A look at achievement in contemporary Aboriginal schooling

The educational success rates for Aboriginal students is often much lower than their peers. The complex factors that influence this persistent achievement gap have been document in previous studies – including the legacy of residential schools, poverty, suicide, and addiction. Yet, despite these many challenges, some schools with high Aboriginal populations across the country are showing noticeable progress for these students.

As part of a research project, ten such schools were chosen to serve as cases for achieving success in Aboriginal schooling. Understanding the contexts and initiatives of these schools could then serve as examples for others to learn and reflect on. Dr. Jackie Ottmann worked with an urban school in Saskatchewan, one with a 98% Aboriginal population, to identify successful and impactful practices in this context.

Like many others, the school was situated in a low socio-economic area, and had high levels of teacher and administration turnover. However, in recent years, the school had noted improved academic achievement among the Aboriginal students, and the teacher turnover was lessening. So what was working in this school?

A Community School

Dr. Ottmann investigated a number of key factors which contributed to the school’s performance. The marked change in the school began with a change in the school’s leadership. Previously, the school had a negative culture, with limited collegiality and collaboration among the staff. This compounded issues of poverty, transient students, poor attendance, and a lack of academic motivation. Students were often sent to the school for issues of bullying, violence, and vandalism, and many teachers requested to leave when the opportunity arose.

The principal first instituted a process of restitution, chosen by the staff, to help mend the poor relationships within the school. This had a clear effect on the interaction the staff had with students, parents, and the community, as well as the number of student referrals to the office. Building a foundation of respect and responsibility was key, as was establishing shared decision-making. The school’s administration, staff, parents, senior students, and community members were invited to make decisions, which were passed by consensus. Engaging parents and the community was seen as a foundational approach by all stakeholders in the school.

Implementing curriculum from an Aboriginal perspectives, and reflecting Aboriginal cultures in the school, was similarly identified as an important factor. The school set a goal to actively recruit Aboriginal teachers, and to meet the academic and social needs of the students through engaging Aboriginal cultures and approaches. A leader responsible for Aboriginal content and perspectives was then hired to provide curriculum support and professional development. Developing a strong commitment to student success and professional learning helped to facilitate other school-wide changes.

Seeing Success

Dr. Ottmann’s case presents descriptions of the school, its programs, and its context in order to understand what makes the site work, and what pressing issues it faces. This school’s example demonstrates the importance of strong leadership, the importance of collaboration within the school, developing a positive climate and culture, and establishing trust and involvement with the community. The teachers and leaders in this study went beyond usual practices to connect with the community, in order to gain their trust, and to create an approach to success that extends beyond the classroom.

Together, the stories of these ten schools demonstrate the potential for success in Aboriginal education.  By learning from these examples, which is an important Aboriginal teaching, practices in other schools may be adapted to better support Aboriginal students across the country. The cases are currently used in Werklund’s Indigenous Education course, a mandatory credit taken by pre-service teachers.

Connected Citations

Bell, D., Anderson, K., Fortin, T., Ottmann, J., Rose, R., Simard, L., Spencer, K., & Raham, H. (2004). Sharing Our Success: Ten Case Studies in Aboriginal Schooling. Kelowna, B.C.: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education.