faced racism, behavior patterns different from their own, alien cultural norms and economic stress. Despite educational testing proving otherwise, teachers from the city high school felt that Indian students simply could not handle the work and they usually were placed in vocational or special education classes. Counseling was inadequate for Indian students and they were often encouraged to take low-level courses or special education classes. Indian students felt undervalued emotionally and thus undervalued their education. The process of streaming students into course levels also discriminated Native students; these students were consistently placed into low level courses because everyone assumed that they were incapable of handing university bound work (Brady, 1991). By the end of these put downs, students simply wanted to escape and minimize school contact.
In the high school, teachers rarely spoke directly to the Indian students in class. Often the teachers were brief in giving explanations to Indian students but would spend more time with other students in a similar situation. Wilson (1991) reports that the students were sensitive to the racial prejudice in school and felt that the teachers would have preferred them not to be there. When observed in the classroom on the reserve by Wilson (1991), the teachers moved around the room, respectfully conversing with students and in most cases, contact was made with each student present. In the high school, during the course of one class, the teacher spoke to only four students. This type of behavior to towards Indian students is obvious racism and this attitude filtered to their peers.
Brady (1996) reports that students often had to deal with racial slurs by their peers. Students he studied spoke of areas in the school where Indian students were not to be. Wilson (1991) confirms these findings by writing that when Indian students were walking in the hallways, peers would comment "I smell a strange smell in the hallway" (p. 370). Also, when Indian students came to school with new clothes, their peers would make welfare check jokes. Many times students from low-income homes were looked down upon by their peers (Brady, 1996). Practices of the teachers and administration are internalized by the students of the school and are further perpetuated.
This observation relates back to the effects social economic status on student dropout. Cultural Discontinuity does not fully explain the dropout situation among Canadian Native students. It fails to explain why the dropout rate varies depending on the economic circumstance of the student's families (Brady, 1996). Brady (1996) offers a new Cultural Discontinuity Theory that is expanded to include the student's social economic status rather than just the ethnic background of the student.
School practices create a climate that alienates minority and disadvantaged students alike (Brady, 1996). The lack of understanding of cultural conflict on the part of the school staff contributes greatly to student failure (Wilson, 1991). The school climate and culture becomes another important factor in student dropout. Mackay & Myles (1995) found that there was insensitivity by the school community to the students' variety of English and their need for extra time to master new idioms. This insensitivity undermines Native students' sense of self-esteem and identity. Wilson (1991) states that students' limitation in academic performances is consequences of macro structural factors. These factors are the basis to schools in which there is no place for ethnically diverse students or as Brady (1996) found, low social economic status students. Schools have an organizational structure in which these students, who do not conform to majority norms, fail. Students in the study by Wilson (1991) dropped out of school because it was the most adaptive coping strategy at that time in their lives.
Cultural Discontinuity (as an umbrella term for other factors including social economic status, racism and school climate) does play an important role in the dropout of many Native teenagers, however it falls short of fully of explaining the phenomena I am observing in my school and in schools of our region. The students of our community high school are all Inuit and they do participate in many culturally related activities during school day. Also, the majority of students are from low-income households so there are not many acts of peer discrimination on the basis of economic situation. Even though our students are taught primarily by teachers from the south and students graduate through the Alberta Education system of standardized testing, I believe that there are other factors beyond the Cultural Discontinuity theory that contribute to the dropout situation in my school.
It takes a whole community to raise a child. Mackay & Myles (1995) found that parental support and home-school communication were second to language difficulties as factors that contribute to early school leavers. In studying Native and non-Native dropouts from Ontario, Mackay & Myles (1995) reported that inadequate English language skills contributed to a Native youth's dropping out. They state that weaknesses in basic English literacy are characteristic of all dropouts, irrespective of ethnicity. These language problems were most likely linked with parental support issues including parents' lack of education, a deficiency of reading activity and materials at home, a lack of encouragement to read at home, the dominance of television for home entertainment and poor or nonexistent library facilities on some reserves (Mackay & Myles, 1995).
