When high school isn’t enough: 4 NWT students on upgrading to go to post-secondary

Kasandra Migwi is in her second year of study at the University of Alberta, and has about two and a half years left. When she’s done she’ll have two degrees under her belt, one in Native Studies and the other in education.

But getting there wasn’t a smooth journey.

It took over a decade to make the transition from high school to post-secondary education. After graduating at age 16 in 2007 in Behchokǫ̀, NWT, she went through a series of upgrading programs over the next few years.

“I wish I had a little bit more support … within the school system. I mean, I appreciate my education. But then I felt like I just lacked support with writing and then with my math and my sciences,” Migwi said.

“I think that’s why I upgraded a lot after high school.”

Migwi is far from alone.

There’s no hard data on how many NWT students end up upgrading their high school grades before entering post-secondary school, but anecdotally, it’s a common occurrence.

Migwi is one of dozens of people who spoke up online in a Facebook thread started by CBC Trail’s End host Lawrence Nayally, who asked about NWT-ers’ high school experience within the territory, and whether they had to upgrade classes afterwards before going on to post-secondary studies.

The question prompted 50 comments, with dozens of people sharing similar experiences. CBC interviewed a handful of them to hear more about their journey.

A portrait of a woman smiling.
Fredelle Deneyoua said she had to spend two years unexpectedly upgrading after she finished high school. (Submitted by Fredelle Deneyoua )

Fredelle Deneyoua started her education in Hay River and finished in Yellowknife.

She initially dropped out of school in Grade 9 at about 15 years old.

She decided to go back around age 20. She sat down with the school principal and some teachers and came up with a fast track program to get her high school diploma over the course of a year and a half. This time around, Deneyoua said she was committed to school and she “aced” the program, graduating with honors.

But when she started applying for post-secondary education, she found out that despite having good grades, the courses she took in high school were not enough to get accepted.

“I was so mad,” she said.

Deneyoua said when she returned to high school, she wasn’t told there were different levels of courses and that it could affect her future.

She had to spend the next two years upgrading those courses before getting into post-secondary.

Now, she’s graduated from the Aurora College Thebacha Campus in Fort Smith with a diploma in business, but she said she wishes things had gone differently.

“I wish they would have sat me down and told me, ‘Hey, if you’re going on this route, or this route, or whatever you want to do, this is what you need to do,'” she said. “And I wish they would have guided me that way.”

Various paths in the NWT

The NWT’s education system has various course paths. For example, math has three streams for Grades 10 through 12. When students go on to Grade 10, they can either take 10 C (combined course) or 10-3, a lower level.

After completing the 10-C level, they can either take 20-1 then 30-1 (the top level stream) or 20-2 then 30-2. For 10-3, they can take 20-3 after then 30-3, the lowest level option.

According to the education department, to graduate high school in the NWT you need a minimum of 100 course credits and English 30-1 or English 30-2. However, students don’t need to be in -1 or -2 for all subjects to graduate.

A graph showing three levels of education and their sequence.
The NWT’s education system has three streams for math for Grades 10 through 12. (Northwest Territories government)

The department’s website also notes that students should be mindful that “the courses you take in high school will determine what your options are after you graduate, as different colleges and universities have different entrance requirements for specific programs.”

The first two streams are typically needed for admission into a post-secondary education across Canada, depending on the school and the program. In some cases, only the first stream is acceptable.

However, in the NWT, getting access to the top stream of courses isn’t easy, and in some cases, students aren’t even aware that it’s an option.

In the 2020-2021 year, just 120 students in the NWT were enrolled in Math 30-1, and of those students, most passed (96 per cent), according to the territory’s latest JK-12 Education System Performance Measures Technical Report. It shows there were just 80 kids enrolled in Math 20-2 and 95.2 per cent passed. The report does not show the number of students registered in the -3 stream.

According to Briony Grabke, an education department spokesperson, NWT schools offering -1 courses fluctuate from year to year and from semester to semester based on several factors, like students’ interests, needs, previous academic achievement, and their post-secondary plans, along with the “operational realities of schools,” like the number of teachers available.

When a school is not able to offer the top level courses in person in a given semester or year, the spokesperson said, the regional education authority can work with the department to arrange for the delivery of courses via Northern Distance Learning.

Convincing school to offer higher levels

That was the case for Lianne Mantla-Look, who is now a nurse based in Yellowknife.

With the help of her family and a family friend, she said she self-advocated while in high school in Behchokǫ to take the courses she knew she’d need to go on to post-secondary education, so that she wouldn’t have to upgrade later.

Lianne Mantla-Look is now a nurse. (Submitted by Lianne Mantla-Look)

But that wasn’t easy either. She said she had to convince the school to let her enrol in the distance learning program so that she could take courses like Science 20-1 instead of taking the lower level courses, like most of her peers at the time. She said her school was also varied when it came to providing the -1 courses, and in order not to miss out on getting both her sciences in the -1 level, she took them at the same time.

“In Grade 11, I took science 20 and science 30 in the same semester,” she said, “just so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout of the school, catering to the mainstream students.”

Mantla-Look believes that had she and her family not fought for access, taking the lower level courses would have “hindered” her success.

“And, honestly, my drive,” she said. “It just would have led to a poor outcome for me.”

Christina Bonnetrouge, who went to school in Fort Providence, NWT, said she was lucky. While she was in school, her teachers went out of their way to offer various experiences and extra courses beyond the basics.

She said preparations started early on. When she was in Grade 9, she said her teachers asked students what they wanted to do after high school — and they helped prepare them for what they might need to do to get there. She said normally, Fort Providence didn’t offer the -1 and -2 courses, but her teachers took on “the challenge,” so she and others could have access to higher course levels.

Bonnetrouge’s teachers also took the students on a field trip to Edmonton, where they visited a university and saw various aspects of post-secondary life, like what and where a registrar is, the dormitories, how to prepare meals and more.

“I was pretty lucky to have those teachers who were at my school at the time to offer those courses,” she said.

“If not, then I probably would have had to upgrade.”