Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday hiatus

This blog is on hiatus until at least Jan. 4, 2010.
Please take some time to enjoy and celebrate Christmas (if you celebrate— if not, well, enjoy the time off work and celebrate the season) and have a wonderful new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Reporting on report cards

So Tuesday we were bombarded by a smorgasbord of reportage on report cards.
As best as I can tell from my siftings, the Globe and Mail kicked things off on Tuesday, even including a link to the Ministry of Education memo that hasn't been posted elsewhere in its usual locations. While dialoguing with Kelly Pedro in London, she mentioned she had touched on report-card reform at the end of November— however I did note in a Dec. 23 tweet she was working on report cards again.
Throughout the day Tuesday I noticed report cards as the topic of an Ontario Today phone-in on CBC Radio One as well as a number of localized stories from various sister papers— St. Catharines' stands out most prominently.
It got to the point — and showed the power of certain media outlets — that Minister Kathleen Wynne issued a special statement on the matter Tuesday afternoon. From the statement:
The fall Progress Report Card will facilitate better communication among parents, teachers and students by assessing students early in the school year in a new format. It will evaluate students in the same areas as the report card but instead of assigning a grade or mark, it will indicate how a student is progressing — very well, well or with difficulty.
Those who might look at this as a victory for teachers and their federations should perhaps take a step back and reevaluate.
The change eliminates a grading system, be it letters or percentages, from the fall report card. It doesn't eliminate the actual report. Parents should still receiving something, in writing, from their child's teacher with commentary on the child's progress to-date in the class. While I've never written a classroom report card, I've completed a number of written evaluations over years (Johnny is a great floater... he needs to remember to keep his belly up and his head back when on his back, and so on) and have always found the ones requiring original thought to be more time consuming and hence more meaningful than a system of plugging in grades and choosing from a range of pre-selected commentary. Good teachers should always be able to, virtually on the spot, provide an up-to-date verbal progress report on their student, and be able to back their statement up with written notes from evaluations.
This reportage and reaction also shows, I believe, the ever-present range of parental involvement. For those parents who monitor the children's work at school, keep up-to-date with what's being assigned, attend parent-teacher or meet-the-teacher events at the school, etc., a fall progress report — with or without grades — won't tell them much they weren't already aware of. It's the detached parents, the ones that sit back and react to the news their children are struggling in school, who will see a change.
But even then, this doesn't strike me as something that earth-shattering. That parent can still read the progress report, get angry and take away the Nintendo (I guess a Wii now, as opposed to the predecessor Commodore 64 in my day) until the next report card.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Year in review

I did this on my other blog already, but wanted to put a little more time and thought into the one here, looking at the year and trying to pick out the significant issues that touched on K-12 education in Ontario. It's been an interesting year and one where, looking back, I'm happy to have started and kept up with blogging about. This venue has given me so many opportunities to delve into issues, some provincial in scope, some very local, that I never would have learned about or written about within the bounds of the job I'm paid to do within my newsroom.
So, here are a few significant events from the past year that stand out, in no particular order.
  • Settling the latest round of four-year collective agreements with all employee groups. This year marked the first time all school-board employees settled agreements with their employers and brought their contracts into the same four-year cycle. It was a hugely instructive experience showing which unions could work within the provincial discussion table format and achieve success for their membership, and the few who dug in their heels and may some day feel the wrath of their members when they realize they've fallen behind their peers.
  • Reports, reports, reports. There were a few that will forever change the face of education in this province -- some are broken out into individual items below -- and there are some still underway (curriculum, municipal partnership, education funding formula review) that are due in 2010-11.
  • "Planning and possibilities: The report of the declining enrolment working group," lays out recommendations and a vision for how the province should both encourage the modernization of its schools while respecting a need for local decision-making within the acknowledgment the status quo cannot continue. The draft shared-use policy circulated this summer was in partial response to one of the first things Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said she would take on from this report.
  • "Our best future: Early learning in Ontario," affectionately called simply the 'Pascal report.' This report, and the ensuing implementation of its recommendations -- starting with full-day kindergarten -- will reshape how the government delivers education and a myriad of other supports to families with young children in this province. Its ripple-effect will, whether you support the program or not, be felt for a long, long time. If I were to rank this list, this report and the ensuing developments would be at or very near the top.
  • Bill 177: The Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, passed and given royal assent in December of this year. The bill, combined with the regulations from 2006's Bill 78, is going to change how K-12 education is governed in Ontario, particularly for those trustees and boards who've not yet adapted to realize their role is one of corporate governance, not middling and meddling with individual issues. A hastily circulated and drafted set of provincial-interest regulations caused a kerfuffle in the summer, however the minister continues to say these regulations will be passed, but in a more consultative fashion. 
  • The formation of the Community Schools Alliance, earlier this summer, provided an outlet for disillusioned, angry, mostly rural municipalities to vent over the school-closure process in place at school boards and the province's own guidelines. The group made headlines as it asked Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne to impose a 'smart' moratorium on school closures where the local municipality and community disputed the closure. She rightfully rejected the request. A subsequent letter-writing campaign seems to have fallen flat and I'm personally still waiting for the alliance to post a list of its member municipalities.
  • ARCs, ARCs, ARCs: Dozens of these school-closure reviews -- the first round for many boards since new guidelines were adopted in 2006, the second for others -- completed their work this past calendar year, foisting recommendations on trustees across Ontario. Some of these committees came up with truly unique and inspired recommendations for the future of schooling in their communities. Too many dug in their heels and adopted a status-quo attitude or a belief everything that's open should stay open forever, just the way it is today or modernized. Revised guidelines were released in June, which many boards have now adopted as they launch the next round of reviews.
  • Oliver Carroll, the Toronto District Catholic School Board trustees ousted after a successful court challenge under the provincial conflict of interest legislation. Ripple effects are still being felt across every other school board, as well as within the TDCSB with two more trustees now under the spotlight.
  • The Bluewater District School Board: It deserves its own mention here, because if boards haven't been paying attention to this group of trustees this past year, it's at their own peril. The BDSB saw resignations, public complaints and the appointment of Mr. Fix-its in an attempt to quell concerns surrounding improper decision making -- some of which still haven't been resolved.
  • Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Niagara District Secondary School. For a decision made in June 2008, its impact stretched into the fall of 2009 as a result of the vote taken over a year earlier. Enrolment remains stubbornly below the arbitrary 350-student level the school was to reach by Oct. 31 to remain open. The fight continues for those unwilling to let this one go, which includes a council determined to use any measure, no matter how legitimate, to cause the school board difficulty.
 As the year has gone on, this has become a place for a handful of people to regularly post their thoughts on my thoughts, and I thank you for dipping your toes into my sandbox and contributing to the discussion. I've received numerous e-mails, some of which have been exciting. Several posts have elicited e-mails with more information that may pop out in future posts as I read, digest and analyze the info. To give an idea of what's bringing people here, I also include my top-10 posts since I started tracking them in April-May. There are a few caveats by definition here as these are the specific URLs that have drawn traffic-- the bulk of you reading this are just reading it on the front page, were I can't track which post necessarily brought you here.
  1. Bill 177 
  2. EQAO and conflicts 
  3. NOTL shenanigans (later updated)
  4. The board, the OMB, the town... and the lawsuit? 
  5. ETFO and EQAO 
  6. The Community Schools Alliance 
  7. Refocusing the sunshine 
  8. Toronto ARC coverage ramps up 
  9. Toronto ARCs it up, finally 
  10. TorSun backs TDSB ARCs 
 As I write this, the blog has attracted over 6,000 visits -- which includes over 2,500 unique visitors -- and over 10,000 page views since I started publishing in March. It's on the radar for those who are interested in education in Ontario, be they trustees, parents, Ministry of Education folk or other journalists. Far better than I ever could have anticipated, so thanks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Asked and answered