The level of parental support, interest and encouragement contributed to Native students' decision to remain or leave school (Mackay & Myles, 1995). Mackay & Myles (1995) found possible reasons of this lack of support and interest to be that many parents are unfamiliar with schools and are intimidated by the educational system. Parents may consider that the formal education of their children to be exclusively in the hand of educators so they feel alienated and have no part in the process (Mackay & Myles, 1995). In some cases, non-Native staff has been reported as having discouraged parents from participation as educational partners (Mackay & Myles, 1995).
With respect to Native parents, their lack of encouragement and support for education may be rooted in previous bad experiences they themselves have had. In the case of my school, I understand that many lnuit parents have themselves faced hardships in their personal schooling. Many parents faced deep cultural upheaval when sent to schools in the south ran by churches. It may be possible that these same people, when raising their own children, do not value the educational system based on their previous negative experiences. Mackay & Myles (1995) state that some parents believe the decision to stay in school should be left to the child. I have heard this comment as well from parents of dropout students.
Mackay & Myles (1995) found that parents of dropouts lack the skills to motivate their children. Brady (1996) confirmed these findings in that he reports that dropouts are academically frustrated and tend to be more extrinsically motivated than intrinsically motivated when compared to successful students. He goes on to interpret that dropouts are motivated by a different set of considerations than more academically inclined students. Dropouts are short-range goal setters who are motivated more by the immediate rewards of a job than the rewards of good grades in the classroom (Brady 1996). Perhaps parents need to support their children in the area of motivation in order to ensure success for their child in school.
There has also been much research on the effects of home-school communication and Native dropout. Mackay & Myles (1995) found there to be a distant relationship between the Native community, lacking in both quantity and quality. There are cultural and psychological barriers as well as physical barriers; many of the non-Native educators never visit the reserve from which their students originate nor do they understand their culture. Many Native homes do not have telephones and any communication that does occur is usually initiated from the school, usually negative. Many parents complain that they never hear anything good about their child (Mackay & Myles, 1995). Poor school-community communication is reported as contributing to high dropout rates (Mackay & Myles, 1995).
In my circumstance and within Inuit communities over the north, teachers live alongside the Native people. Inuit communities like Taloyoak differ from Indian reservations because the school and its teachers are encouraged to become part of the community. Even so, it is challenging as a teacher to communicate with parents especially those parents who do not speak English. Schools must make a conscious effort to involve elders and community members as partners in education.
As Jewison (1995) states, the NWT education system endeavors to give young people the skills they need to participate in the traditional economy (carving, hunting, guiding, etc.), the wage economy (technical positions, government jobs, etc.) or both. The key to getting more students involved in the wage economy is to have higher numbers of Aboriginal students graduate from grade 12. Mackay & Myles (1995) discuss findings on the factors that believed by Ontario Native and non-Native stakeholders to contribute to higher success rates. Many of their findings are confirmed by Jewison (1995) to apply to Native students in the NWT. Ward & Barton (1995) provide other immediate changes to the school climate that they believe increase the rate of attendance and ultimate success in a small school of Saskatchewan. It is interesting to note the similarities that arise in these three articles and studies. All Native schools can benefit through the implementation of some of their suggestions.
The study by Mackay & Myles (1995) found that bands who enjoy a high graduation rates are those whose members and leaders support school as a high priority. Three major educational roles have been created because of their values in education. The first is a Native Trustee whose job is to a represent the band on the school board, acting as a liaison between the board and the band members. The second is the Band Education Committee. In regular open meetings, committee members meet to discuss educational progress of students, monitor dropout and graduate rates and deal with issues involving parents, students and school personnel. In our region we have a District Education Authority who meet monthly. They are given a budget on which to spend on various programs like Breakfast Club or Cultural Inclusion. The members are also involved in the Discipline Policy and in hiring of teaching staff. Thirdly, the Band Educational Counselor is a role within the school. A formally trained counselor encourages Native culture and engenders confidence in parents and students that their needs are being meant. In our school, this position is unfilled. We need someone who makes the changes in home-school communication happen. We have yet to have a successful trainee take on this role. Hopefully this position can be filled in the near future. Jewison (1995) reports findings that support the role as school-community counselor. This person acts as a liaison between the school and the community to emphasize the importance of family support for education. They also encourage parents to become participants in the school while providing personal counseling and support to students.
