Nunavik school board director works to improve region’s education success
"We’re finding ways to provide support and compassion"
Annie May Popert, the director general of the Kativik School Board, has a dream for Nunavik schools: the schools should be “safe and comfortable” places — for students, teachers and parents.
“It’s not our role to solve social problems, but we’re finding ways to provide support and compassion,” Popert said in an interview this week, as students in Nunavik headed back to school.
To see how the KSB can achieve more success for everyone, Popert visited six Nunavik communities and their schools during her first year on the job, a position she also held from 1983 to 1993.
Graduation rates in high school after seven years stand at 17.8 per cent, the Quebec education department said in 2011. This means fewer than than one in five students who enter the educational system in Nunavik actually graduate.
“When we look at the graduation rate, it’s going down. No one is happy,” Popert said.
But tackling that issue is challenging, she said. That’s because it’s linked to so many areas, not all of which fall under the school board’s jurisdiction.
The solutions proposed by Popert for the KSB include taking a broader look at what education is and refocusing its goals, so that not every student will feel like he or she has to go to college or university.
“We have to foster [that idea] that success means different things to different people,” Popert said.
Popert would like to see a Nunavik school system where every child will feel “confident and capable,” so that “at the end of the school experience you feel you can do something important to you.”
After a year at the school board, which elected new commissioners last November, Popert has developed some priorities for action.
And she says she sees some progress in areas such as staff retention.
While half the school principals in Nunavik were new at the start of the 2011-12 academic year, only two in 20 principals decided not to return this year.
That’s down from previous years, when the school board often had to recruit five or six new principals.
For the 2012-13 school year, the KSB recruited 50 teachers from outside Nunavik out of a total of 368 teaching positions. That number was also down from recent years, when the school board had to replace 80 to 90 teachers per year.
Giving those administrators and teachers the support they need — so that they will stay and stay longer in Nunavik — is important, Popert said.
Popert also wants to tackle the school calendar, which has been a thorny issue in Nunavik.
While she’s not ready to say the review will result in changes, students and teachers are “clearly unhappy” with the calendar, so the issue needs attention.
The union representing teachers in Nunavik wants a “culturally adapted” school calendar which would see kids finishing school year earlier, as was once the case.
The union says the extension of the school year has had negative effects: many Inuit teachers who attend teacher-training courses during the summer have little break time between work and the start of summer school; the rate of student absenteeism in the schools rises as June progresses; and success in final exams drops.
Popert also hopes to work more on program development, particularly in Inuktitut, because “there’s been a lot of work done, but it’s necessary to do even more.”
Many of those who did the initial curriculum development after the KSB was created in 1978 have retired or are planning to retire, she said.
So Popert wants to find ways of encouraging more youth to go into teaching and curriculum development.
And she wants to involve parents more in the school, so it’s a good place for them to be and they feel more positive about what their children are doing in school.
As Popert looks to the year ahead, she reflects on the past 12 months which she says were “good.”
But the past year was also a period of adjustment as the school board adjusted to Popert’s return after a nearly 20-year hiatus.
“People have had to get to know me,” said Popert, who admits she is not afraid to defend and promote her ideas.
After Popert, now 61, left the KSB in 1993, she became an independent consultant working on health and educational projects.
In 1999, Popert was appointed as a Nunavik commissioner, charged with developing recommendations on a new Nunavik government structure, operations and powers.
Popert later had misgivings about the Nunavik commission’s recommendations for a new regional government for Nunavik, saying it was compromised by a narrow vision as well as political interference.
At the time, Popert said the process behind the commission was flawed.
She claimed the Nunavik Commission’s report short-changed Nunavimmiut because it sidestepped such issues as Quebec sovereignty and native rights. She said the commission’s report could rob Nunavimmiut of their political voice.