Moira Macdonald asks in today's Toronto Sun whether or not retired teachers are hogging supply teaching jobs. Um, yes. Definitely. Most definitely. I have noted (but not really written) for some time that retirees coming back as occasional teachers is the biggest double-dip scam within the public service that I'm aware of. I can't think of another job paid from the public purse where retirees are treated so well.
As she points out, retired teachers (any certified teachers, regardless of what position they held at retirement) can return to work for up to 95 days without any penalty to their pension.
Not to mention, as Macdonald also notes, current OT contracts have gotten richer and richer over the past two cycles, to the point that you're paid a grid salary virtually from the first day of any supply placement. A few contracts ago, the grid rate only applied on OT placements once they hit a certain number of days. These were put in place so that new teachers could start accumulating seniority during their time in the OT gulag as they waited for a permanent contract— prior contracts would have many of these new teachers working very short-term placements for months and months and months and not gaining any seniority.
I still joke with a former Thames Valley staffer who retired as executive superintendent, was called to be acting director of education and then called upon again to be a superintendent of schools within the past three years. Every time I see him at a board function I ask if he's been pulled in from retirement again— but the point goes to the fact he can be pulled in without any pension penalty within the threshold.
All that said, a local contact within the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation explained to me earlier this year that the number of these double-dippers should start dropping soon. The 95-day penalty free ride is only for the first three years of retirement, after which the number of penalty free days drops to 20. The retirement hump — the milk and honey years for new teachers when full-time permanent contract positions were in abundance due to all the boomers who'd reached their 85 factor and were retiring — has passed in both elementary and secondary. For every year that goes by the number of teachers who are at 20 days will increase. More retirees with fewer penalty free days should make a difference in the number of days that become available as a result. Many of these provisions were brought in anticipation of this retirement hump, in that briefest of times when there may have been a teachers' shortage in this province.
Enforcement of the threshold is key, as Macdonald points out. Some boards are better than others, and some boards are not only acutely aware of the issue but also report monthly on the size of their supply lists and the percentage of each list that is made up of retirees.

Monday, December 14, 2009

ETFO/OECTA v. EQAO, round two

Couple things popped up in recent days in regards to the first stages of what might be a co-ordinated campaign by the teachers' federations in regards to Education Quality and Accountability Office; testing.
First was the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario newsletter, sent out Friday, indicating the federation would feature EQAO testing as its main article in the March edition of its members' newsletter / magazine, "Voice." Don't forget to view the survey, here.
Specific experiences and anecdotes are welcome and encouraged. A selection of your responses will be published in the magazine.
This looks like a selective examination of EQAO from the federation's perspective— an organization that's never been a fan of standardized testing of its members' students and went as far as to suggest random-sample testing earlier this year.
Then, Tyler Kula in Sarnia had this published Monday indicating the St. Clair local of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association's opposition to the test— with a response from the board.
"With respect to our board in particular, it really does seem to have obsessed more than others with performance on these tests," said Liz Holmes, local president of the Ontario Elementary Catholic Teacher's Association.
The St. Clair Catholic District School Board routinely scores above provincial standards in reading, writing and mathematics in Grades 3 and 6. Students also perform well in Grade 9 math testing.
The problem, Holmes said, is that standardized testing decreases a teacher's ability to deliver the provincial curriculum and instead focusses (sic) professional development and classroom supports on improving test scores.
Professional development under the Ontario Focussed (sic) Intervention Partnership (OFIP) provides strategies aimed solely at improving test scores, she said. Administrators say they focus on increasing student success.
"They have funneled a lot of effort, time and money into making the EQAO scores go up," Holmes said.
The best response to this I've ever heard is, "there's nothing wrong with teaching to the test if the test is testing things worth testing." The tests are based on the Ontario curriculum expectations in the elementary years, so teaching to the test is teaching the actual curriculum. The recent AG report served to highlight this reality, complimenting the EQAO for ensuring its annual tests do match the curriculum and are relevant.
Further, if teachers aren't teaching to the test— what the hell are they teaching?
The smart people out there would respond it's not what they're teaching but how. Well, the test is based on multiple-choice, true/false and open response questions. The open response questions highlight comprehension of written material as well as writing skills in different styles (ie: Write a letter to your principal asking for new equipment for your gym. State reasons why.) Again, all important skills and there are a variety of methods to teach them. Are they all being used? Maybe not, but this isn't what OECTA is slamming, it's critical of the test itself.
So we could have a problem of interpretation— where the association sees the professional development its members receive as aimed at improving test results only. Again, the test measures important skills and abilities, so they're actually getting PD on how to do a better job teaching these. Improved test results are a byproduct. They're funneling effort, time and money into doing better at teaching the related skills. The higher test scores are one result.
These two items are particularly concerning as the EQAO and its assessments move into their second decade. These are early-implementation questions and doubts. Further, these are two things I don't think the federations will gain any traction with amongst parents or the public at large.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ottawa-Carleton DSB early budget woes