School boards which have a high rate of successful Native graduates respect Natives as legitimate clients and they are willing to address issues pertinent to the Native culture (Mackay & Myles, 1995). Boards promote multicultural and anti-racist education in the school as well as developing innovative programs to make school relevant for Native students, such as Career and Technology Studies, Inuktitut Language programs, and Cultural Inclusion courses (Jewison, 1995). Grade extensions of secondary school in a number of smaller communities has helped to keep students to remain within the school system until graduation (Jewison, 1995). In Taloyoak, many of our students have returned to school since the recent extension to grade 12; previously these same students would have left school permanently at the age of sixteen.
In Native schools whose graduation rates have increased, Mackay & Myles (1995) found that principals actively promote strategies to encourage students to stay in school. These strategies include encouraging Native students to be involved in student councils, recruiting Native teaching staff and assistants, and ensuring that parents of Native students feel welcomed Ward & Barton (1995) write of the effort made by his staff to make his school intentionally inviting to Native American students. His position is as principal of an inner-city elementary school whose surrounding community is of the Native American culture. Barton and his staff changed the atmosphere and climate of his school to make his school more inviting for Native students. Aboriginal murals appeared on the school walls and within the community as part of the neighborhood improvement plan. Displays of photographs of the students and their teachers celebrated the Native culture of the students. A Native American healing circle was held in the school as well as the Hoop Dance Troupe. Students were able to see their culture celebrated and valued within the school system. Administrative schedule changes were made to allow for collaborative meetings with teachers to promote school-wide themes. Family or cluster groupings of the same grade span were made to reflect Native traditional close relationships of family and siblings working together rather then the commonly used method of ability grouping students. Much of the curriculum was adapted to reflect the Native beliefs and values of the community the school served. All of these changes increased the reputation of the school and more students resulted in continuing their education (Ward & Barton, 1995).
In meeting the challenges of increasing graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates, much has yet to be understood. Jewison (1995) states that success or failure in school is more a reflection of a society's social and cultural structure than a result of any person's individual attributes. We, as a society must come together to overcome these challenges. Inter-agency approaches are necessary to combat these problems and come to solutions. While the information presented in this paper is useful in better understanding the conditions that lead to dropout, what is even more valuable is the research on finding success. The suggestions provided by the articles and studies are valid. It is important to have all the major stakeholders involved to tackle the dropout problem. Meeting the challenge can only be done through the working together of teachers, school boards, parents and students.
I have presented some of the many issues believed by parents, dropouts and Native and non-Native educators to contribute to the dropping out of school: Cultural Discontinuity (including Social Economic Status, racism and language), parental support, home-school communication, and school culture and climate. However, I still am without clear answers to questions. I believe that there may be more to the problem of dropouts and early school leavers in my Inuit school. Many of the studies dealt with First Nations students and there appears to be a lack of information on the dropout rate of Inuit students in the north. It is possible that differing findings may result when studying the lnuit people as they have had relatively recent contact with Western - European culture. Some of the research discussed multicultural schools but our school is virtually an uni-cultural school (all Inuit students with the majority of southern white teachers). I wonder if this may have a direct effect on the dropout situation. Also, this year our school has started teaching Inuktitut immersion in the primary levels. Students are taught in their traditional native language and Inuit lifestyle is emphasized. Perhaps this practice may affect the future dropout rate reflecting the higher profile of Inuit pride in the school. Studying these issues may bring further understanding to the lnuit dropout situation. The Inuit and First Nations people must strive hard to overcome the barrier of education. I believe that education is important for all students.
Mackay, R., & Myles, L. (1 995). "A Major Challenge for the Educational System: Aboriginal Retention and Dropout." In Battiste, M. & Barman, J. (Eds.). First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. (pp. l57-178) Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.