The decision to open the schools on some native reserves is made on a day-to-day basis according to whether or not the water is running.
The staff turnover rates range between 20 and 40 per cent as teachers leave for better pay in non-aboriginal schools. Libraries, special education and computers are unaffordable luxuries.
These are the initial findings of a controversial national panel on native education that was struck a year ago by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations.
And no one is surprised – not the panel, not the AFN, and certainly not the members of aboriginal communities who know full well that just 35 per cent of their children are graduating from high school.
Largely because of the deep-seated suspicion they hold for government-instigated initiatives, many native bands have refused to participate in the panel process.
But during the weeks the three panel members have been visiting those native communities where they have been welcomed, panel chair Scott Haldane says, he has seen schools that would make most Canadians think twice about enrolling their children.
"They are schools that are not in good physical condition and obviously are not a place where kids or teachers would feel very comfortable," said Mr. Haldane, who is also the president of YMCA Canada.
Even so, the picture being presented to the panel is not universally grim.
There are places in Canada, specifically Nova Scotia and to a lesser extent British Columbia, where native schools are working and where graduation rates are climbing.
The common denominator seems to be Indian control of Indian education – not just within individual schools but also in terms of the administrative functions normally handled by school boards.
"The schools that we met in B.C. and the schools that we met in Nova Scotia are saying we get extraordinary value-added supports for our teachers, for our administrators and directly for our students," Mr. Haldane said.
On Tuesday, the panel will act as host at a national roundtable in Ottawa where its members will meet with 30 community leaders, educators, parents, elders and students from across Canada. It will be the final opportunity for public input before the final report is crafted.
There is an urgent need to fix what's wrong with native education – not just for the children who are being left behind but also for the rest of Canada, which will have to pay the enormous price incurred by doing nothing.
The Canadian Council on Learning estimates that the cost of "non-graduation" in terms of social assistance, justice costs and foregone tax revenue is $4,750 a year for each dropout. The AFN projects the federal government's costs of maintaining the status quo could be as much as $11.9-billion by 2026.
That's one reason why Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan made education the top priority of his portfolio. "It's where we need to be to make our economy work and make society work properly," he said.
But, since 1996, the gap between the money that flows to native schools and to non-aboriginal schools has been expanding.
The annual hike in federal funding for native schools has been capped at 2 per cent, while provinces have been getting increases of 6 per cent. At the same time, the growth in the number of on-reserve students has dramatically outpaced the number attending provincially funded schools.
According to one recent report, some of the 520 band-operated schools across Canada are filled with black mould. One was closed due to an infestation of snakes. One student told the panel that his Grade 9 math class saw four different teachers between September and December. He and all of his classmates failed.
In Nova Scotia and British Columbia, however, where native bands have designed and built secondary and tertiary supports for their schools, things are starting to turn around.
In Nova Scotia, where native schools in 10 communities work together through an organization called the Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey, the graduation rate among students on reserve has climbed to 70 per cent.
The high-school graduation rates in B.C. are still around 41 per cent. But the bands work collectively through an organization called the First Nations Education Steering Committee, and the federal Auditor-General has said "other regions could benefit from adopting similar practices."
Mr. Haldane is careful to point out that his panel would never deign to impose education models on native bands. "What we're hoping is that perhaps we can make some recommendations that would allow some other regions of the country to develop their own institutions that make sense for them," he said.
But many reserves remain skeptical. Gilbert Whiteduck, chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg band in Quebec, one of many that have refused to take part in the panel process, said he wants to see positive results flow from it, but, so far, nothing he has heard is new. It is a point he said he made during his last meeting with Mr. Duncan.
"As he was leaving the meeting," Mr. Whiteduck said, "I said, 'I hope you're right. I hope you're right in the approach you're taking.' "