This is the first 2010-11 budget story I've seen, given most boards likely aren't near the point of getting into the anticipated fun their upcoming budgets will bring.
Staff at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have prepared a list of options for trustees to debate at a budget committee meeting on Monday, so they can present their recommendations at the full board meeting on Tuesday. Among those options is cutting 88 full-time jobs.
Cathy Curry has been chair of the board for just over a week, but already she is facing a big challenge to keep her board out of the red.
"Yes, [it's] definitely a situation where there is angst and anxiety, but also a very positive opportunity for all the people at the budget table to give their views, and to explain things to others about how things work on the ground," Curry said Thursday.
But the head of the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers' Federation thinks there are better ways to achieve that than holding up the $14 million as a necessary cut to the budget.
Yes, indeed, there are more ways to find $14 million in a budget that's likely around $400 million to $500 million than going for the jugular. But then, and the CBC Ottawa piece doesn't get into this, what has the board done in previous years? Are support staff levels at the same number they were years ago? Or have they too adjusted with teaching numbers as declining enrolment has taken hold?
I predict this will be a year when the one board that saw an actual reduction in 2009-10 for its grants for student needs (Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland Catholic District School Board) will have some company. The capital dollars and other one-time funds are pretty much done. Full-day kindergarten's first two years will come with little to no capital dollars, and the staffing in these early years of implementation should pretty much be a wash between the teachers who would have left due to declining enrolment and those needed for the ELP.

Auditor General fun

The Ontario AG's report was released Monday, and contained two sections of importance to public education in Ontario. One has received some reporting (thanks to Moira Macdonald) whereas the other may have been mentioned but received little to no coverage.
The auditor general examined, as part of a cyclical review of all areas of government, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, as well as the Ministry of Education's Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. The former definitely received a more positive review than the latter. I was personally contacted a few times by the EQAO both in advance of and after the release of the AG's report Monday-- the opportunities to report on it in print for me are few, but this is an appropriate venue to do so. The AG's report is overall favourable to the EQAO, noting it does its job -- testing students against the established Ontario curriculum and reporting those results in a fair and efficient manner. It's also done so while reducing costs by 20% while providing the same level of service. The office has four main recommendations for the EQAO, which I've copied and pasted below without the EQAO responses. I realize this lengthens this post considerably, but it's important to have them here verbatim.
Recommendation 1: To improve the Education Quality and Accountability Office’s (EQAO’s) test development and administration process and to ensure that student assessments continue to be reliable and objective and that all students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their competence, the EQAO should:
• highlight to principals and teachers any significant changes in the compliance requirements outlined in the guides to administer EQAO testing;
• improve the process for selecting the schools visited by quality assurance monitors to ensure that all school boards and large private schools are periodically monitored;
• assess the equity of including exempt students in the overall assessment results as having not met the provincial standard; and
• identify schools and school boards where the number of exempt students appears to be relatively high and follow up to ensure that exemptions are justified.
Recommendation 2: To improve the assessment marking process to ensure that results continue to be valid, consistent, and reliable, the Education Quality and Accountability Office should:
• consider adopting on-line training for assessment markers;
• examine different methods to increase the number of validity reads for each marker, especially early in the marking process; and
• consider implementing supervisory backreading to help improve marker accuracy.
Recommendation 3: To ensure that assessment results continue to be reliable, consistent, and valid, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) should enhance its quality assurance procedures by:
• implementing a formal complaints process to help determine if there are any trends and to identify potential actions that could prevent non-compliance with assessment guidelines or student cheating;
• considering more complete disclosure when test results at a particular school are withheld as a deterrent against non-compliance with assessment guidelines;
• outlining in its administration guides potential penalties for violating EQAO policy;
• tailoring its quality assurance processes to address unique risks associated with different assessments;
• reviewing Grade 9 applied mathematics results to assess whether incorporating EQAO results into the student’s final markis effective in motivating students and, if so, suggest a more consistent approach; and
• investigating any abnormally large variations in school assessment results from year to year and ensuring that they are justified.
Recommendation 4: To further improve its policies and processes and the procedures designed to produce accurate and reliable reports that can be used to improve student performance, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) should:
• consider formalizing its pilot initiative to provide more open-ended questions for principals, teachers, and students to obtain better feedback on any concerns with the assessment process and ways to improve it;
• develop a more formal outreach strategy to give all schools and school boards an opportunity to gain further insight into the value of EQAO data and how it can be used to improve student learning; and
• increase the understanding of parents and the general public of how the assessment process enhances student learning.
The EQAO's response to most recommendations demonstrates either that it is making changes to meet the recommendations for pending assessments or that it will take the matter under advisement. Under the third set of recommendations I would love to see those come into play-- as an example, today one has to go to the so-called blue pages at the Ontario College of Teachers to see where some have flaunted test procedures.
Compare that to the LNS portion of the audit, where five recommendations (which I won't post here or this post would start inducing somnolence) point to a need for greater control and accountability. The AG notes both dollars going out the door that aren't adequately tracked or accounted for, as well as recommending the LNS does a better job of tying its efforts into EQ and report card assessments to ensure the impacts of its programs are effectively measured and reported. I particularly liked the recommendation stating all board and school improvement plans should be a matter of public record. These are no doubt full of eduspeak and other terms, however a competent translator (such as a parents' groups, journalists, etc.) could ensure those with interest understood what each says.
Overall, sadly, both these audits got overshadowed by the sexier sections of the report on social program spending and accountability. I lamented this with an EQAO staffer on Monday, noting they got out-sexed in the report and that few media would bother with a 'good news' story on the office's audit when there was waste and scandal to report.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Keep 'em open: Ottawa-Carleton DSB

An update to a high school review in east-end Ottawa that I have written about here before-- the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has voted to keep Rideau High School open and directed staff members to examine all options to even out enrolment in the area. The school, which has 1,000 students in its prescribed attendance area, sees approximately half that many attending classes within its walls. From the Ottawa Citizen piece:
Trustee Bronwyn Funiciello, who represents Rideau-Rockcliffe/Alta Vista, introduced the motion supporting the ARC recommendations and requested a comprehensive plan to address long-term enrolment and the needs of students and the community, including consultation with the communities served by low-enrolment schools “to identify and resolve root causes of enrolment issues.”
The plan would include “program pathways” to schools to increase their appeal to students, including non-semestered options at low-enrolment schools.
She also wanted the board to review the impact of previous and future boundary changes and additional funding for low-enrolment schools.
Low enrolment has dogged Rideau and has been a factor in identifying it as the school to close. Although it has a capacity of 966 students, the projected enrolment next year is only 476 students.
As a result of this decision, parents of students who attend Colonel By Secondary and Gloucester High schools (readers here may remember I indicated at one point I could see Gloucester HS from the window of my old bedroom at my parents' house) are now wondering what the impact of this decision will be on their schools. As they should be.
This wasn't a case of an under-enrolled school due to low population within its attendance area. This was the case of a school being under-enrolled because its students are inflating attendance at other schools. In some cases, I might even suggest that cross-border attendance is what has kept those schools open this long. Pre-1998, Colonel By and Gloucester were from the predecessor suburban Carleton Board of Education, when programs were introduced at Colonel By to attract out-of-area students in order to keep enrolment at a reasonable level.
I think of other situations in Ontario where the students exist within the attendance area (*cough*cough*NOTL*cough*cough*) but choose to enroll elsewhere. The OCDSB trustees' decision here shows a willingness to take a look at why that might be happening and see what options exist to 'correct' the situation. The 'target' of a closure scenario might shift as a result, but then it might also end up where it should have been aimed in the first place.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Old rules? New rules!

