Sean Lessard’s official title is Aboriginal educational consultant with Edmonton Public Schools. And it is a job that he’s passionate about.
The 35-year-old former youth worker from Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan can barely sit still as he recounts all of the accomplishments of the Aboriginal students he mentors at Jasper Place High School in Edmonton.
His office boasts an “inspirational wall,” which includes a picture of Jaycee Ward, who recently won gold in a provincial culinary competition. Ward, who is from Enoch Cree Nation, has been awarded a three-year scholarship to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology where she will study culinary arts.
“We have been working with her since grade 10,” said Lessard.
Lessard encourages students who visit him to leave behind their photo, along with an informal blurb about what they aspire to and any ideas they may have about improving their experience at their secondary school.
“We need to find out what makes kids tick (and) what are the protective factors to help keep them in school,” explained Lessard.
This is also the theme of Lessard’s PhD thesis, which he is in the process of earning from the University of Alberta at night. It reflects Lessard’s passion: finding retention strategies to not only keep Aboriginal kids in high school, but showing them that education is more than something they are obligated to achieve.
“Education to me is healing. I really feel like education can change a person’s story,” said Lessard.
He spends much of his days brainstorming ideas for new programs and experiences he can expose to the 260 First Nations, Métis and Inuit students at Jasper Place.
But it’s more than programming that keeps kids in school. “You get into their hearts,” he said. Students are more likely to remain committed to school if they know the teachers and staff genuinely care about them.
Lessard’s commitment goes beyond the nine years he’s worked in Jasper Place. An exchange program he created with surrounding junior high schools allows grade nine Aboriginal youth to get their feet wet by participating in the high school that has a roster of 2,500 students.
Once he accomplishes the first step of getting kids to crossover into high school, he works to make sure they stay focused and attend class.
“We track them. . . . We go to the mall if we have to. We’re stalking them,” said Lessard and smiled.
Aboriginal students who live off-reserve are more than twice as likely to drop-out of high school as non-Aboriginals.
In February, Alberta Treaty Chiefs and the province’s education minister signed an agreement to provide more funding and attention to increasing Aboriginal graduation rates.
Lessard’s no-holds-barred approach to increase high school and university graduation rates amongst Aboriginal youth has garnered support from local leaders.
Federal NDP candidate for Edmonton-Centre and former teacher Lewis Cardinal is a big fan of Lessard’s methods of keeping students focused on an education path.
“I think what Sean is doing is fantastic. . . . It’s a huge step forward,” said Cardinal, who strongly approves of Lessard’s process of giving students proper support and allowing them to find their own voice.
Cardinal has spoken to Aboriginal students at Jasper Place about his experiences that started from humble beginnings in High Prairie, in northern Alberta, to working his way up to the business owner he is today.
“We bring in guys like Lewis who can teach us about the treaties, teach us about the history, teach us about what it is like to sit with the Dalai Lama,” said Lessard. “The kids remember things like that.”
This summer, Jasper Place will be graduating 50 First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.
Next fall, the school hopes to commence an Aboriginal language program, which will bring in local Elders to teach students Canada’s Indigenous languages.