A new student data system being brought online by Saskatchewan Learning will help the province and First Nation departments of education to ensure all school-aged students are in school and are getting the programs and supports they need to succeed.
The new system will include data on all school-aged children in Saskatchewan, both on-and off-reserve, but it's unclear whether all First Nation schools will want to take advantage of the new database.
The system will contain records for children from kindergarten up to Grade 12, but inclusion of those records is only mandatory for grades 10 to 12.
Terry Myers, former executive director of Saskatchewan Learning's Strategic Partnerships and Aboriginal Education Branch, was involved in the project from its onset until she left her position with the branch at the beginning of October. She said the new database replaces the old system that has been in use "ever since we've had to issue transcripts for Grade 12 graduation." Under the old system, students weren't added to the database until they reached Grade 10.
In order to design a new data system that met the needs of First Nation schools, representation from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) was included on the advisory board working to help put the new system together and First Nation directors of education were consulted about their needs and concerns, Myers said.
One of the people involved in that consultation was Gary Mirasty, superintendent of schools for the Meadow Lake Tribal Council.
While Mirasty is working to get the schools under his jurisdiction to sign on to the new system, he is well aware of the reasons why other First Nation jurisdictions are more hesitant about taking part. One of those reasons is the cost involved. While there is no charge for First Nation schools to use the database, there is a cost associated with having someone to run the system at the school level. With bigger schools, Mirasty estimated the time it would take to update and administer the system would be equivalent to anywhere from a quarter to a half of a full-time position.
Myers said one of the things the new system will allow the province to do is to identify school-age children who aren't attending school. Both the FSIN and the province's Children's Advocate office have indicated to the department there are a number of children who fall into this category, and up until now Saskatchewan Learning had no way of knowing about them.
"The Children's Advocate is telling us that some of the cases they've been involved in are with kids that are eight, nine and 10 and have never been in school," Myers said. Similar reports have come from workers in the province's pre-kindergarten program, who have made similar discoveries during home visits.
Mirasty said he believes the children that fall through the cracks of the current system are a big problem, but the problem exists in the urban centres, not on the reserves where the smallness of the communities make it easy to identify children who should be in school but aren't.
"There's a high number of non-Native and Native kids not attending school in the cities who should be," he said. "This, hopefully, will help to resolve some of those issues and problems."
To allow the new system to identify these children, Sask Learning is working with Saskatchewan Health, using the province's health data to ensure all school-age children with health care numbers are also in the new database.
That has raised concerns about privacy issues, with some people worried about inappropriate use of their health records. But, Myers said, the department has done everything it can to safeguard that information.
"First Nations, some of them, have been afraid that we're going to use the information or share it with INAC. And it's very clear that that's not what we're going to do with this information. This is for the school and appropriate use," Myers said.
The new system will also provide the department with more information about which students are dropping out of school and at what age and for what reasons so that programs can be developed to try to keep children in school.
"Part of it is preventative, in that if we can figure out what's happening and have a better understanding of the reasons kids are leaving school, we can prevent that, make changes in the programming, make changes in the support systems, whatever's needed in order to keep kids in school," Myers said.
The new system will make it easier for information about a student to be transferred from school to school as that student moves, even if they are moving back and forth between provincial and First Nation schools. In the case of students with special needs or involved in special programming, this information sharing can also help a school provide consistency in the student's education when they switch schools and eliminate the need to go through assessment processes over and over again.
The system will also help First Nation schools get information about what provincial grants new students might be eligible for from the province. Up until now, that information wasn't always forthcoming, Mirasty said. "And as a result of that we ended up wasting a lot of time and the kid wasn't getting the proper programming until they kicked in their financial contributions from the grant that they were eligible for."
The system will also make it easier for schools to deal with new students, Mirasty said.
"If a kid shows up on our doorstep who came from a Saskatoon school and is showing up in Canoe Lake and he's saying, 'Well, I was registered in Grade 7, so I'm going in Grade 7,' and we don't know [anything] about the kid, then we can go online and actually put his name in there and find out where he was registered. And we can say, 'No, you're lying, man. You're only in Grade 6.'"
The process of entering the data into the new system has begu and Myers is hoping that all provincial schools and as many First Nation schools as possible will be on the system by the end of the year.