Year-end report shows Northern Boards struggling in academic performance

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

According to EQAO results, northern school boards have been struggling in their academics.

To improve student success, Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) trustees debated the formation of an ad-hoc committee that could monitor progress and potentially work with other northern boards on common issues. However, discussions about forming the committee have been held off until November.

The motion to form a student success ad-hoc committee was brought forward by RRDSB trustee Mike Walchuk.

Walchuk noted the ad-hoc committee is intended to address the gap in student achievement of RRDSB, which has consistently ranked below southern Ontario school boards in EQAO testing for more than a decade.

“This is not about pointing the finger at our local teachers and staff,” he said at the final RRDSB board meeting held on June 6, 2023. “But rather [to] point out that there is a gap in achievement across the North and then work together at ways to support and possibly get more resources to help our teachers and staff with the amazing work that they do daily.”

Walchuk listed the results from EQAO testing to show where RRDSB currently stands amongst other school boards in Ontario.

In 2022, out of 63 English boards in the province, primary grades ranked in the bottom 10 for almost all reading, writing, and math categories.

For EQAO tests written by secondary students, only 41.6 per cent of students are meeting the provincial standards for Grade 9 math, ranking RRDSB at 43 out of 58 English boards.

For the OSSLT language test, RRDSB is ranked 55 out of 58 Ontario English boards for first time eligible success rates.

To respond to widespread suggestions that below-average EQAO results were possibly a statistical abnormality due to students being absent on testing days, skewing results, or post-COVID setbacks, trustee Mike Walchuk said that the board’s history shows otherwise.

“You would have to go back 12 years to 2010 to 2011 to when we last achieved the provincial average for any of these categories. In this case, we tied the provincial average for Grade 6 students in math 12 years ago,” he said.

Struggles with student academic achievement are not only noted in EQAO testing. When looking at the percentage of students who have successfully graduated within five years of starting high school, RRDSB ranked second lowest in a five-year graduation rate of all school boards in Ontario.

“More than 1 in 4 students after five years have not achieved a high school diploma,” Walchuk said. “That’s staggering. It’s also 20 per cent lower than the top 10 boards in Ontario.”

While some have argued that EQAO testing results are not the best way to look at student success, boards that have achieved high EQAO results in Grade 3 generally have high success rates in Grade 6, Grade 9, and with the OSSLT test — with the highest five-year graduation rates generally over 90 per cent.

Acknowledging that the information will likely cause discomfort in the community, Walchuk noted that the issue applies to all northern boards of education.

The highest ranked northern board for five-year graduation rates was the Sudbury Catholic Board, ranked 38 out of 58 boards, meaning that southern boards populated the entire top ranking.

Walchuk closed the presentation by noting that while additional funding is not going to solve every problem, more funding from the ministry may be required due to the large academic gap between northern and southern boards, but that the ad-hoc committee, if it is approved, could look more into it in the new academic year.

In response to a question about the financial impact of potentially forming an ad-hoc committee, Directer of Education Heather Campbell said that relying on staff expertise will be pertinent and that they will need to look into determining the exact costs, which may depend on when meetings are held and whether staff are paid hourly.

Avery Lundgren, student trustee, sees that students are not being pushed to succeed.

“Like we don’t show up for a month, two months, we can go back and act like nothing happened. There’s nobody really pushing us to succeed, to enrol in academic classes, to go on and be successful,” she said.

Adding onto Lundgren’s point, student trustee Charles Watts noted that many students in remote communities have been able to get jobs without needing a diploma, potentially one reason why they aren’t motivated to perform well in school.

“People get jobs at Atikokan without graduating for like $23 or $24 an hour. So if you can get a job without getting a diploma, then why shouldn’t you?” he said.

Recognizing that students in the north have unique skills, Watts noted that many of his peers excel in trades or subjects outside of math and english.

“They get 95s, really high marks, and I think that has to do with the area people grew up in. They’re attached to it, they understand it, and they want to be a part of it because it’s what they know,” he said.

Vice chair Kathryn Pierroz said while she sees the good in the intent behind the motion to form an ad-hoc committee, she does not support it in the way it is currently written.

“As trustees, I think we need to consider ways we can work to make stronger schools within the confines of our role and support operations if they do theirs, and work together to ensure that all students of all abilities have the opportunity to be successful,” she said. “I cannot support something that may have the perception of devaluing our students and our staff and the intent of the board as a whole.”

Walchuk clarified that the intent of the motion was to highlight that there is an issue that needs to be examined. He said it was never meant to express distrust in staff, but instead provide an additional source of support for them.

“I just think that this is an issue and a topic that’s just so glaringly stark, not just with very individual board results, but with the regional results. It’s something that I think we need to address further. So that’s why I was proposing this,” he said.

Trustees debated whether a committee could get to the root of the issue at hand while enhancing the systems already in place.

“This committee will be like many other committees in the north that are experiencing the same issues that we’re facing. The only way that we’re going to get to the root cause of why kids can’t graduate is to have a committee,” said trustee Michael Graham.

Pierroz questioned whether it would be possible to get to the root of the issue without imposing on student’s personal circumstances and said she is curious to know if other northern education boards have ad hoc committees with similar purposes.

Jeff Lehman, RRDSB chair, suggested a motion to postpone discussions about forming an ad-hoc committee until November.

Lehman suggested that an ad-hoc committee may border on micromanaging and create an adversarial atmosphere within the schools.

“You can ask questions, but even in asking questions, you’re actually bringing doubt to our administrators and their ability to make the right decisions and use the resources that we, the trustees, are providing through our policy, bylaws, and finance,” he said.

Waiting until the board has a better understanding of the effect of new education legislation would be best, Lehman said.

“We still haven’t heard from the ministry about Bill 98 Better Schools and all of the implications that’s going to have with student success. We haven’t heard from that yet, and that’s still coming. So as a board, we need that time. We can’t be racing into an ad hoc committee that I believe is bordering on extreme operational issues. We can’t be racing into that when we still have all of this unknown stuff from Bill 98 Better Schools,” he said.

Graham disagreed that the motion should be postponed and said that Bill 98 will not address the issue about students not being motivated to succeed, as raised to light by the student trustees.

Adding on to his point, RRDSB trustee Tammy Ryll said that the student body could let the board know what they need in order to succeed, but also agreed that it would be best to postpone further discussions on forming an ad-hoc committee.

“Maybe it is something that we turn around to our student senate and say, ‘as students, you tell us what you need from us, in order to be more successful.’ And then I’m thinking perhaps our role as a board is to advocate about the disparities,” she said. “But I tend to agree with the chair that perhaps this isn’t the best time to be looking at this and we are heading in a very dangerous place.”

Walchuk said that in order to advocate properly, meaningful discussions are needed and can be achieved through an ad-hoc committee.

The motion to postpone further discussions about forming a student success ad-hoc committee until November was passed in a 5-2 vote.