School District 64 has exceeded expectations in its work to improve graduation rates, while acknowledging more work needs to be done to ensure all learners have the same opportunity for success.
Data recently published by the Ministry of Education for the 2019-20 school year shows a dramatic shift for Gulf Islands graduation when compared to just a couple of years ago, when the district ranked among the lowest in the province with a 68 per cent grad rate. With 87.9 per cent of students graduating in 2020, the most recent figures not only reflect a 13 per cent increase in graduates over the previous two years but put SD64 at the top of all the districts in the island region.
“Improvement like this is not an accident,” said superintendent Scott Benwell, who singled out graduation rates as a key area to address when he joined the district in 2019. “It represents a concerted effort in our schools and district to ensure we are keeping track of each learner and what we need to do to ensure they graduate.”
District employee Clare Nuyens has been assembling and analyzing ministry data in order to make it reflective of the actual situation and to support actionable steps. She observed the district was first able to report good results at the January 2020 school board meeting.
“We made strides with our 2018-19 completion rate, increasing by 8.5 per cent over the previous year. Although the numbers sound good, the real success was that 17 more students obtained their Dogwood [graduation certificate] than the year before, giving them over 90 per cent more opportunity for jobs in B.C. as compared to if they didn’t have their Dogwood,” Nuyens said.
SD64 and Gulf Islands Secondary School have employed a number of strategies over the past couple of years to get the B.C. graduation certificates into students’ hands. Principal Lyall Ruehlen started by contacting people who had left school but still needed one or two classes and encouraged the process by which they could complete those credits. Benwell refers to that step as the first “horizon.” School staff are now on a more proactive mission of recognizing when students may be at risk of falling behind and intervening with support well before their intended graduation date. During the current school year, which includes the added stress of COVID-19 and a compressed, more-intense quarterly timetable, staff are similarly supporting students to complete assignments not done within the quarter in order to complete those courses and get their credit.
Benwell said the Gulf Islands Board of Education has helped the district improve learner success with its financial direction.
“We have seen added supports put into places of need. Notably, GISS has added additional staffing in numeracy to ensure students have opportunities in that area,” Benwell said.
The six-year completion data for 2019-20 covers a cohort of 147 students. While the overall graduation rate is high, students who identify as Indigenous or special needs did not have the same success rate. Of the 18 Indigenous students in that cohort, only 10 (60 per cent) graduated, while 16 out of 25 students (68 per cent) with special needs did so. According to the Ministry of Education, typical completion rates for Indigenous students across the province range from 65 to 80 per cent.
“As we open the aperture on Horizon Two, that’s where we’re seeing an underperformance in our system,” Benwell said. “Not that that indigeneity creates a vulnerability, but there is a notable under-performance against provincial averages, and certainly where we morally and ethically want to be.”
As part of the strategy to improve success for all sectors, SD64 administrators are moving to put interventions in place as early as the elementary school years. Benwell said having standards of student success that can be measured against the B.C. curriculum is an important tool in this process. The district has been reviewing reporting methods, which had moved away from using letter grades in previous years.
As well, Benwell said participation in the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment in grades 4 and 7 is important, although those tests have been controversial and are largely opposed by teachers, including the Gulf Islands Teachers’ Association. Increasing the participation rate will help longer-term education goals, he said.
“Graduation matters, full stop,” Benwell said. “As an educator in the province of British Columbia, I have to hang that awning out.”