There have been a series of accommodation review / school-closure review committee stories in the alerts lately, as school boards start the work to strike the next round of reviews in their respective parts of the province. Of interest, one ongoing one in the Keewatin-Patricia board area in northwestern Ontario-- schools in the very north are different and have always been, I think it will be interesting to see what solutions are recommended in that environment.
Then, a Huron County mayor has his county council voting to stop a review already in process, in an attempt to simply postpone the inevitable.
Another interesting one was the decision by the Simcoe County District School Board last week to disband an accommodation review taking place in the Collingwood / west Simcoe area, as reported by the Enterprise-Bulletin. The board disbanded the committee after a request from the area trustee Caroline Smith and the committee itself, so that it wouldn't run under the first set of pupil accommodation policies.
"It the first time in Ontario a board has stopped an ARC process," she said in a telephone interview. "It's pretty darn amazing and a very positive outcome."
The ARC process began early last June to "deal with facility and student accommodation issues, focusing on Byng, Duntroon, Clearview Meadows, Nottawasaga- Creemore, and Nottawa elementary schools," said Smith.
At that time, the group was organized under the 2006 Ontario Government Accommodation Review Guidelines, she explained, despite an outpouring of public criticism from around the province about the content of those guidelines.
On June 26 Smith said the Ministry of Education released new guidelines that focused on improvements in consultation and decision making processes within the ARC process.
"A clause within the new 2009 ARC guidelines allowed for a transition period, and required that ARC's convened after Sept. 30, 2009 were to use the new guidelines. ARC E found itself in an odd place and space in time; convened under the old guidelines, but yet not having any substantive business of the ARC completed, by Sept. 30, 2009," she said.
I hope Smith isn't under the illusion this review is gone forever. I would bet Tim Hortons commodities once the board votes and approves its own revised guidelines that fall in line with the June 2009 ministry document, administration will bring back the recommendation for this review. Why? Well, in the intervening months since June, I doubt the circumstances on the ground vis-a-vis the rationale for this review (IE: student population, facility condition, programming) have changed during the past six months. They likely won't change between now and the new year when the revised board policy is approved.
Trustees' decision postpones the inevitable. It doesn't avoid it.
Other boards across Ontario are no doubt in the same situation-- those who moved quickly and have adopted revised guidelines post-June are striking new reviews under the revised rules. The rest likely have a group of reviews in abeyance until they approve their newly revised policies.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Curriculum overload?

Getting a little clever with that topic line, given the smorgasbord of coverage in the past two days on the Ontario Ministry of Education's elementary curriculum review. For the record, I posted about this a few days after People for Education sent out news of the review back in October.
It just goes to show how the media works when it comes to education stories-- something I'm mindful of given an event notice I received earlier this week for a study released today in Washington D.C. under the title of "Invisible: 1.4 per cent coverage for education is not enough." As best I can tell from my media monitoring (which has some significant gaps), the CBC picked up on the curriculum story earlier this week and since then everyone across the province has gone hog-wild localizing it for their audiences. This is not atypical for most provincial stories, mind you, and I've certainly localized my share of provincial and national topics over the years. However, it goes Meanwhile, it received scant coverage when PFE sent its notice out over six weeks ago.
I shudder to think what -- if there was even an equivalent academic environment in Canada to conduct such a study -- a similar report might have to say about Canadian education reporting.
I'm particularly swayed by the following recommendations in the report's executive summary:
4. Reporting should become more proactive and less reactive. Much of coverage today is episodic and driven by events. Focusing on long-term trends would help to inform communities about the content of education and ways schools are seeking to move forward.
6. Newspapers and other media outlets that have cut back on education reporting should reconsider these decisions both on public interest grounds, and also because there is widespread interest in the issues surrounding education – on the part of parents especially, but also among employers and other community leaders. It is only through on-going, day-to-day beat reporting that journalists develop an understanding of the subject, gain a sure feel for the issues at stake, and develop sources who keep them informed.
Meanwhile, Bill 177, the biggest omnibus education bill of this government's term, passed Monday night with nary a whimper in most if not all media. Mind you, two PC MPPs staging a sit-in in the legislature distracted us all. Good thing that protest was so effective at changing practice or policy.

Addendum: Looking at my own site stats, it's important to note that pages on Bill 177 are among the most-read individual pages. Google tells me the top search term that brings people here is "education reporter," with the second-highest being "Bill 177." Hundreds of hits since my first post about the bill went up in May, showing there are enough people out there coming here for information on this bill. Perhaps because they're not finding anything anywhere else? If so, that's a pretty indicative statement to the research paper noted above.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bill 177 passes third reading

Bill 177: The Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act carried through third reading on division Monday at Queen's Park. The Ministry of Education sent out its releasebackgrounder and other items through its various platforms Tuesday afternoon.
I haven't had a chance to give this reading of the bill a thorough review and compare it to the original, although a trustee at the public board I cover advised her colleagues last week to read it over as there had been changes that took some of the concerns from trustees into account.
The leg website hasn't been updated yet to indicate when the Bill received / will receive royal assent from the Lieutenant-Governor. Many of its provisions don't take effect until then.
The bugaboo will continue to be the provincial-interest regulations stemming from this bill and the one passed in 2006, a draft of which were circulated earlier this summer for consultation. Plenty of trustees will no doubt consider these regulations and whether they wish to run for election in 2010 and face the wrath of the Ministry should they not meet any targets that may be established through regulation.
Or, the 'wrong' government gets elected (and you pick who you think that is, I'm not stating which party might be right or wrong, period) in 2011 and the regulations get re-written to really make life fun for trustees.
Once I give the bill a thorough re-read (if I ever get the time to do so... I'm still reading the Bluewater report a few paragraphs at a time) I may repost with more.

