Saskatchewan education initiative takes inspiration from NZ
- NC Raine | October 08, 2018
Inspiration for one of Saskatchewan’s most important educational initiatives for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit students came from an unlikely source – the faraway country of New Zealand.
Following Their Voices (FTV) is a Saskatchewan-made initiative to improve graduation rates and educational achievement of Indigenous students across the province by enhancing student-teacher relationships and creating safe, culturally-sensitive learning environments. The program is modelled after “Te Kotahitanga”; an initiative that caused a significant increase in the educational achievement for Indigenous students in New Zealand.
As the framework and research for the initiative was being built in 2014, leadership with FTV consulted those behind Te Kotahitanga on the success of their program.
“What we learned from our conversations (with the people in New Zealand) is you can’t take what was working in New Zealand, bring it here, and expect it to work. We have to build it for Saskatchewan,” said Pat Bulger, First Nations and Metis Advisor at the Ministry of Education. “You have to talk to elders, to the communities in Saskatchewan, students in Saskatchewan, and listen to what they were saying.”
Through extensive grassroots research, FTV began as a field test with six schools in the 2014-15 school year, then expanded to their first cohort of 16 schools in the following year. The initiative was built on the voices of students and guidance of elders. Using a ‘train-the-trainer’ model in each school, the program allows teachers to adapt to individualized needs of their students.
“The voices of students have been continually helping us shape the initiative. What was important to them was that they felt a sense of belonging and needed to feel connected not only to what they were learning but their teachers as well,” said Bulger. “If I’m not connected to the teachers or the school, if I feel like I don’t have a voice, why would I be interested in sticking around?”
The initiative has now expanded to 39 schools across the province, including 26 provincial schools, 12 First Nations schools, and one joint provincial-federal school. Bulger said it’s still too early to see statistical evidence showing the impact of FTV, but 14 of the 16 schools from the original 16 school cohort have shown improvement.
However, there is statistical expedience showing the impact of the program. Schools participating in FTV saw increases after their first year in attendance, which rose four percent among First Nations and Metis students, and a one percent increase credit attainment. This growth is expected to lead to increased graduation rates, as well as provide students of all backgrounds with a sense of belonging.
“Teachers needed to know who their students were, where they came from, and what those realities were. The focus of FTV is helping teachers adapt to those needs in the classroom and be responsible to their individual students,” said Bulger.
Schools new this year to the initiative, such as Balcarres Community School, are confident FTV will stimulate learning and improve teacher-student relationships.
“I can say that the initiative has given our teachers a place to focus their passions – their passion to see our students succeed, to ensure a culturally appropriate environment, and to foster supportive relationships,” said Michael Sweatman, Principal at Balcarres Community School. “We are really working hard to provide our students with a balance of traditional and non-traditional learning experiences.”
According to Sweatman, part of the work they will do through FTV will allow the school to do a better job of providing traditional experiences in our school.
“I am very excited about (Following Their Voices),” said Michele Schwab, teacher at Balcarres Community School. “Relationship building is the key to success in any school, but particularly with Indigenous youth. We need to decolonize our education system for the benefit of all learners and give our Indigenous students a voice and include their history and issues in our curriculum to not only foster identity but to allow an opportunity for safe and open dialogue.”
Early data from FTV is confirming a change in teaching methods. Teacher observation data shows participating teachers have shifted from predominantly traditional teacher-student interactions to a more balance use of traditional and discursive interactions.
Last year, the federal government announced an investment in the program of $3 million over three years, providing a total of $4.65 million to FTV since 2015-16. But despite the noted improvements, graduation rates for Indigenous students are still significantly below provincial average. Commitments like these to FTV, said Bulger, could be one of the catalysts that continue to foster education.
“We’sre seeing students and more become more engaged,” said Bulger. “(The investment) tells me that the federal government see this as potential to really impact change in schools across the province.”