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Donna Lafreniere talks with Douglas Fiddler during the English 30 class at the Waweyekisik Educational Centre at Waterhen Lake First Nations on February 2, 2012.

The school on Waterhen Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan is a budding success story. Standardized test scores are climbing, attendance rates are improving, and six teenagers are set to graduate this spring.

But now that progress is threatened.

Waterhen Lake School can't afford to pay its teachers. A new contract was signed recently in Saskatchewan, and the federal funding the school received for salaries this winter isn't enough to match the union pay grid.

The school's principal, John Walter, says he has to choose between firing some staff or asking them all to take a pay cut.

Neither option is acceptable to Mr. Walter, who believes his school's success has everything to do with his staff. They have more experience, and are therefore more expensive, than staff on other reserves where turnover rates are high and new graduates run the classrooms.

There's research to support his concerns: Teachers are the single biggest in-school influence on student learning, studies show. And yet first nations schools often serve as training grounds for new teachers because administrators can't afford to keep experienced staff.

With a highly anticipated report from a federal-aboriginal panel on native education expected later this month, educators are eager for help improving staff recruitment and teaching quality on reserves.

That's a tall order. The gap between funding for reserve and provincial schools is growing, putting job security and union pay grids further and further out of reach. Educators on reserves are waiting to see whether the Prime Minister will back the upcoming report with more money.

It's badly needed, as even housing has become a problem for reserve teachers. Testing revealed such high levels of mould in the teacherages on Pikangikum First Nation in Northwestern Ontario that there was mass exodus of staff last month, and the school had to be shut down.

Even though the doors freeze shut and the windows leak, repairs to the teacherages aren't the top priority for Waterhen Lake. More than anything, Mr. Walter wants to see his staff offered the same pay and job security as their peers in provincially run schools.

"It's the underlying issue," he said. "Because of underfunding you end up with a revolving door."

As much as 40 per cent of the staff leave reserve schools each year. They work year-to-year on contract and, unlike the provincial system, where seniority brings job security, experience can be a liability in the face of a budget crunch.

It drives many of the best teachers away and leaves reserve schools with the leftovers, according to Donna Lafreniere, a teacher at Waterhen Lake with 14 years' experience working on and off reserves.

"I've seen both ends," she said. "I've seen the good teachers leave … and I've seen the bands take on terrible teachers."

Teacher recruitment has been a bedrock of Mr. Walter's efforts to improve student achievement. Six of his 17 teachers have more than 11 years of experience, and he has carved money from his budget to keep their salaries in close step with the union pay grid.

It hasn't been easy. He's had to cut programs, including a popular commercial cooking class, and many of the school's aging computers have been cannibalized for spare parts.

His strategy appears to be paying off: Two years ago, none of the students at his school was performing at grade level in math. Now, 33 per cent are meeting that standard.

But his ability to retain staff was undermined this fall when Saskatchewan's new teacher contract, with wage increases of 5.5 per cent over three years, was signed. A letter followed from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, informing the school that there won't be any funding for those salary increases next year "unless additional resources are secured."

Aboriginal Affairs did not respond to request for comment. Waterhen Lake did receive $38,000 for retro pay (the new contract is effective retroactively), but Mr. Walter says he would need twice as much to make up the difference.

For Ms. Lafreniere, who earns $73,000 a year, that means as much as $4,000-a-year less in wages. It's not the money that worries her – it's the fact that she won't know until April whether Waterhen Lake can afford to keep her on the payroll.

"If I was just working for the money I'd be gone," she said. "Teaching on a first nation, you don't have security, you don't have tenure. … It makes me as a first-nations person feel like a second-class citizen."

She says she chooses to stay because of the relationships she's built with her students. It takes years for some of the neediest students to open up, but a bond with a teacher can be a vaccine against dropping out.

"The kids need to get to know you, they need to feel you're trustworthy," she said. "That stability is so important."

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