ELP battles

The last week has contained some interesting back-and-forth on the rollout of the Early Learning Program (full-day kindergarten as it's known to the rest of the world outside government).
Last Wednesday, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada released a report titled 'The cost of a free lunch-- the real costs of the Pascal early learning plan for Ontario.'
The 'Coles notes' version of the 16-page report goes something like this: the ELP, as proposed by Pascal or as implemented by the government, is horrendously expensive and shouldn't be implemented. Give parents and families that money instead.
It references the Quebec experience, where $5-a-day -- now $7-a-day -- childcare is a reality. While there is no doubt its implementation there was fraught with challenges (and still is), the reliance of the IFMC on this one program as the bad example is troubling. I also found it interesting to note several inaccuracies within the body of the report itself where you can tell the research and writing ended before some of the more detailed information on implementation was made available.
I was also troubled by citations in the report, that when you checked the footnotes, refer to anecdotal information. This doesn't help the credibility of the message.
IFMC also breaks out the alarmist language when referring to the entire 0-12 spectrum of programming and support services, which in and of itself has to be seen as different than full-day kindergarten. That's a spectrum that includes Ontario Early Years Centres, Best Start centres, Parent and Family Literacy Centres, etc. The components Pascal mainly addressed were the introduction of items where there are currently gaps-- such as full-day kindergarten along with before- and after-school programs.
Counter that with the Toronto First Duty phase II research and report (news release, exec summary, full report) released Friday, pointing to the fact that for the implementation of the ELP to work, there are four key things that need to be addressed: an integrated staff team, integrated approaches to early childhood services, integrated service delivery and parent participation.
Most media, from the little I was able to notice on the day of release, focused on the report's notion that early childhood educators need more parity with their kindergarten teacher ELP colleagues if the program is to be a real success.
Meanwhile, Nov. 30 was deadline day for the submission of potential first-year sites to the Ministry of Education-- one that most boards met. It's been interesting to see the news alerts from my chain pop up over the last few days, showing which boards are going public with the sites they've submitted and which aren't. I had one board tell me yesterday they're keeping the list under wraps because they don't want families to switch neighbourhoods to take advantage of a first-year ELP program only to learn in January the government didn't approve that site.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The board, the OMB, the town and... the lawsuit?

Oh, the things people consider when they're desperate.
Tiffany Mayer at the Standard had this posted late Wednesday (the link may change Thursday morning and I won't be able to update it until Friday) regarding some of the options being discussed behind closed doors by Niagara-on-the-Lake council in its last-ditch, grasping at straws effort to save Niagara District Secondary School from pending and certain closure.
The tactic was revealed during a Niagara-on-the-Lake town council meeting this week when Coun. Martin Mazza, who sits on the NDSS strategy committee, asked how quickly plans to save the school could go forward.
Mazza referred to a "Plan B" and the possibility of a lawsuit before being reminded he was revealing information discussed behind closed doors.
When asked Wednesday about the probability of a lawsuit, Mazza was mum.
"I've been told to keep my mouth shut and refer everything to the Lord Mayor," he said.
Mazza's mention of a brewing lawsuit came a day before board trustee Gary Atamanyk said the board broke the law by not following proper procedure when it voted last year to close NDSS.
Ooops. Gee, when you sit on a committee that meets (likely illegally, at least for portions) in-camera and then you blab about it in open council, doesn't that negate the justification for holding the meetings in secret to begin with? Council didn't want the board to learn of its scheming, but it appointed someone with some pretty loose lips.
I don't know if the language in the last graph I quoted there is Mayer's or Atamanyk's (I suspect the latter), but it's a little overstated. Boards and other governance bodies have bylaws for procedure and process during meetings-- these are generally based as most people would be aware on Roberts Rules of Order, with any particular tweaks as designed and passed by the board as a whole. These laws apply only to the council / board and its members-- "broke the law" implies criminal intent, versus failing to follow procedure.
Second, I again question the motive here-- the motion which Atamanyk and possibly NOTL council believe was out-of-order was read in June 2008. If NDSS had met the enrolment target set that night, not one person would give a flying patootie about the legitimacy of the motion as presented. It's only now, almost a full 18 months after the offensive motion was read, accepted and voted on that this is being contemplated? How convenient, and how desperate. Even if the basis of the concern was the inconsistency between how the June 2008 motion and the series of motions put forth earlier this year (pre-Oct. 31 deadline) were dealt with by the chair, it's been over a month and the board has had several meetings during which this could and should have been considered in proper process.
I ask myself at the end of the day-- if the June 2008 motion had (or will) be ruled out of order that night (or at any other time), what's to say the result would have been any different? I re-read the minutes from that night's meeting. The good stuff starts on P6 and runs to P21. Is there space, read by the right lawyer, to argue whether the right call was made that night when the motion that was passed was ruled in order by the chair? Possibly.
Trustees were trying to come up with some creative solutions. A straight "close the school" vote was defeated 6-5, and all the others except this last one under contention were also defeated. But along the way, trustees created a procedural nightmare in a rat's nest of motions.
However, the minutes from the subsequent meeting show no concerns or questions over the rat's nest from trustees when they discussed business arising from the minutes. Nada.
Say the chair had ruled the motion in question out of order-- what would have happened then? Three motions to keep the school open and spend varying degrees of money and set different enrolment targets had been defeated. The motion to close the school, period, had been defeated. The only plain-spoken motion left was to vote to keep the school open, period-- but there's nothing to suggest that would have passed. Any other convoluted motion only would have added to the rat's nest and likely have led to the same result as where the community sits today: unable to meet an enrolment target and facing closure.
Finally, I just love the headaches this should be creating for someone over at the Community Schools Alliance. What credibility is that group ever going to have now when two members of its executive are burning every bridge to the school board because the town didn't get its way? Wasn't the alliance's goal about getting the ministry to force school boards to be more considerate of municipalities? Isn't that a two-way street?
You can't ask for consideration out of one corner of your mouth while you're giving instructions on what parts of the bridges to douse with gasoline and where to find the matches with the other side of your mouth.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Anyone else livestreaming?

