Less than 10 per cent of all Grade 12 aboriginal students in B.C. in 2010-2011 completed Principles of Math 12, an important prerequisite for postsecondary education.
Melania Alvarez is trying to raise that percentage.
Ms. Alvarez, education co-ordinator at Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, located at the University of British Columbia, has developed summer math camps for aboriginal students. This month, the Canadian Mathematical Society presented her with an award for significant contribution to math education.
"Our aboriginal population is one of the fastest-growing populations in all of Canada. We're going to have this young work force. If we don't educate, what are their options going to be?" Ms. Alvarez, 52, asked during an interview.
Her story began in Mexico City, where she was raised and went on to obtain her bachelor's degree in actuarial science. When she was 23, she and her husband moved to the United States where she would later earn master's degrees from Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It was during her time in Madison that Ms. Alvarez witnessed something both curious and upsetting: her sixth-grade son was put in the lower-level math course. Ms. Alvarez said that came as a surprise, because she believed her son had an aptitude for the subject.
She was right – years later her son would score a perfect 800 in the math section of the standardized test for U.S. university admission.
He had been put in the lower-level course because he was Latino, Ms. Alvarez said she learned after meeting with the principal.
Ms. Alvarez, who moved to B.C. in late 2004, said she sees similarities in how her son was treated in the U.S. and how aboriginal students are treated here – there are lowered expectations."That's the issue for me – don't judge the child until you really get to know the child," she said.
In 2007, Ms. Alvarez and the Pacific Institute launched the multiweek camp for students getting ready for Math 10 with five students. In 2012, there were 21.
A second camp, for older students, launched in 2008 with nine students. This year it had 24.
Ms. Alvarez shares the story of one student who was doing poorly at her East Vancouver school before she enrolled in the camp, but is now on her way to graduating in June and completing both Math 12 and calculus.
"When we got her in our summer camp, she realized she was capable. You need someone to be there to help you, to support you, to nag you," Ms. Alvarez said with a laugh.
Kerry Handscomb, currently the vice-principal at Windermere Secondary but previously head of the math department at Templeton Secondary, said the camps were an excellent way to reach at-risk students.
"We increased attendance rates, we improved success in mathematics. The program enables students to develop more confidence," he said in an interview.
Mr. Handscomb, agreeing with Ms. Alvarez, said it's important to develop relationships with students to build their confidence.
"In order to get the kids on board, they have to feel happy and comfortable walking into that learning environment," he said.
He added that lower graduation rates among aboriginal students is a pressing concern, and that it's important for educators to develop strategies to address the issue.
Numbers released by the B.C. Ministry of Education show there were 6,195 Grade 12 aboriginal students enrolled in B.C. schools in 2010-2011. Of that number, 606 received a final mark in Principles of Math 12.
The ministry said the aboriginal completion rate in B.C. schools in 2010-2011 was 53.7 per cent – an increase of 15 per cent since 2000-2001. However, that was still well behind the 84 per cent completion rate for non-aboriginal students.
In 2011-2012, there were 61,399 aboriginal students in B.C. public schools in all, representing about 10.8 per cent of the overall student population.
In addition to the math camps, the Pacific Institute offers teacher-training sessions at first nations schools and mentorship programs. Ms. Alvarez noted the institute also has programs for non-aboriginal students.
During the interview, her passion for the students she helps appeared matched only by her passion for math – a "world out there to be explored."