Two aboriginal students work side-by-side at computers inside the Apitisiwin Education Learning Centre in Cochrane, Ont. Photo courtesy of the Northeastern District Catholic School Board

Program gives aboriginals another chance to graduate

  • May 5, 2013

Aboriginal adults in northern Ontario are getting a second shot at completing their high school diploma through their local Catholic school board. The Northeastern Catholic District School Board’s ACCESS Program is offered in four centres in the board’s vast area from Moosonee on the shore of James Bay down to Cobalt in the south.

The first support centre opened in Timmins, and since then additional centres have opened in Moosonee, Kirkland Lake and most recently at the Apitisiwin Education and Learning Centre in Cochrane. The centres provide access to computers, a support worker and other resources such as job listings and is open to all aboriginal adults within the board’s area at no cost.

“The value that these are bringing to these communities is just incredible,” said Ron St. Louis, the board’s superintendent of education.

“They’re taking the same courses that any kid in high school would take working towards getting a graduation diploma. The big difference is these are delivered online so the time and delivery model is very different from that of a classroom.”

While living close to the resource centres offers the greatest potential benefit, even those outside of the four communities can take part thanks to the Internet.

“These adults live in communities all across northern Ontario,” said St. Louis. “Many of those local communities don’t have an alternative for delivering secondary school programming to adult learners. It’s kind of nice because they’ve never had access to programs like these before.”

The program came about when the board was approached by Apitisiwin Employment and Training, an organization that provides urban aboriginals education and employment services.

According to the Government of Canada’s public safety web site, young aboriginals living off reserves are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school than non-aboriginals. Citing research compiled from 2007 to 2010, Public Safety Canada noted that 23 per cent of aboriginals, which includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit, dropout of school as opposed to only nine per cent of the general population.

“They approached us and asked us if we’d be interested in partnering with them and offering programs to adults,” said St. Louis. “They were reaching out looking for help and we have the tools to help them. Our morals and ethics wouldn’t be very strong if we didn’t reach out and help them.”

St. Louis said many students in the program left school for a variety of reasons, ranging from an inability to see the value of an education to personal circumstance such as a teen pregnancy.

Ashley Lavergne, 19, never finished high school because of the latter. Now just three months into the program offered out of Cochrane, she’s already completed three credits towards her diploma.

“My son started day care two months ago and I have been coming into the school full-time,” said Lavergne. “The teachers are great and working online is easier than on paper. I like how the program works at my own pace and I can work at home if I need to.”

Since enrolling, Lavergne has recruited her sister and best friend to the program. All told, about 160 students have joined in slightly more than eight months since the operation began.

Many of the students are significantly older than Lavergne. St. Louis said these students have life experience from years of employment which can be transformed into additional credits.

“We’ll assess their skill level and their knowledge level … and we can grant some equivalency credits towards their diploma,” said St. Louis. “So they may only have six or eight credits that they earned when they were younger and they went to work and they’ve been working ever since. We can give them a number of credits for the work they’ve been involved in.”

Although circumstances surrounding each student’s reason for enrolling is unique, the focus remains to provide an opportunity for people to better themselves.

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