The Chilliwack school district will soon have outside help pinning down why its high school graduation rate has lagged about 10 per cent behind the rest of the province for the better part of a decade.
According to the most recent (2010-2011) data, only about 72 per cent of Chilliwack students finished high school within six years of starting Grade 8.
That figure, called the six-year completion rate, has hovered at about 10 per cent below the provincial average for most of the last decade-a situation that prompted Doug McKay (then school board chair) to lambaste district officials two years ago.
"I've been sitting at this table for five years now, and for five years our graduation rate hasn't changed," he said. "For five years I've heard from different superintendents and different assistant superintendents of all the things that we are doing to help us move forward, and we're not . . . Some-
thing needs to change because the number isn't."
The number did inch up by 2.5 per cent the following year, but the district still came in 9.4 per cent below the rest of the province.
Starting in January, a research study by the Chilliwack Social Research and Planning Council (CSRPC) aims to shed light on why.
"It's a really fascinating project, said UFV sociology instructor Katherine Watson, the project's principal investigator, "but it's also a really applied project, and I think that's what's important. It has a lot of potential to really assist both the district and the students and parents. It has that potential of being a vehicle of change, and I think that's very exciting."
The study will gather data through an online student survey in January and during focus groups with students and parents in the early spring as well as in meetings with school administrators.
Instead of crunching numbers, researchers will try to get to the bottom of local students' attitudes toward school, Watson said.
"If engagement is one of the most important aspects of keeping kids in school, then we want to get an understanding of that. What's going on in Chilliwack within the district?" she said. "Are there things going on that push kids out of the system? Are there things happening in school that pull kids in? Because their friends are there? They like their teacher? They play basketball? They love geography?"
The study will cost about $59,000, and CSRPC is footing the bill with help from a grant from the Fraser Fund, a local fund UFV originally set up with money from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
But that doesn't mean School District No. 33 isn't pitching in.
"They're really participating in the study," CSRPC chair Brad Whittaker said. "They're not just giving us access. They're actually helping us out a great deal."
Although the school district is now a CSRPC member, Whittaker said the council was exploring the issue of high-school completion rates through a CSRPC-funded literature review even before the district joined.
For the council, he said, the perennially low local grad rate is a community issue.
"It's not just about schools," he said. "It's also a social issue. It's about the community of Chilliwack. If we can get people to stay in school, maybe they'll go on to other things. They'll be employable. They'll contribute to society."
Information about the study, which is aimed at students in Grades 8 to 12 in all School District No. 33 schools and programs, will go out in newsletters in the new year, and parental consent forms will be sent out after that.
Students whose parents consent will then take an online survey at school.
Focus groups with students and parents as well as interviews with principals and vice principals will follow in the early spring. Data collection will wrap up in the spring and a report with recommendations is expected to be complete by January 2014.