With graduation around the corner, a team of counsellors and administrators at Sir John Franklin High School are working with students who may not be able to walk across the stage and claim their diplomas this year. 

The guidance team, set up in early 2016 to respond to the needs of struggling students, has seen some great successes but is still working with a large group of students at risk of not graduating.  

There are 110 students at risk of a total student body of 660 students. Among these students, 19 could potentially graduate this year. For principal Dean MacInnis, seeing half of these students graduate would be a success. 

The challenges for some students are immense. Homelessness, addiction, mental-health issues, challenges adapting to life in Yellowknife for students from outlying communities and the legacy of residential schools are just a few of the things that get in the way of students receiving their diplomas. 

In particular, mental health and addictions have become more common. MacInnis said this is partially due to the decrease in stigma surrounding these issues. More students are now willing to be open about these challenges and seek help.  

“Mental illnesses is definitely something that we’re really aware of,” said Evelyne Straker, student support liaison and leader of the guidance team. “We really want to help the students navigate through that so that they can be successful but we recognize that there’s limitations sometimes.”

With the aim of becoming more present in the lives of students and ultimately nudging them towards graduation, the team meets each month to review how each and every student is doing. They identify those who may have difficulty completing their educational requirements and offer supports based on the student’s needs and interests. 

“It’s really about trying to make that connection to someone in the school, understand their situation, what they want to accomplish and why. What’s the plan? What’s the purpose of graduating high school?” he said. 

Students’ needs must be dealt with individually, Straker said. Some students do well during daytime programming, while others use night school or alternative programs. “For a lot of them, the regular daytime classes just don’t work for whatever reason and so we’re able to offer alternative programming for them and they’re finding those successes,” she said. “It’s really tailored to what’s best for that student and how they’re going to be successful.”

For MacInnis, the little things in the high school are what make a big difference to students who are having difficulties in school. He mentioned the breakfast and lunch programs, the installation of gender neutral washrooms last fall, athletics, financial support and the visits from a nurse and public health worker each week. 

MacInnis is on the guidance team, along with Straker, counsellors Doreen Cleary and Arnold Krause, and program support teachers Shannon Ferreira, Sandy Schmalz and Cynthia Roach. 

MacInnis said graduation rates at Sir John hover around 90 per cent most years, which is high compared to the territorial average of 67 per cent.