First, I want to state up front, that I do not believe non-attendance to be an Aboriginal issue, per se, though we sometimes (frequently) perceive it as such. Non-attendance, at the risk of over-simplifying, is a symptom of much deeper social and economic inequities.
I understand fully the frustration felt by teachers at the secondary level regarding student attendance. For many teachers, they feel the failure of a student as a failure of themselves as an educator.
As we continue the journey of re-imagining secondary schools, a significant part of that re-imagining has to involve how we measure and communicate student learning. For those students who are often referenced as not attending, what incentives are there to attend, when attending means being reminded of their “failure”?
From our very best of intentions we aim to “catch-up” those students when they do attend, often with little success because those same students lack the prerequisite skills to be “caught-up”. So long as we are stuck in the paradigm of courses and grades, we will be stuck in the paradigm of pass and fail, which, from my point of view, contributes directly to the attendance problem. Furthermore, what consideration are we giving to those students who feel deeply alienated from their schooling, who have checked-out emotionally and spiritually, though they are not physically absent?
Consider an Ontario study (2005) that found students who failed courses early were much less likely to complete school: 89% of students with no failed courses in grade 10 went on to finish within 5 years. That number dropped to 75% with a single failed course, 59% with two failed courses, and 28% with three or more failed courses.
That’s not to over-simplify the issue—as course failure is a single risk factor among many—but designing for differentiation across our schools, rather than just within courses, needs to be on the table.
What about multi-access and asynchronous design? We see such approaches in many of our alternate settings. However, for many of the students who access alternate programs, they have already experienced the "failure" of school. These methodologies need to be built-in, and available to all students, before they experience school "failure".
Perhaps we need a provincial task force on student attendance, with a focus on making attendance a viable alternative to non-attendance for our non-attenders…