The Thames Valley District School Board held its first-ever livestreamed board meeting Tuesday night— the link is obviously dead now, but will be live when the board holds its public meetings (usually on the second and third Tuesdays of each month at 7 p.m., with some exceptions).
The trial run was held in early November, and the Nov. 24 meeting had about 25 people connected at its peak use— though the IT guy admitted many of those were superintendents seated in the administrative pews and others in the building.
Once the word gets out though I would expect more to connect— given the swath of southern Ontario at play the trip to London isn't as easy as firing up the computer and clicking on a few links (high-speed Internet service would be key).
Is there any other board in the province livestreaming their meetings? Are any of them even carried on local cable TV?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reminding trustees on conflict of interest

Mike Baillargeon is a man on a mission-- unseat every last neutered trustee elected in 2006 to the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He helped launch the latest missive this month as another two trustees are being brought up on conflict of interest charges at the board. Baillargeon was successful in removing former trustee Oliver Carroll from his post after filing a complaint of conflict of interest some time last year.
The Toronto Sun has been consistent in its coverage and commentary on this issue, the latest of which was tossed my way by a frequent if anonymous tipster as Moira Macdonald has her say in Monday's Sun. From her piece:
Citizen activist Mike Baillargeon -- victor last February in a similar complaint against former board chair Oliver Carroll -- had long hinted he was working on an action against (Barbara) Poplawski and (Angela) Kennedy, dating back to a May 14, 2008 meeting where Carroll also got caught. Baillargeon said he only learned of the conflict of interest incidents involving Poplawski and Kennedy during the proceeding against Carroll.
Even Kennedy told me she and Poplawski had "heard rumblings" Baillargeon might do something with it.
But Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act gives people just six weeks to file notice of a conflict of interest once they learn about a case of it. Baillargeon went into overtime -- according to him, because he had been (unsuccessfully) trying to get the two trustees to resign instead of going to court -- and lost the ability to move on the matter himself.
The current application names parent Arnaldo Amaral as the complainant. Amaral's lawyer, Stephen D'Agostino, says his client is reluctant to speak to reporters -- too bad, because this is a situation that needs as much transparency as it can get. Court documents say Amaral learned of the conflict allegations in late September from his local trustee, Catherine LeBlanc-Miller.
Agreed. This sounds a tad too coincidental and only serves to bulk up what Macdonald is insinuating. Of course, if you consider the Sun also published a piece earlier this year from Baillargeon himself, filled with exclamatory statements and frequent use of the word "resign," is there much work left to show he appears obsessed with ousting all remaining trustees from a board that has essentially been neutered until after the 2010 vote? Macdonald has been a supporter of the cause, given its implications for overall governance, however I question at what point in Baillargeon's quest we move from righteous to simply obsessed.
That said, I was one of the few reporters outside the GTA bubble to report on the Baillargeon v. Carroll case's ruling (I did so in June, as budgets were being finalized). The ruling extends the consideration of conflict, noting that pecuniary interest extends to family members regardless of a trustee's individual ability to impact on their relative's financial outcome. I also posted about it here, in a rare item on my own reporting.
I suspect based on my own observations at the time budgets were passed earlier this year that despite various legal opinions obtained by trustee associations and board solicitors on the ruling, most trustees with family employed by the board they serve on voted for budgets anyway. Locally, there were no staffing cuts to employee groups where trustee family members worked, therefor per a strict comparison to the Carroll case, it could be harder to draw a conclusion of conflict under the act.
As the ruling notes, Carroll very obviously and overtly went about influencing the vote to avoid staffing cuts that could have reasonably impacted his family members. Both of the family members in question were very low on seniority lists and could have reasonably seen their positions axed or get bumped out of any other job by a member with more seniority.
As Thames Valley District School Board chair James Stewart noted in my June article, the reality is the vast majority of trustees have zero direct influence over staffing since they're not involved on most hiring committees and the payroll budget is largely dictated by the Ministry of Education through the Grants for Student Needs and other legislation.
The nature of these two new allegations is similar to the Carroll one, that these two trustees influenced the vote to protect jobs at the TCDSB as part of the 2008-09 budget votes. Both have relatives employed by the board, although there's no indication in coverage to-date whether any or all would have been as threatened by cuts as Carroll's relatives.
The two new cases should serve as a warning to those trustees in similar situations they're subject to the same accusations.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bluewater update No. 15

As usual, a few days late on this one, and beaten as always to the punch by the folks over at MendEd. Bluewater District School Board director of education Mary Anne Alton faces her performance review before the board's trustees early in the new calendar year.
Board chair Jennifer Yenssen explained the review was delayed from its originally scheduled time in order to complete the education outreach, read: the Messrs. Fix-its review and surveys. Alton's name and reputation have certainly been the centre of much attention throughout this process. The entire process also provided an opportunity to see how some trustees don't understand their role in today's school board governance. Many trustees don't see their role as corporate governors, providing policy and financial approval to board business but doing so through the only employee they actually hire and supervise-- the director of education.
Trustees are prepared to shift the format of the director's performance review to one that uses feedback and data from those who work most closely with Alton, such as the senior administrative team, central office staff, principals and union heads, as was suggested by education consultant Geoff Williams.
Williams, who was dispatched to the Bluewater headquarters last year at the request of Education Minister Kathleen Wynne to help the board work through its problems, says trustees will find that data gathered year-round from staff reports and surveys will help them enormously in the evaluation process.
"They will absolutely be able to gauge whether the director is doing the things the director is supposed to be doing from this information. A 360-degree survey collects data the board is looking for on an ongoing basis from a variety of sources . . . they should be collecting evidence over a period of time as opposed to receiving it as part of a one-shot event," said Williams, adding that he doesn't see the delay in the review being problematic.
None of these evaluation concepts are earth-shattering for those with experience in evaluating those who hold positions of senior management. As an employee at a non-profit some years ago, I completed one of these 360 evaluations on my own supervisor at the time as part of his performance review.
Oh, and to clarify-- I wouldn't expect Alton's review to be conducted in public. Don't expect to be able to sit in the meeting where trustees sit down with her and discuss her review, as this is a textbook example of an in-camera meeting that every board follows when conducting its director of education performance reviews. Once she has received it though, it's fair game to ask the chair of the board whether Alton received a favourable review or not. For those who want to know more, it may also be fair game to pony up the $5 for the freedom of information request and ask for a copy of the evaluation. The request might be declined by the board, but overwhelming public interest would be a good route to appeal (another $25 fee) it to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Things you learn updating links

A recent comment highlighted a need to review and update links in my blogroll. The 'Snap' preview function was pointing us to the wrong place and providing erroneous RSS updates. In doing so, I tripped across a great PPoint presentation over at The Lampost, a blog written by a Durham District School Board high school teacher.
It demonstrates how some teachers, good teachers, are enabling the use of technology as another tool for teaching and learning.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NOTL shenanigans-- UPDATED

