04/30/2012 02:36 EDT | Updated 06/30/2012 05:12 EDT

First Nations school challenges funding model

A First Nations-run high school in Thunder Bay is now accepting students who don't live on reserve and educating them for free — but it would like to have the same funding that public schools do for these students.

“We know every year more First Nations families are moving to Thunder Bay,” Jonathan Kakegamic, principal of Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school said. “So we’re starting to address that need.”

Remote First Nations receive funding from the federal government for their students whose parents live on the reserve. But parents living in the city with their children are expected to send them to provincially funded public schools.

Many First Nations without schools of their own in the city have tuition agreements to flow the education money they receive from the federal government into the provincial system.

Kakegamic said he’d like to arrange a “reverse-tuition” agreement in which the local school board pays his school for city residents who choose to attend. Both the public and Catholic school boards in Thunder Bay declined to talk to CBC News.

But the Lakehead public board has already told the provincial ministry it doesn’t wish to enter into a tuition agreement with the First Nations school.

“Like when I say I want reverse tuition, it doesn’t mean I want 150 kids here this fall,” Kakegamic said. “I want to take my time because we need to get to know the students. And that’s the difference with DFC — we get to know our kids at a totally different level that other schools can’t.”

Serving First Nations students

Grade 10 student Dakota Achneepineskum switched to Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school from the public high school last September and said he is much happier. He even won an academic award.

“[There were] too many stereotypes at Sir Winston Churchill. I was starting to get sick of it, so I decided to switch,” Achneepineskum said who lives with his grandparents in the city.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty School didn’t receive any additional funding for the seven students from the city it accepted this year. Kakagamic said he has about two dozen more Thunder Bay families hoping their children can attend next fall.

Demographics push discussion

John Hodson, the chair of Lakehead University’s Aboriginal education department, said demographics will inevitably push the discussion about education funding into sharper focus.

One in five children in Canada is indigenous. More than half of those children drop out of the provincially funded school system. Hodson said many First Nations across the country are starting to question the value of tuition agreements they have with provincial school boards to educate their students.

“I hear more stories about those drop-out rates spawning meetings with board officials, saying our return on investment isn’t so great,” Hodson said. “I think things are going to start heating up in the next little while here."

“The needs of aboriginal kids are becoming very attached to the continuing financial health of some boards of education,” Hodson added.

Meanwhile, Dennis Franklin Cromarty School will see 75 per cent of its Grade 12 students graduate this year. In a few years, Dakota Achneepineskum hopes to be one of them.

“I’m exploring a lot more about my culture,” he said. “I’m finding out a lot more about myself.”