'Something magical': Eastmain leads Cree territory in graduation rates 3 years running

The Cree School Board in northern Quebec is setting ambitious graduation rate targets that are higher than those in Quebec public schools, and turning to one of its own schools for inspiration. 

Eastmain has led the Cree Nation in graduation rates for the last three years. 

By far. 

In 2019, the tiny community of 900 had a five-year graduation rate of more than 60 per cent, compared to just 15.6 per cent for the Cree School Board as a whole. Looking at seven-year graduation numbers, Eastmain’s 2019 graduation rate was 88.5 per cent, compared with 29.8 per cent for the Cree School Board as a whole. 

“We’re doing something magical back home,” said Daniel Mark-Stewart, the Eastmain band councillor responsible for the education file. He is also a single dad to an seven-year old daughter.

One of the best gifts you can give your people.– Daniel Mark-Stewart, Eastmain councillor

“It’s exciting times. I look forward to every graduation,” he said.

This past August, 21 students graduated from Eastmain’s Wabannutao Eeyou School, out of a total high school population of 95 students. 

Eastmain Chief Kenneth Cheezo, left, and band councillor Daniel Mark-Stewart. The community outlined how it turned around its graduation rate at a recent Cree capacity building summit in Montreal. (CBC North/Susan Bell)

“It’s probably one of the best gifts you can give to your people … to give them the ability [to] empower themselves,” said Mark-Stewart, who shared how the community turned around its graduation rate at a recent Cree capacity building event in Montreal, along with Eastmain Chief Kenneth Cheezo.

The community’s graduation rate is now close to that of the Quebec public school system. According to a 2018 report by the Institut du Quebec, the public school system in Quebec had an overall five-year graduation rate of 64 per cent.  

Cree School Board chairperson Sarah Pash says her team is actually aiming to see a board-wide graduation rate of 76 per cent by 2024. The board has also set a seven-year graduation rate target of 96 per cent.

“There’s no reason we can’t. We have the money. We have the facilities. We have the communities that are ready to get behind what we are doing if we set these targets,” she said.

Some of the 2019 kindergarten graduating class from Wabannutao Eeyou School. (Cree School Board/Wabannutao Eeyou School )

The Cree School Board is moving into the final phase of a multi-year project to widen and deepen the type of data it tracks to allow the board to both better monitor student progress and more quickly identify obstacles to student success.

The last part of the project will include putting in place platforms, or “dashboards,” that will allow teachers, guidance counsellors, administrators, and others to get up-to-date data about where the students are at and where they are struggling. A pilot project on the delivery platforms is expected to begin in the new year. 

Cree School Board chairperson Sarah Pash says her board is targeting graduation rates higher than those of the Quebec public school system. (CBC North/Susan Bell)

“We all know that there a lot of areas that the school board needs to improve in,” said Pash. “And the only way that we’re going to do that is if we have a really good picture of where students are at, where the drop-off points are and where they are experiencing barriers.”

Pash says the Cree School Board is also taking a good look at what the Sea to Sky school district in British Columbia is doing. The Indigenous district overhauled its curriculum 10 years ago to include more Indigenous content. It is now graduating a record number of students. 

Pash says what is happening in Eastmain and B.C. shows things can be turned around if a whole community and nation works together to prioritize education.

According to Daniel Mark-Stewart, that’s been the key to Eastmain’s success. He says for the last several years, the whole community has been focused on education.

“The attitude has changed a lot from everyone,” he said, pointing to a study carried out a few years ago that showed Eastmain’s children weren’t active enough and weren’t getting enough sleep. Community leaders made efforts to share the findings with parents and convinced them to put in place more structure.

Mark-Stewart also says the school got a key piece of advice that it took to heart — to only hire the teachers who really care for the students. 

The 2019 Eastmain graduating class celebrates. (Cree School Board/Wabannutao Eeyou School)

“Our school is full of those teachers,” he said.

The community is also funding special events and a tutoring program to help students get back up to speed after holidays, including cultural breaks such as Goose Break, an annual holiday in the Cree calendar where families head out on the land during the spring migration of geese.

“The parents have learned to trust the school,” said Mark-Stewart, adding the school has also learned to trust the parents. 

“Parents need to play a role. They need to have serious discussions with their children to say that they expect them to graduate,” said Mark-Stewart. 

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