Introduction to the Topic of

Inuit Dropout

Outside, it is a sunny but cold day in August. The wind is stirring the waves of the Arctic Ocean and the ice has only just been pushed back out of the bay. The sun has not set since April and in the twenty-four hour daylight, the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles drive into town from fish camps and lakeside cabins. There are no colourful tree leaves up here to judge the coming of autumn but Inuit can tell that the season is changing by look of the sky and the smell in the air. It will not be long before the caribou come and fall hunting starts.

Inside, it’s the first day of school and I am looking out at the faces in my senior high English class. They, too, can sense that fall has started. They see the look of expectation on my face and in the faces of their peers. Some faces are new to the class but the majority are faces that I see each year sitting in the same desk. These are the Inuit students who bring a sense of uneasiness and distress to my utopian vision of teaching. These are the students who continually start school each year but never seem to make progress. They never pass. They never succeed. They never graduate. They eventually dropout.

Gil, once a bright youth in elementary school, should have graduated from grade twelve over four years ago but just cannot seem to stick with school past the first two months. Slowly, his face will fade from the room and then his name will eventually be deleted from the register. LeeAnn is eighteen years old with three children and in grade ten. She’s returning to school with the initial look of determination and saying, "This year I’m going to finish!" By the end of the first month, she’s only an afternoon attender and by Christmas her face is rarely appears. Tom is returning to school in grade eleven again this year. His face shows his disinterest and by the end of the first period his head is down on his table, asleep. Irene, a fresh student to high school, had top marks all through junior high and perfect attendance. She has a good chance of doing very well in high school. How can we ensure that she makes it? What can be done to get the others back on track?

As I stand in front of my students on the first day of school, I find myself with questions nudging at the back of thoughts. Who’s going to make it? Who’s going to still be here at the end of the year? How long will they last? Why do they stop coming? What can I do to help?

This portfolio is an exploration into the dropout phenomena as it occurs in Inuit communities of the Canadian Arctic. It attempts to look at the dropout issue from a variety of perspectives; each stakeholder is represented: student, parent, teacher, school leader, community and government members. This capstone project will contribute to narrowing the gap in knowledge and information on the topic of Canadian Inuit youth with respect to school dropout. It will identify areas in which northern Canadian schools, particularly Nunavut can change, improve, and modify in order to increase the level of Inuit student productivity. It will investigate factors that contribute to Inuit dropout from the perspectives of all stakeholders. The portfolio will investigate attitudes about the school experience from the perspectives of all stakeholders. Finally, this work will give recommendations for change to increase the level of Inuit student productivity in school. It is hoped that the information provided in this portfolio will be used to improve the situation for Inuit students in northern communities. For the purpose of this portfolio, the term dropout describes this paper any student who has left secondary school for whatever reason prior to graduating (Brady, 1996).

I have chosen to present this portfolio in the web-based format for a number of reasons. An electronic portfolio can easily be distributed to others across the north in the form of a CD Rom. The intended audience includes other northern educators (both Native and non-Native), those in leadership positions at the Nunavut Department of Education, members of the local District Educational Authority, leaders in the community, and interested students. Readers are able to navigate to portions of the portfolio that interest them. Related work, articles and other such documents can be included within the portfolio without creating a massive document. Photographs and charts can be viewed in colour. Finally, I wanted to increase my learning with respect to web design and this capstone project gave me an opportunity to learn new software.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge the immense gap between my culture and the culture of the Inuit people whom I am trying to understand. Four years ago I began writing to express my confusion and frustration at the actions and reactions of the Inuit people in the educational process. The families and students that I worked with did not do or say the things that I expected. Other non-Native people with whom I have spoken to find it very easy to attribute the dropout phenomena to negative stereotypical characteristics. I did not want to fall into the same trap. I wanted to understand.

I know that my findings are seen through non-Native, southerner eyes and that is something I can not change. I acknowledge that I will never be Inuit no matter how long I live in an Inuit community; my thoughts and experiences will always be clouded by my non-Native upbringing and understanding. Our cultural gulf is so great that I will never fully understand what it means to be an Inuit youth living in the twenty-first century. Despite this obvious drawback to my investigation into the dropout phenomena, I hope that I can bring to light some of the more prominent issues at stake for Inuit youth. It takes years of reflection to get closer to understanding the great gap in our cultural expectations of education. It is my hope that this work will be welcomed by the Inuit people and be helpful in the educational development of Inuit youth in today’s world.

For my part, I am a teacher and vice principal in the small, isolated community of Taloyoak in the central Arctic (see resume). I have been at Netsilik School for the past eight years and I have seen a lot of changes with regards to how education is delivered for Inuit students from small communities. When I first arrived, students who completed grade nine were sent away to complete their high school in larger communities far from home. As such, having school in Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay meant that students only came back to Taloyoak at Christmas and for the summer. Unfortunately, many students were not able to handle this separation from their close-knit families and students often chose to leave school to return home.

In 1994 grade extensions started to create a community high school in Taloyoak and students were able to stay in town to finish their schooling. I thought this would be the answer to our dropout problem but to my dismay simply creating a community high school did not spontaneously result in great numbers of graduates. Our first graduating class was made up of twelve students, most of whom were older students who had attempted residential school years before but were not able to finish. Since that first graduation, only five other students have graduated in the past four years. Even with the community high school, the majority of students decided to dropout. Obviously, simply offering education at home is not the only answer to this dropout problem.