A northern Alberta college for First Nations students is seeing dramatic changes in enrolment and retention rates after transforming teaching methods and interactions.
Little Red River Cree Nation is a remote community; it sits eight hours north of Edmonton and approximately two hours east of High Level. Within the community is Kayas Cultural College, which helps First Nations students upgrade their education and prepares them for college and university.
Kyle Trumpour arrived at Kayas Cultural College in 2011 and found the systems were ineffective.
“It was those old TVs that were being used with some phone-video conferencing system. Students couldn’t see what was on the screens. They were very old TVs, they were small TVs. It was a clunky system. There were no computers at the school at all,” he said, adding teachers often used fax machines to get assignments to students at other campuses, which then required them to fax back the assignments for grading.
“That all resulted in extremely low morale and a sense that it wasn’t a place that you wanted to go to further your education.”
Trumpour said the dropout rate for students and turnover rate for teachers were high but there was a need for the program in the community.
“There’s a fairly significant portion of the adult population that requires further upgrading to either become more employable or to go on to some of these great institutions like NAIT,” he said.
Trumpour said the college was not able to evolve with the times for various reasons, one of them being funding. The college receives tuition for students from the province but it does not receive direct funding from either the provincial or federal governments.
Over the years, he was able to secure subsidies through the Little Red River Cree Nation and accessed programs through the province to upgrade technology at the college.
“We were able to access free computers for all our campus locations, which was great. We have a one-to-one computer ratio right now of computers to students. The video conferencing is much more up to pair.”
“It’s basically a giant tablet you’re hanging on the wall but it’s much more than that – it is allowing us to create what I like to call a seamless virtual classroom,” he said, adding cameras track the movement of instructors, who may be on different campuses, and what they write on the board shows up on the other locations.
The changes saw enrolment jump from 13 students in the winter 2013 semester to 50 students in the winter 2017 semester.
But Trumpour said several things need to happen for this growth to last long-term.
One success story is Daniel St. Arnault, 40, who was born and raised on the Little Red River Cree Nation. The highest level of education he completed was Grade 12. While he managed to find jobs in construction on the reserve, St. Arnault said he knew he needed to upgrade his education to further his career.
“I felt that if I upgraded my math and my English, it would help me to be successful. I needed the credentials, certain level of education if I wanted to continue with something else,” he said.
St. Arnault enrolled in Kayas in 1998 and found the systems inadequate.
“The instructor would send you a piece of paper, work through this, then you fax it back. The video conferencing system they had before – it wasn’t very good. You couldn’t really tell what the instructor was saying, ‘who were they talking to?’” he said.
Now re-enrolled in a professional development program at Kayas, St. Arnault said the difference is obvious.
“It’s leaps and bounds compared to what I experienced when I first had my education at Kayas,” he said.
“It’s a lot better. The technology has changed so much.”
St. Arnault has three daughters, one of whom is enrolled in Kayas. He said the college has a good reputation on the reserve.
“I think people are more aware of it and they want to be a part of it.”
Graduates of Kayas have gone on to post-secondary education, have become child social workers or found careers as apprentice carpenters and electricians.