For administrators at on-reserve schools, every day is a juggling act.
“It’s a constant struggle finding enough money for everything,” says Pauline McKay, director and principal of the Sturgeon Lake Central School, which serves the Sturgeon Lake First Nation about 55 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert.
But some are optimistic that the years ahead will be different.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promising $1.9 billion over seven years in the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The funding is set to kick in next year.
“We have one phys-ed teacher for all of our 500 kids,” says McKay, providing an example of the chronic shortages. “There’s always a lack of staff.”
In most of the country, First Nations education is is funded through the federal government, whereas mainstream public schools receive funding through the province. McKay said that Sturgeon Lake gets $6,500 per student per year.
By comparison, the provincial government provided more than $10,000 per student to public and Catholic divisions in the North Battleford, Sask. area, and around $17,000 to the French board, according to a 2013 study from educational consultant R. J. Kowalchuk.
That discrepancy means reduced course offerings. McKay envies how provincial schools are able to enjoy such luxuries as drama and music.
“For extras we have phys-ed and we’ve got Cree,” McKay says. “That’s it.”
All this hasn’t stopped McKay and others at the school from trying to produce graduates out of children deprived of educational resources. McKay designed her own schedule so students can focus their efforts on one course at a time each month.
At James Smith Cree Nation, roughly 65 kilometres from Prince Albert, the situation is even worse.
Principal Marlene Nicholls says her school ends up with just $4,340 per student. Staff can’t even afford to call in sick.
“This year we weren’t able to hire substitute teachers,” she says.
During the five-plus years Nicholls has been with the school, she hasn’t once been able to purchase a new vehicle. Luckily, she has an instructor who can double as a mechanic.
“In the public school system, you have to have (your vehicles) inspected,” she says. “We try our best to adhere to those rules and policies, but there’s no money for that.”
What Nicholls does have is a retention worker, and a community liaison to keep tabs on troubled students. And that helps keep kids in the classroom.
“If a teacher says, ‘This kid is missing,’ then they go and find out what’s happening,” she says. “They also have some training in addictions.”
Each of these social workers earns only $19,000 a year.
The new Conservative initiative for First Nations education is expected to start injecting increased funding in 2016. So the question for those on the ground is not only whether it will be enough, but also whether it will be soon enough.
“I don’t think people really believe what it’s like in the reserve,” McKay says.