Dogwood-25 Society mentors guide Native kids

New program involving a former premier aims to boost the graduation rate

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      Sid Katz is an accomplished person. He has been many things: science educator, community-engagement catalyst, arts enthusiast, radio broadcaster, and professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

      For his latest project, which aims to eradicate the disparity between aboriginal and nonaboriginal high-school graduation rates in B.C. by 2025, Katz credits a lot of people.

      The cochair of the Dogwood-25 Society cites the late Michael Ames, a former director of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, as a major influence.

      “He [Ames] told me—because I’m from Montreal originally—he said, ‘If you live out here, then you’ve got to get involved with the aboriginal reality,’ ” Katz told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      Ames also introduced Katz to the late Alfred Scow, the first Native lawyer and judge in the province.

      “Alfie [Scow] had done a lot of work on trying to promote, get young First Nations…aboriginal kids, you know, to stay in school, and to try to…get their degrees so they could have the ability to move forward in their lives,” Katz recalled.

      One of the things Katz did as head of community affairs for UBC in the early 2000s was help start a new project between the university and the Musqueam First Nation to get band children engaged in learning programs after school.

      “But then I suddenly realized that if we weren’t going to make these children more comfortable in the public schools, then we really were not going to advance the case for having kids graduate,” he said.

      So what he did next was work with Gary Little, who was then associate superintendent in the Vancouver school district. They pushed for an international baccalaureate program—a nontraditional type of learning—at Southlands elementary school, which is near the Musqueam reserve and has many First Nations students.

      “The whole philosophy is that you could teach it in any language or culture,” Katz said about the Southlands program. “And I felt, why not have a program which really speaks to the values, including values of aboriginal people?”

      Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt heard about the things Katz has been doing, and Dogwood-25 was born last year. The two are cochairs of Dogwood, whose main undertaking is to have aboriginal postsecondary students mentor Native elementary and secondary students.

      Katz also made it a point to mention that the other members of the group’s board have contributed to aboriginal education. They are: Andy Krawczyk, retired principal of Sir Winston Churchill secondary in Vancouver; Jo-Anne Archibald, UBC associate dean of indigenous education; Don Fiddler, district principal for aboriginal education in Vancouver; Diane Sugars, former executive member of the Aboriginal Mother Centre Society; Kory Wilson, director of VCC’s aboriginal education program; and Tammy Harkey, dean of student services at the Native Education College.

      According to Katz, Musqueam elder Larry Grant, an adjunct professor in UBC’s First Nations languages program, is supportive of Dogwood-25.

      The B.C. Ministry of Education tracks, among other things, the six-year high-school completion rate—which is the percentage of first-time Grade 8 students who graduate with a certificate of graduation after six years—of aboriginal students. The ministry’s latest report indicates that the completion rate for Native students in public schools has steadily risen from 49 percent in school year 2008-09 to 60 percent in 2012-13.

      However, these rates have been consistently lower than nonaboriginal completion rates, which stood at 82 percent in 2008-09 and increased to 86 percent in 2012-13.

      Eldon Yellowhorn, an associate professor and chair of SFU’s department of First Nations studies, noted that aboriginal students today are lucky compared to their predecessors. According to Yellowhorn, SFU, for example, has been proactive in recruiting students while they’re still in high school through activities like university campus tours.

      “In previous generations, that just didn’t exist,” Yellowhorn told the Straight in a phone interview. “So people didn’t have the idea that, well, in order to get to university I have to finish high school.”

      Dogwood-25’s pilot mentorship program started last year in Vancouver at Grandview elementary school and Vancouver Technical secondary school.

      The group aims to have mentors eventually in other schools in the city. These are Britannia, Macdonald, and Southlands elementary schools, and Britannia, Templeton, and Point Grey secondary schools.

      According to Katz, the idea is to expand the mentorship program to other areas across the province. Harcourt’s connections are important here, and the former premier has already met with Education Minister Peter Fassbender. “They were very interested in what we’re doing,” Katz said about the Education Ministry.