As the economy grows stronger in the North, so does its need for educated and skilled workers. In a growing economy, a good education can be more valuable than gold.

In the past, sadly, proper systems were not in place within the school systems to help Cree kids learn at the right level. That problem has contributed to high drop-out rates, and that fact has an undeniable impact on economic development.

“We discovered that some students were just being passed from grade to grade without the proper standard that they should be at,” explains Dorothy Nicholls, the Vice-Principal at Mistissini’s Voyager Elementary School. “We also discovered that [practice] in the younger grades; it goes back to kindergarten and Pre-K.”

Another problem, notes Nicholls, is that, “most people feel that those grades [Pre-K and kindergarten] are not important. But they are extremely important – that is the learning centre right there, up to the age of seven years old. You can learn more language and learn how to speak fluently in a language if you learn before seven.”

Language skills need to be grounded in children at a very early age, she adds. “If you don’t ground students before then, you have a problem and it will travel right through the school system. You can have the best teachers in Grades 4 or 5 and 6 but if they don’t ground it and root it in the classes before hand, they are not making it – those are dropouts.”

As mentioned, the problem was not simply with parents not sending their children to school early enough but there was also a problem with the approach taken with children at an early level. It began with the methods teachers were using to teach Cree language skills.

“If you think of the transmission of a language, there are certain ways that you will learn a language. We can teach a child here in Pre-K Spanish but if the teacher doesn’t know how to teach a language, you’re in trouble. If they are just playing and they are just doing whatever, there is a way to teach them and once they are taught they can transmit that.”

The standard for language skills simply was not high enough, Nicholls observes. Now, “they must pass with a minimum of 80 per cent in that language and that’s mostly oral. Then there is the transmission. It can be transmitted (Cree to English or French) into the second language. If it’s lower than that – let’s say 55 per cent, for example – and you move them on to kindergarten they will carry it through and once they hit Grade 3 there is nothing to transmit. It’s zero.”

To ameliorate the situation, a new program has been implemented within the school system. With two pilot projects in place, one in English and another in French, the situation seems to be getting better.

“Our pilot projects are growing a better crop of students,” Nicholls asserts. “The first pilot project is now going into Grade 2. The children in there are fluent in Cree and in French and they speak English.”