Attendance, grad rates still lower in small communities than rest of N.W.T.

Small communities in the N.W.T. are still trailing Yellowknife and regional centres on graduation rates, and some educators say the difficulty of finding and keeping teachers is making it worse.

Last month, the N.W.T. government released its 2022-23 report on the education system. The report examines trends in graduation rates, attendance, student wellbeing and other performance metrics.

In almost all cases, small communities continue to fall behind.

Last year, Yellowknife's graduation rate was 71 per cent, while the graduation rate in regional centres was 57 per cent.

For small communities, that number was 44 per cent.

Brendan Mulcahy, the new principal of Łutsel K'e Dene School and former principal of Jean Wetrade Gamètı̀ School, said one factor he sees that hurts small communities is how hard it is to hire and retain teachers.

"I have done more hiring in this one year than 10 years in Gamètı̀, because there is a shortage nationwide that is affecting us. We used to get a lot of applicants because of the salary; I think that is not the case anymore," Mulcahy said.

Brendan Mulcahy, the new principal of Lutsel K’e Dene School, says he's experienced challenges hiring teachers.
Brendan Mulcahy, the new principal of Lutsel K’e Dene School, says he's experienced challenges hiring teachers. (Submitted by Brendan Mulcahy)

The report notes the N.W.T. had 1,286 educators in 2022-23, a small increase over last year, 40 per cent of which were in small communities. However, it doesn't indicate how long those teachers stayed or what the turnover rate was.

Keeping students in — and interested in — school

The report also highlights falling attendance rates across the N.W.T. Mulcahy said when schools can't retain staff, students pay the price.

"If you constantly have to start fresh with new teachers or new counsellors, they are not gonna build that trust," Mulcahy said.

The report shows attendance dropping continuously over the past four years, with attendance in small communities the lowest of all.

Caitlin Cleveland, the N.W.T.'s minister of Education, said those falling attendance rates — which she said have been a focus of education bodies across the territory — ultimately influence the graduation rate.

She said she's heard anecdotally that it's a challenge for students to go to school if they don't feel supported, have challenges at home or don't see a career for themselves in the future.

"So ensuring that we have pathways right from education to visible jobs in communities is really important," she said.

"It's also about giving kids something to look forward to and something to aspire to."

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland in the legislature on Nov. 27, 2023.
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland in the legislature on Nov. 27, 2023. Cleveland is the minister of Education, Culture and Employment. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

Cleveland said the need for support system services within schools in small communities has also grown, especially after COVID. This includes speech language pathology and occupational therapy.

"Figuring out how our students in small communities have access to (that) kind of support is my next big priority," she said.

She added access to early learning and childcare centres are two ways the government has been trying to close those gaps.

As for addressing daily concerns, Mulcahy said smaller communities are not always given a preference.

"When your school board is located in Yellowknife, Behchokǫ̀ or Fort Smith, a lot of time they are dealing with the bigger schools and they often don't have time for the smaller schools," he said.

"They are not placing our things head-on like we are here in a smaller community."