Some recent coverage of the continuing Niagara-on-the-Lake / Niagara District Secondary School / District School Board of Niagara saga. There has been almost continuous coverage since the end of October when the high school's enrolment deadline passed-- the folks at SOS do a great job of keeping track of everything published relating to NOTL schools (including posts here, natch). Those following this issue should sign up for the site's e-mail advisories.
Two things popped out in this week's Niagara Advance. The first refers to what council is doing to determine whether or what its options might be to continue advocating for NDSS and achieve a reversal of the board's decision.
At a special council meeting last Thursday, council decided four town representatives would join forces with Niagara District Secondary School supporters and the Chamber of Commerce to decide how to proceed.
Councillors began their meeting with a behind-closed-doors discussion of legal options, said (Lord Mayor Gary) Burroughs.
These meetings will continue to be private, as the article notes, so the board is not kept in the loop of committee plans. If I lived any closed closer to NOTL, I would be filing a complaint with the council closed-meeting investigator immediately after the next meeting of this committee. It's a committee of council and can only meet behind closed doors when permitted under legislation. The same rules that apply to council apply to its committees. By appointing four members of council to that committee it's a de facto council committee, per my interpretation. Even if there's a filing fee to have the closed-meeting investigator look into it, the ensuing very public spanking will be well worth the fee.
Nevermind this closed-mindedness is the exact opposite of what the Community Schools Alliance is advocating boards do. So school boards have to be open and co-operative with municipalities, but those same councils can do whatever the hell they want to screw their boards over? That's rich.
So is that why NOTL council is forcing the DSBN to waste money on an Ontario Municipal Board appeal over its preferred Virgil school site? Council is about to zone the property the board has identified residential, over the objections of the board and the community that wants, after the same review process that led to the NDSS decision, a new school.
Councillor Jack Lowrey voiced his concern with keeping the land residential, calling it the least appealing option financially. Lowrey said he believes the DSBN will take the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, requiring the Town to hire planners, since the town planners recommended it be zoned for a school, for a case he feels the Town would lose.
"When staff makes a recommendation, the judge weighs that very heavily. I want to make sure everyone at this table knows the kind of costs we would be looking at," he said. "I don't share any confidence that we're going to win this with the school board."
Chief Administrative Officer Don Smith said there has been dialogue between both parties and the DSBN is worried about the potential delay of going through an OMB hearing.
"They left me with the impression that they would be happy to talk to the Town in trying to settle this."
Gary Zalepa Jr. said he was glad to finally get some attention from the school board and he too is worried about financial implications, but took a different tack.
"I would like to know the financial implication of losing a number of residential lots where the school would be," he said. "[The DSBN] has failed on everything else in this town in regards to schooling. Let's stick with our original plan."
This is the worst kind of 'have my cake and eat it too' being put on display by town council. You put two members on the Alliance executive, go the minister complaining those meanies in the bully school board made a decision you don't like and then turn around and proceed to use that anger to screw the board over instead of working together with it on a separate school site? Council should be congratulated-- in a couple of strokes, it has managed to not only to overlook tending to the needs of students whose school will be closing at the end of this year, but also weakened the credibility of the Alliance by behaving as though its goals only apply when it serves its purposes.

NB: The advance did publish one more thing Friday, an opinion piece laying out the two situations and how town council is dealing with them.
Town councillors have so far maintained they want control over where a school can be located, and they want residential development on that Line 2 property. And some politicians are understandably angry at the board and not about to hand them anything on a platter. Rezoning that property would seem to be giving up on the possibility of a new high school and elementary school on the NDSS property, and nobody is giving up on anything just yet.
The two elementary schools deemed decrepit have served local children well for decades, and it seems will have to continue to do so until this battle is played out, either with a decision from the Ontario Municipal Board, a change of heart from town councillors, or school trustees giving taxpayers a break and building on the property they already own.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Full-day kindergarten = ECE shortage?

Michael Purvis at the Sault Star had this article published Thursday on the pending phase-in of full-day kindergarten in school boards across Ontario and one consequence some boards may have to deal with as a result. As readers here and elsewhere will know, the government has chosen to implement full-day kindergarten in a slightly different way than Charles Pascal had envisioned in his report, assigning a kindergarten teacher and early childhood educator to work with classes that could be as large as 26 students.
"There's going to be an opportunity, I guess, for early-childhood educators, we're just not sure they're here in sufficient numbers," said John Stadnyk, director of education for the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board, which plans to open four of the new full-day classes next September.
Stadnyk said agencies that employ ECEs in Sault Ste. Marie warned local boards that the hiring pool may not be large enough.
"They're indicating (ECEs) may be hard to come by in the northeast region, not only in the cities, but in the rural communities," said Stadnyk.
One would hope the government -- including Pascal -- had considered this before making and accepting the ECE component of the recommendation. Are there enough certified ECEs available to meet demand? Admittedly, some childcare centres will get smaller as their charges move to full-day schooling, creating opportunities for ECEs to shuffle from these childcare centres to school boards.
If there will be a shortage, perhaps it's time for the plethora of underemployed teachers' college graduates to consider enrolling in that ECE program. First, particularly if they're not already occasional teachers working in kindergarten classrooms, they might actually learn something about early childhood development that's not covered in teachers' college. Second, it might guarantee them a job, given I expect the continued impact of declining enrolment will again lead to many of the province's school boards to trim their elementary teaching ranks.
A college watching these developments would be wise to sharpen its pencil, head to the nearest teachers' college and work out some sort of condensed ECE program for teachers' college graduates.

Globe crosses into the homework debate

The Globe and Mail has published a few things this week on the great homework debate. First was Tuesday's article on a Calgary family with two lawyer parents who wrote and got the school to sign a homework contract. Subsequently, Wednesday's paper and online had a followup article on other parents who've taken similar steps to intervene with their children's homework workload.
Both articles include parents seemingly at wit's end and on the verge of tears, or speaking about their children being on the verge of tears due to the homework load.
From Tuesday:
“It was a constant homework battle every night,” Ms. (Shelli) Milley recalled. “It's hard to get a weeping child to take in math problems. They are tired. They shouldn't be working a second shift.”
It's not as if, the couple pointed out, they don't value education. They know firsthand the work involved in earning university degrees. But they wanted the academic work done at home to be on their terms, based on where they knew their children needed help. Brittany, for instance, was struggling with spelling, but “we never had any time to focus on that because she had so much homework,” Ms. Milley said.
And there were plenty of frustrating nights, she said, when her kids were so tired, “we'd stand over them, saying, ‘write this, write that.' ” If that's what families are doing, she asked, “how do the teachers even know whose work they are marking?"
The lead in this story held a pertinent piece of information -- speaking to how the family would rush their kids home from soccer and skating to then have to deal with homework. A nagging question arose when I considered the lead with the graphs I've quoted above-- could the Milley children be overprogrammed?
Similarly, from Wednesday's piece:
It never even gets that far for Shirley Munk. “I refuse to monitor, remind about, and schedule time for any homework for my elementary school child,” the Halifax health care worker says. Her daughter, who attends Grade 3 at a private school, makes good grades and talks about what she learns in school. Ms. Munk meets regularly with her teachers. But homework, spelling words included, “is not a part of our family life,” she says. “I don't see why 61/2 hours of formal schooling isn't enough for an eight-year-old.”
This issue got a lot of press (as these things usually go) in 2008 when the Toronto District School Board completed a review of its homework policies. Other boards across Ontario, and the Ministry of Education, either followed suit or were already in the midst of their own homework reviews. A general guideline used by many schools is 10 minutes per night, per grade. So a Grade 3 student would reasonably be expected to have 30 minutes of homework per school night, and so on.
This issue very quickly gets into topics of how as a society we're raising our children and what today's parents are expecting from their children and are doing to raise (or not raise) resilient children able to deal with workload, stress, failure, etc. Not having kids myself, I don't know where a parent strikes a balance between helping their kids with their homework, monitoring that it's being done versus crossing the line and doing it themselves or going to the extremes these families did when they felt the burden was overwhelming.
The comments on the Globe articles beautifully get into these issues-- give them a read if you have the time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Four reviews, two different approaches

