The Kenora Catholic District School Board has introduced new supports for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students, as they hope to improve Indigenous graduation rates locally.

Bob Kowal joined Kenora Catholic to start the First Nation, Métis and Inuit Graduation Coach program in January, 2021. He’ll work to improve relationships and engagement with families and to develop community partnerships in the area, as well as to increase graduation rates for Indigenous students.

“I’m thrilled to be here. I’ve got lots to do and lots more to do, but I’m really excited about the opportunity,” said Kowal, during a virtual presentation with KCDSB trustees on April 20.

“The role of the FNMI Grad Coach is to support our Indigenous students to graduate, but one of the key roles is to make sure that I’m a liaison between student, parents and teachers and our TA team for our FNMI students. That could be meetings, reaching out for supports, whatever they ask of me.”

Kowal has 24 years of experience in education, including 15 years at St. Thomas Aquinas. He’s received his Masters of Education that focused on improving success for Indigenous students, and has leadership experience with the Keewatin-Patricia and Rainy River District school boards.

During his presentation, Kowal says an early sign of success for the new program is that just over 57 percent of self-identified First Nation, Métis and Inuit Grade 8 students are accessing the program on a regular basis.

Kowal notes many of these type of educational and emotional supports begin later in their high-school careers, usually by Grade 11 or 12, and he’s aiming to proactively prevent more complex issues and risks.

“A lot of times by Grade 12 when students are struggling, it’s more triage as opposed to being more proactive which we’re trying to be, by working with these students in Grade 7 and 8.”

The board opened a dedicated drop-in space for the Indigenous Graduation Coach program in St. Thomas Aquinas earlier this year, as Kowal can help students access community and post-secondary supports, as well as new opportunities and pathways.

Kowal says he’s had to turn students away due to COVID-19 restrictions and capacity limits prior to schools shutting down, something that once student cohorting ends, he’s hoping will end, too. Kowal adds he’s worked to make the environment safe and welcoming for all students, and may need a larger space in the future.

''Photo courtesy of the KCDSB. 

Ending discrimination within their schools has also been a key priority for Kenora Catholic this year. In February, the board introduced their new Jordan’s Principle Navigator and Lead, Alecia Cox. She works to ensure equal access to education and services for all First Nations youth with the board.

During January’s board meeting, the KCDSB provided an update on their Equity and Inclusive Education strategy which includes ongoing consultations with community and Indigenous parts on concerns like language, inclusion, and attendance.

The board has also welcomed Terry Skead as their new Elder-in-Residence, who will act as a knowledge carrier and will work to support students with their cultural identities.