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NWT-wide education plans 'unrealistic'
School board superintendents dismiss auditor general's report

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 28, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Regional school boards should not be expected to maintain policies and programs consistent across the territory, superintendents say, in spite of the auditor-general's call for a territory-wide plan to improve student performance in elementary and high school.

After this month's public review of auditor-general Sheila Fraser's report on the NWT's education system, some MLAs raised concerns in the legislative assembly about gaps in education delivery between communities, alleging Yellowknife students receive a better quality of education because more resources are available in the capital.

Seamus Quigg, superintendent of the Sahtu Divisional Education Council, said he didn't necessarily agree with that assumption and he didn't place much weight on the auditor-general's report.

"Consistency's all very nice but it's not one size fits all. There's a major difference in the milieu and the environment - cultural, geographical, economic - of Yellowknife versus Sachs Harbour or Colville Lake or any of the other communities," Quigg said.

"It is important to try and maintain standards across the territory but as far as consistency goes, if you're looking for an identical set of circumstances in each community, that's not only unrealistic but it indicates that someone really doesn't have a good clue of what the circumstances are."

Fraser's audit made about 20 recommendations to the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, all of which the department agreed with and pledged to act upon.

The audit looked at only four of the territory's eight school boards and found that of those four, only two - including the Beaufort-Delta Education Council - had strategies to improve student performance.

Beaufort-Delta superintendent Roy Cole was not available to comment.

The report found that the education department was not fulfilling its role in overseeing the education councils in part because it has no territory-wide plan to address student performance. In response, the department agreed to work more closely with education councils in the upcoming school year and pointed out that it tracks student performance with its Aboriginal Student Achievement program. Department officials do not, however, keep statistics on student performance by community - something Fraser recommended they start doing so NWT residents can compare student success rates based on where they live.

Smaller communities have different challenges when it comes to delivering education, Quigg acknowledged, but he said it's not that schools aren't getting enough money from the government, at least in the Sahtu region.

"We get more dollars per kid than they do in Yellowknife because of our location," he said, adding a bigger community has a wider range of funding options considering community participation and school board taxes.

He said smaller communities generally have more problems with attendance that might not be accurately reflected in territory-wide attendance statistics because students who have permission to miss school for on-the-land activities are excused and not marked absent.

In addition, teachers tend to stay in Yellowknife longer than they would in the communities, leading to more problems with "continuity, not quality," Quigg said, emphasizing that regional boards have to deal with specific concerns in their own regions.

"You cannot expect a community of 300 or 400 to have the same kind of facilities as a community of 20,000. Just like Yellowknife will not have the same facilities as a city like Edmonton."

Nolan Swartzentruber, superintendent of the Dehcho Divisional Education Council, noted that none of the six people who completed the audit are educators and none of them are from the North.

"For me, that brings up a bit of a concern," he said. "They don't have a perspective of what education is about in the territory."

"That's why boards were established - to allow for local input and to meet the specific needs of the groups that you're dealing with."

Some of the schools in the Deh Cho, such as in Kakisa and Jean Marie River, have only a handful of students and one teacher - a better ratio than some of the schools in larger centres.

"Just looking at audits in general, they usually don't come to us with accolades of how well we're doing. I don't think anybody would ever deny that there are places we can improve, so hopefully we can use some of the recommendations from the report to make some of those improvements," he added.

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