Alberta’s Northland school board examines South Slave literacy strategies

Alberta’s Northland school board examines South Slave literacy strategies
A team of delegates from Alberta’s Northland School Division 61 visits the South Slave Divisional Education Council in Fort Smith, hoping to pick up some literacy-teaching techniques.Photo: Dali Carmichael.

Officials from a school division in northern Alberta visited the southern NWT last week seeking answers on ways to improve literacy among their struggling student population.

“It’s been said that any system is perfectly designed to get the result it’s getting, and right now we’re not satisfied with the results,” said Dr. Leroy Sloan, part of the delegation venturing North on an education fact-finding mission.

Teachers, principals and administrators from Alberta’s Northland School Division 61 traveled between Hay River, Fort Resolution and Fort Smith, taking in strategies being used to improve literacy rates in South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC) schools, namely the Leadership 4 Literacy (L4L) initiative.

Sloan, a former deputy minister of education for Alberta, was included in the delegation as a representative of the Alberta School Boards Association. He started working with the South Slave in 2006 when he helped the division revamp its own educational practices. Impressed with the strides the SSDEC has made over the years, he figured Northland could learn from its successes.

“You get a list of achievements and awards that they’ve been awarded by the territorial government, by Canadian organizations, by the premier, by the lieutenant governor of Canada; over and over the recognition has been there that the South Slave is having success,” Sloan said. “When you go from 74 per cent of the parents to 92 per cent of the parents being satisfied with their children’s learning, it’s resonating here with the local people.”

The two boards share many similarities. The majority of the student population is Aboriginal and there are challenges stemming from the remoteness of their communities, such as high staff turnover rates. While Northland serves about twice as many students as the SSDEC – about 2,890 compared to 1,300 – over a wider geographical area, Northland superintendent Donna Barrett believes the adaptation of a literacy model based on SSDEC’s will lead to improved results.

Since instituting L4L, the SSDEC has increased student literacy by enacting monthly evaluations so teachers can easily track exactly which areas of learning students need improvement in to create focused lesson plans. They have also increased supports for teachers, installing literacy coaches in every school to help address any gaps in knowledge.

“One of the things that we’ve been looking at is the whole notion of small group-guided instruction,” Barrett said. “Teachers have an ability to know where the students are and know how to work with them in small groups to help them move to the next level.”

Starting from scratch

In 2010, Northland dismantled its 23-member school board after decades of poor performance levels. A study on the workings of Northland led to 43 recommendations on how to improve results.

One of the first steps was to initiate the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program (ATEP), which encourages locals to become teachers within their communities.

So far, the initial strategies seem to be working. Out of the division’s students in Grades 1 through 12, approximately 50 per cent are at their appropriate grade literacy level, a rate that has has risen approximately 13 per cent in the last year alone.

“It’s not that we’re saying people aren’t doing some good things in Northland, but we know we’re not doing well enough and the gap is too great between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students across Canada,” Sloan said. “In Alberta it’s about 30 per cent, in Sask. it’s about 40 per cent, so this is remarkable when we see statistics showing Aboriginal students outperforming non-Aboriginal students in the South Slave. That’s unique across Canada and we want to get into the classroom and see what’s really happening in the interactions between the teacher and the students, and we’ve been picking up nuggets every place we’ve gone.”

SSDEC: A model for other educators

This isn’t the first time SSDEC has shared its literacy training strategies with outside school divisions. Last year around the same time, the council hosted a group from Nunavut on a similar mission.

While proud with what they’ve been able to accomplish, there is no reason to slow down, said SSDEC superintendent Curtis Brown.

“The people that we have in our schools are doing a remarkable job implementing these evidence-based practices and getting better results with kids,” he said. “When others want to come and learn about what we’re doing here it makes us step back and realize how far we’ve come and what it is we need to keep on doing.”

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