10/26/2017 15:22 EDT | Updated 10/27/2017 08:01 EDT

B.C. must help children and youth in care achieve academic success: report

VANCOUVER — More educational support is needed in British Columbia for children in government care so youths who have often suffered trauma in early life have a better chance of graduating high school, says the province's children's representative.

Bernard Richard said each school district should get funding to target the learning needs of students living in foster and group homes. He also called on school districts to provide "point people" to advocate for students.

Richard made six recommendations aimed at the Children's and Education ministries in a report issued Thursday, with specific steps for Indigenous children who he said would benefit from elders and more Aboriginal teachers providing cultural connections in classrooms.

Simple changes by the Children's Ministry, like allowing foster parents to sign permission slips for field trips, would go a long way to making students feel included instead of ostracized, he said in a conference call with reporters.

"Children and youth in care are all too often left out of field trips because a permission form has not been signed by their social worker, which can sometimes take days. These forms should be signed by the adult who is responsible for youth on a day-to-day basis."

One of Bernard's recommendations is repeated from an auditor general's report in 2015. It calls for the development and implementation of a system-wide strategy to close the gap on academic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Richard said about 51 per cent of youth in care graduate secondary school but the rate is 89 per cent for other students.

Only 44 per cent of Indigenous students finish high school within six years of starting because they don't get enough support, including help with school work and mental health needs, he said.

"In general, if the overall graduation rate in B.C. dipped below 51 per cent or reached as low as 44 per cent protests would break out across the province, and rightly so."

It's tough for students to focus on learning when their history of trauma has not been addressed and it's up to the government, as their legal parent, to provide support to help them succeed, Richard said.

In his recommendation for more government funding for school districts, Richard noted Ontario this week pledged $21 million over three years for children and youth in care and also provide educational liaisons who would co-ordinate school supports.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said he accepted Bernard's recommendations and that his ministry was having ongoing conversations with school superintendents to allocate resources to vulnerable youth and children in care. 

The B.C. government said in its budget update last month that an extra $681 million over three years would be added to public education.

The achievement gaps between children in care and those who are not are "unacceptable," Fleming said.

“We should be striving for a lot more. We should be striving for parity in terms of the graduation rate.”

One of the first moves of the minority New Democrat government last August was to eliminate tuition fees at post-secondary institutions for students who were in government care.

However, Richard said that won't make a difference if kids in care don't have the resources they need to get through high school.

Fleming agreed, saying: “Unless we increase the graduation rate these kids aren't going to be able to benefit from those post-secondary opportunities to transition into adulthood and lead successful lives."

Fleming said he met with the province’s school superintendents last summer and asked them to examine ways to provide better programs and improve academic and graduation rates for students from vulnerable backgrounds.

— With file from Dirk Meissner in Victoria, follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.