In September, Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School celebrated a milestone achievement: it saw its first two students – Geraldine Shecapio and Jessica Jolly – graduate since 2006. Both have gone on to study at CEGEP – Jolly in Val-d’Or and Shecapio in Gatineau.

The celebration over the achievements of those students, though, also brought with it questions about the low graduation rate and what initiatives are in place to improve it.

Joe MacNeil, Deputy Director of the Cree School Board (CSB), is quick to point out that the problem of low graduation rates is not specific to Mistissini.

“Mistissini will have its own factors and variables that come into play,” he said, “but what you see there could be applied to any school in the Cree School Board. All combined, the graduation rate for the whole Cree School Board has gone down to 1.1%, which puts us at the bottom of all school boards in Quebec. The graduation rates have been plunging for as many years as I can remember. Our kids are not being prepared, period.”

MacNeil pointed to the study commissioned in 2006 by CSB Director General Abraham Jolly, which portrayed the schools of the CSB as failing, across the board, to properly educate students.

“We had to face the brutal facts,” he said. “The report was a sharp, clear, unretouched photo of what the situation in the school board was.”

An ugly fact that has mostly remained unchanged is that it has become almost impossible to gauge the proper grade level for many of the students. On average, students in the CSB test between two and five years behind their grade level, while others test so low that they do not meet even the base aptitudes the tests are designed to measure.

Nonetheless, MacNeil is quick to underline that the students themselves are not the problem, nor have they ever been.

“What everyone agrees on, no quibbling,” he said, “is that the graduation rates have nothing to do with the intelligence or aptitude of the students.”

The problem, instead, is systemic, and the responsibility for those systemic problems lies largely with the CSB itself as a guiding body. MacNeil identifies the greatest problems as a lack of accountability, a lack of direction for improvement, and, most basically, a lack of capacity to teach reading skills to students.

In the past, he explained, the CSB administered standardized testing, but upon receiving the results, did not put them to appropriate use.

After the tests were given, said MacNeil, “the test information came back, saying a particular group of students or even a particular student was weak in a certain area. But nothing was ever done about it. There was no systematic, coordinated approach where the schools sat down with the test results and said, ‘We’ve got kids here who cannot comprehend what they read. We’ve got kids who cannot do simple addition and subtraction – in Grades 6 or 7!’”

This, for MacNeil, was the central flaw of the CSB. Yet as much as the CSB may have failed to guide in the past, since the 2006 study, it has been working to turn CSB education standards around.

“We need to analyze the data to understand the major issues. And then the adults in the schools need to ask, ‘What do we need to learn in order to address the needs of our students? How do we constantly monitor how we’re using that learning, and the results that we’re getting?’”

As a blueprint for school renewal, the CSB began in 2011 to put a Strategic Action Plan into action. This five-year plan is based on processes that have improved schools in poverty-stricken, gang-ridden, multilingual inner-city neighbourhoods in the United States – some of the schools where outside factors make learning the most difficult for students.

“We cannot continue to accept the results we were getting in the past,” MacNeil said. “They will not change unless we change. We need to get away from the low expectations that people have of our students – not expecting much of the kids because they’re second-language learners, they’re geographically isolated, and their parents have less education than parents down south. That’s all false: our schools are in a position to make an impact. What we need to do is use data to determine what needs teachers have to meet.”

Principal to the Strategic Action Plan is the demand that each school prepare a Local School Improvement Plan, in which they state their goals for the year and outline the means they intend to use to achieve those goals.

“It’s an accountability measure,” said MacNeil. “If a school says they want to improve their reading scores by 5% across the board, they have to get to work to make that happen. That has never been done before.”

Equally crucial is the adoption of a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, a standard set of educational material for use across the CSB.

“There was never an internal curriculum,” MacNeil explained. “We had competencies and standards from the province that showed what students should be able to achieve by graduation, but teachers themselves could determine what kinds of lessons could best reach that competency. There was no guide to explain what competencies meant, or how to plan the day, week, month or year. There was no sense of pacing, scope or sequence to what was to be taught.

“What that means,” he continued, “is that every teacher in every school was deciding on their own what students should learn, at what level and when a student should get this knowledge – in a school board with nine schools. Having no agreement on these essential points adds up to curricular chaos.”

For this reason, the CSB is implementing plans to rigorously structure all teaching that takes place within its board. The goal, MacNeil said, is to make sure that students at any grade should be performing within the standards for that grade. This would mean if they were to transfer to another school somewhere else in the province or the country, they would be in line with the expectations for curriculum no matter where their education continued.

In order to help those students who have been caught for years in the ailing system, the CSB has developed a Secondary Intervention program, through which qualified teachers are sent into the CSB to tutor older students as they approach graduation so that they can write the math, history and language arts exams.

“Last year, after Goose Break, we sent 25 tutors all across the territory,” MacNeil said. “And while we didn’t reach any staggering new heights, we stopped the plunge. We didn’t fall farther than we had the year before. In fact, we’re now [at a graduation rate of] over 8% from a low of 1.1%. This year, we’re expanding the program. The teachers are going out to tutor the students starting after February, rather than after Goose Break.”

Combining the Secondary Intervention program, the focus on data, the drive to ensure teachers learn new approaches, the  development of new curriculum, and the focus on teaching literacy, the CSB will, MacNeil believes, make significant improvements soon enough.

Returning to the initial questions about low graduation rates, MacNeil pointed out that CSB coordinator Kim Quinn has successfully implemented a reading-skills program in Mistissini that has shown dramatic improvement in the reading levels of younger students. But it will be years before those improvements are reflected in graduation levels.

“We won’t have 70% graduation rates in five years,” he said. “But what we are aiming for is 25% increase in five years. And that’s the five-year graduation rate. If we give students six years to graduate, we’re likely to see the graduation rates up to 40% by the end of the five-year Strategic Plan.”

In spite of the widespread problems within the CSB, MacNeil is hesitant to place blame for its failings.

“The problem with blame,” he said, “is that in this case, there’s no way to find someone doing something they knew was wrong. They really had no capacity to lift up their heads from the work and see that there had to be a better way. The way things were being done, it’s like someone digging a hole for so long that they don’t realize that the shovel doesn’t work anymore – they just keep plugging away. And that’s what people were doing at the Cree School Board, for decades.”

In putting together a vigorous plan for school improvements, the CSB has left MacNeil feeling more than just optimistic.

“We’ve joined with people to create a hope – no, not just a hope, an expectation – that we will have success in the future.”