Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, the Legislative Assembly has identified education, training, and youth development as one of its priorities, and the Government of the Northwest Territories has made several commitments in its mandate to advance that priority. Work in these areas is foundational to the future success of our territory, and we have seen some solid progress on many initiatives in education, training, and youth development.
Mr. Speaker, one of our mandate commitments is to implement the Education Renewal Framework, which is guiding multiple initiatives to improve outcomes for NWT students. We have established working groups comprised of multiple partners from across the NWT, including students, teachers, parents, elders, contracted experts, and staff from many agencies and GNWT departments. All of the groups are focused on designing a better learning and working environment in our schools and communities, as well as a more responsive education system for all students.
Education renewal is grouped into four focus areas:
1. Improving student and teacher wellness;
2. Strengthening teaching and learning;
3. Strengthening culture/language programming and student sense of identity; and
4. Increasing system-wide accountability and results.
One of our mandate commitments was to expand the NWT distance learning pilot project to increase access for NWT senior secondary students in all communities. I am pleased to report that we have built on the success of the distance learning program from the Beaufort Delta and expanded into four additional communities. This is one of a number of initiatives flowing from the four education renewal areas at various levels of development and implementation, many in pilot projects. For example, the Elders in Schools program and Residential School teaching resource have also been well received over the past few years.
Mr. Speaker, the Northwest Territories currently has the highest number of instructional hours across Canada, resulting in our teachers working approximately 52 hours a week, and yet our education system continues to struggle to dramatically improve student outcomes. Research shows that teachers have the strongest impact on improving student outcomes. There is also substantial research that indicates that, by providing teachers with more time to plan, assess, collaborate, and engage in professional development and training, student outcomes improve.
For this reason, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, in partnership with the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association and the Northwest Territories Superintendents' Association, have agreed to focus on both improving and strengthening teacher instructional practices, as well as reducing teacher workloads by participating in a three-year pilot beginning in the 2017-18 school year. This pilot will allow interested schools to redirect a portion of their current instructional time.
All schools participating in this pilot will be evaluated to determine if the redirected hours do, in fact, improve student outcomes and improve overall teacher workload and wellness.
The GNWT has also made a commitment in its mandate to develop options to increase the pathways available to students who lead to graduation and provide greater linkages to post-secondary education, training, and employment opportunities. High School Pathways is another education renewal initiative under way. Many jurisdictions have implemented versions of this initiative, focused on redesigning their high school curricula, making stronger connections between high school and post-secondary entrance requirements, connecting labour market needs with high school course offerings, and aligning workplace expectations with students' competencies.
Mr. Speaker, this is an exciting initiative, as it has the potential to lead students down pathways that they have strengths in, are interested in, and want to explore. This will provide them with a clear path into fulfilling careers and meaningful work. This work will be connected to the changes that Alberta Education is currently making within their High School Redesign program, and I am very pleased that our department staff have been participating in various Alberta Education curriculum working groups which will help to inform changes within our senior secondary programming. This initiative will connect well with the work we are doing on Skills 4 Success and our Apprenticeship Strategy. We are committed to increasing northern participation in all job categories in demand in the NWT, including the skilled trades, to prepare residents to be first in line for the many jobs that exist and that will be coming in the future.
Another of this government's mandate commitments is to work with stakeholders and communities to explore options for free, play-based care for four-year-olds. Further to the independent review of junior kindergarten implementation and subsequent report, we engaged with communities, early childhood operators, and education stakeholders for the better part of 2016. We have committed to fully fund the implementation of junior kindergarten in all remaining NWT communities and have identified $5.1 million dollars in the proposed 2017-18 budget for this. We look forward to seeing junior kindergarten in all our schools across the NWT beginning in the 2017-18 school year.
As all Members are aware, we have been using the Early Development Instrument, which provides a snapshot of children's school readiness at age five. We have been using the instrument for five years, and we now have a year of data which gives us some information on children who attended junior kindergarten. The Early Development Instrument measures vulnerabilities in five different domains of a child's development and shows us where we can focus our efforts. Though our results are preliminary, they are very promising. They indicate that children who have attended junior kindergarten show improvements in many aspects of their development.
Mr. Speaker, the GNWT also made a commitment to promote and improve Student Financial Assistance to support NWT youth in developing the skills and abilities to meet their potential, as well as territorial labour demand. The NWT has one of the most successful and generous Student Financial Assistance programs in Canada. In the 2016-17 academic year, we have paid $12 million dollars in benefits to 1,286 students thus far.
As well, over the past 18 months we have increased our benefits for applicants, which have been very well received. These improvements include:
● Up to $2,950 per semester for basic grant funding for tuition and books, an increase of $625;
● Increase in loan remission rates;
● Reduction of interest to 0% for students who are residing in the NWT;
● Removal of the 20-semester funding limit and re-introduction of the revolving loan limit to further support continuing students; and
● A new Northern Bonus for students residing in the NWT for a year since ending full-time studies. They are eligible for $2,000 per year to a maximum of $10,000. Southern students are also eligible.
● Since September 1, 2016, we have received 110 applications for the Northern Bonus.
● As well, we support students with permanent disabilities, providing the option of studying at a reduced course load, a $2,000 yearly grant to assist with educational expenses, and up to $8,000 per year to assist with extraordinary expenses like a tutor.
These improvements, combined with the national marketing campaign promoting the Student Financial Assistance Program, are providing vital support for our students. We are hopeful that we will see more students remaining and/or returning to the NWT, and that we will begin to see some successes from our national campaign that will support the GNWT's population growth objectives.
Mr. Speaker, education and training are the cornerstones of healthy, fulfilled residents, and a robust economy. We will continue to ensure our youth, residents, and communities have the programs, services, and opportunities they need to achieve their goals. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.