The Coast Mountains School District has hit a new high in graduation rates, giving diplomas to almost 20 per cent more students than it did three years ago.
The rates are now on par with the rest of the province, with 84 per cent of students graduating, a significant improvement from the 65 per cent of students in 2014.
A key part of the change is the improving graduation rate of Aboriginal students in the district, who make up 41 per cent of the student body. Their graduation rate jumped almost 30 per cent since 2014.
“We’re really excited,” said school district superintendent Katherine McIntosh.
“Our schools are excited, our kids, and our communities,” she said, adding that other school districts and educational experts in B.C. are also noticing and asking about their methods. “We’re gaining a lot of attention around our results… we’re getting questions about ‘how are you doing this? How have you [improved grad rates] so quickly? What are your strategies?”
The grad rates, also known as six-year-completion rates, are not actually clear cut percentages of Grade 12 students who earn diplomas.
Rates are based on the Grade 8 students who started in this district six years ago. Those students are tracked, and then the number who graduate, whether in this district or elsewhere, tally up to give the school district’s grad rate percentage.
The rates in this district have been on a steady incline for the last three years, but in the decade prior to 2014, they have not hit anything above 75 per cent.
The rates hit a low at 65 per cent in 2014, but then climbed to 75 per cent in 2015, 79 per cent in 2016, and last fall, diplomas were given to 84 per cent of the students who started Grade 8 in this district.
One of the key parts of that increase is the Aboriginal population. The grad rates were a dismal 44 per cent of Aboriginal students in the 2013-2014 school year. But the following year, in 2015, that spiked to 62 per cent of Aboriginal students graduating, followed by 67 per cent in 2016, and 73 per cent last fall (2017).
McIntosh says it’s the payoff of several significant changes which followed the hiring of new school district leaders in 2014, including herself as superintendent, Janet Meyer as director of instruction and Agnes Casgrain as director of indigenous education.
The first change they made, said McIntosh, was an asserted effort to know the academic level of every student, establishing a coordinated, district-wide assessment to show how students were performing in reading, writing and math.
They also worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a database in 2015 to track every student and their pathway to graduation.
“That allows us right away, when a student starts to falter in a mandatory course, or they’re not able to meet expectations in provincial assessments, that’s a flag for us to start asking questions,” explained McIntosh.
She says that teachers, principals, and school district officials keep an eye on those pathways to graduation, and have semi-regular meetings to ensure that interventions are occurring. Those Destination Dogwood meetings occur at every school two or three times a year to discuss programs and, particularly, struggling students.
“We look at each student, we look at where they’re at, and what they need for interventions,” McIntosh explained. “The school is able to share with us what they’re doing, and what they need us to do at the district to support them.”
The school district also improved communication with parents and with students themselves. They hosted public engagement meetings in 2015-2016 asking parents for feedback on how school’s can improve, and they’ve held a number of forums over the last few years asking students themselves to share what can be done better.
The next major shift, McIntosh said, is that the school district has worked hard to equip schools and teachers with the tools to help struggling students.
They’ve established partnerships with numerous educational experts, including Judy Halbert and Linda Kaiser (Spirals of Inquiry), Chris Weber (Response to Intervention), Shelley Moore (inclusion), Carole Fullerton and Nikki Lineham (math).
Specific to Aboriginal education, they’re also working with consultant Lorna Williams and Hazelton chief Brad Marsdom to integrate and celebrate Aboriginal culture in schools.
“When students feel like they belong, and they see themselves reflected in their classroom, they are going to be more engaged and they’re going to do better,” said McIntosh.
Another factor may be the emphasis on trades programs, which engage students who otherwise may have dropped out.
When asked if increasing ratse are because schools are pushing kids through, McIntosh said no.
“Current educational research has shown that having a student repeat a grade, does not benefit them in the long term,” said McIntosh. “There’s more damage done socially and emotional to children, when you pull them out of the peer group that they’re connected to…
“So instead [schools try] to determine where students are at and then provide the appropriate interventions so that you can elevate their learning, so that they do have the skill set to move on to the next grade.”
She added that teachers no longer set firm standards that they expect students to meet, but instead they look at their students and adjust their teaching based on where their students are at.
She says things are different in Grades 10-12, where students can fail courses and must meet a certain standard to graduate.