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An empty classroom at a school in Surrey, B.C. March 5, 2012 (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
An empty classroom at a school in Surrey, B.C. March 5, 2012 (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

Think Tank

Fraser Institute flunks on grading high schools Add to ...

The teachers at Hazelton Secondary quit worrying about the Fraser Institute’s rankings of B.C. high schools a long time ago.

When the conservative think tank started publishing its report card on B.C. schools years ago, teachers there used to do a slow burn. The schools at the top were always private institutions or public ones on the west side of Vancouver that had a wealth of resources most other schools could only dream of having.

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The schools at the bottom of the rankings were always ones like theirs, in mostly aboriginal communities.

Years later and little has changed with the ratings.

It’s easy to understand why the Fraser Institute’s grading system infuriates so many people. Comparing schools like Hazelton to a private college or a high school from any of the dozens and dozens of affluent neighbourhoods in the province that has none of their problems is absurd.

The top-ranked high school in B.C. for the second year in a row is York House, an all-girls academy on Vancouver’s west side. The Fraser Institute’s ratings are based on a range of indicators. For instance, according to the report, the percentage of students at York House who failed a provincial exam in 2010-11 was zero. The graduation rate at the school for the year measured was 100 per cent.

In recent years, the report added a new rating, one based on the average parental-employment income in each student’s family. A positive number, according to the report, suggests that the school is effective in enabling its students to succeed regardless of their family’s characteristics.

York House got a positive score of 2.0, based on an average family income of $118,000.

Let’s compare that to Hazelton Secondary, located in northwestern B.C.

Hazelton finished 278th out of 280 high schools ranked. But then, it’s always near the bottom. About 35 per cent of its students failed provincial exams. According to the Fraser Institute, even when you factor in the family background of the students at the school, it still does poorly. It received a mark of minus 4.1 based on an average parental income of $33,400.

What that suggests to me is that even when the impoverished backgrounds of the Hazelton students are factored in, the school is still underperforming.

What an insult that is to the teachers there, who have among the hardest jobs in the province.

Hazelton has been in the news in recent years for having the highest youth suicide rate in the province. The 345 mostly aboriginal students enrolled at the high school come from surrounding first nations villages. Many have to travel more than an hour on a bus to get to classes in the morning. Too many haven’t had a bite to eat by the time they get there.

Who knows what they had to deal with the night before? Some have witnessed their mothers being beaten to a pulp by alcohol-enraged fathers. The last thing anyone’s talking about at home is homework. With little supervision to speak of, many kids develop drug and alcohol problems.

Many of the kids at Hazelton Secondary have had problems from the day they were born. By the time they were old enough to enter kindergarten, they were already falling behind. Most were “at risk” – meaning they didn’t possess the language skills children should have at that age. Many didn’t know colours, for instance. Or the difference between an apple and an orange.

The same might be said of the Fraser Institute.

The teachers at Hazelton Secondary don’t give a damn about the think tank’s rankings. They are insignificant. They have bigger problems to worry about than how they’re going to catch up to York House.

School absenteeism is a huge issue. Every day, dozens of kids are not at school; sometimes it can be up to a third of the student population. As mentioned, many of these kids have substance-abuse problems. Some will get sent away to treatment, come back and feel even more alienated and alone.

These are the students most at risk of harming themselves. These are the students that are often feeding Hazelton’s grim suicide statistics.

“Our focus here is much different than it is elsewhere,” says Leontine Wiebe, Hazelton’s principal. “The kids here are just trying to survive. The emotional well-being of the student is our highest priority. We’re trying to get these kids’ lives in order.”

Over the phone Ms. Wiebe lets out a sigh.

“If the kids feel good about themselves when they walk out the door here, well, that’s how we gauge success,” she says.

It’s too bad that’s not something the Fraser Institute measured.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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