A quad of accommodation review committee coverage Tuesday evening, from Welland, Huron County and Petrolia.
Welland's article was all about education-- teaching us and that community about the process that lies ahead and begins with the first few meetings.
Huron County's two reviews are a little more controversial-- there was coverage earlier in the fall I was unable to get around to posting here about on how municipal councils were opposed and one situation where council members appointed to the review withdrew because they didn't feel they could approach the situation independently. However, this too was a short article on process more than substance.
Far more interesting is the Petrolia review. The municipalities and communities requested the Lambton-Kent board conduct this review, realizing their schools and community needed to go through the process and search for some solutions.
And yet...
There were enough chairs for 200 people at Petrolia's Hillcrest School Thursday night, but only 25 were filled as the first accommodation review committee (ARC) meeting for Petrolia area schools was held.
"I'm kind of surprised there's not a lot more people sitting here right now," said Beth Wilcocks, a Grade 2 French immersion teacher at Hillcrest.
She said she's concerned about students' well-being at the school.
Kudos to Tyler Kula for noting this review is further complicated by a French immersion program review that impacts the review's schools, as well as the board's decision on where to place its first allotment of full-day kindergarten classes.

The role of a caring adult

Another coherent collection of related thoughts from the Education Writers Association seminar I attended last week in San Diego. At the first opportunity when we did our first high school visit, I was paired with Cindy Flores, a Grade 9 student at the School of International Business at the Kearney High Educational Complex.
Flores attended a larger middle school before applying for and choosing to attend the SIB at Kearney. The program interested her, and an older sibling attends one of the other schools at the Kearney campus. A reminder Kearney was a 2,000+ student composite high school now broken into four small schools. Each school has its own principal and its own dedicated staff who teach only within their school.
An important question for me to ask was how Flores was finding the social environment at SIB. In covering small-school reviews in Ontario, the importance of the peer group and the intimacy of knowing every peer in your grade cohort was frequently mentioned as a benefit of these 'small by nature' schools. I was curious as to how SIB students might see this given the vast array of middle schools these students are sourced from. The school isn't a 'zone' or neighbourhood school, meaning little to no opportunity to attend with the larger age-group cohort you may have started elementary school with.
Two months into her school year, Flores confirmed she didn't really know that many other people in her grade level. This despite there only being approximately 100 students in Grade 9 and the fact in her four courses this semester she would have an opportunity to be in at least one course with most of the students in her cohort (although I will note she was taking a Grade 10 French course).
The connection she had made, however, was with her advisory. At one point in the SIB tour we were ushered into a room full of students and the principal left so we could speak freely. Each of the four (including Flores) spoke very highly of the advisory and how this adult was the person keeping in touch, encouraging them to apply to bursaries and scholarships and doing the requisite followup if grades or attendance started to slip. The advisory was backed up by the principal, who demonstrated a knowledge of knowing every student's name.
Moving to Linlcoln High School later that day we were able to witness some of that same interaction. Lincoln's setup was more of a hybrid, where 'small learning communities' are the basis of each of the school's four campuses within a campus, led by two principals, two vice-principals and an executive principal. Joe Wiseman, vice-principal of the Science and Engineering Center, led the tour with two students, Xavier McGregor and Enrique Garcia. Again, we heard about this caring adult(s) making connections with students. Wiseman certainly knew and was keeping tabs on where everyone was going and supposed to be.

From EWA San Diego 2009

I specifically asked Wiseman whether he saw himself as an instructional leader, role-modeling and guiding teachers, or as that person connecting with students. He answered he saw his role as both and intertwined, that in providing instructional leadership to his teachers, he was connecting with students and vice-versa.
These visits allowed some important connections to concepts discussed in panels-- including one not so explicitly stated but that I've pulled out of the larger narrative: the importance of a caring adult to a student's success.
"How do we ensure every student is known and cared about?" Education Trust's Karin Chenoweth said in a Sunday panel titled, 'What big districts can learn from small schools.' "Who is hired to teach and assigned to which classes? How are teachers supervised?"
This is a concept I believe -- although the only person who disagreed during the entire seminar was Michael Klonsky -- can be picked up and implemented in any high school regardless of size with the right leadership in place and the right staff working in that team.
Further, though they're not directly comparable, an advisory isn't really that different from a student success teacher, mandated in 2005 and in place as part of Ontario's student success strategy since then. They're caring adults specifically tasked to connect with high school students who are at-risk of not successfully completing the first years of high school. In many schools, they're supplemented by guidance and vice-principals who take on many of the roles we saw on display at the schools we visited in the seminar.
Most importantly for my point in this post, they're in place at every high school in Ontario, regardless of size.

Bluewater survey report

Frequent commenter RetDir mentioned this in a comment on an earlier post-- the Bluewater District School Board Parent, Staff and Community Satisfaction survey has been posted as a PDF file on the board's website. The 91-page report is not for the faint of heart, however has a more digestible executive summary in its first pages.
I am reading through the report currently and may add to this post when complete. 
So far, I am struck by the common-sense nature of many of the comments in the executive summary. I would, as a skeptic, suspect if you were to do surveys of a similar size and scope at a number of other Ontario school boards you would find very similar results.
As RetDir mentioned, we're more comfortable with our classrooms, teachers and schools and the further away we get from that nucleus the less trust and understanding there is of who people are and what they do.
Despite any additional comments I may add here, the question now remains what the trustees will do with this information. What policies and procedures are they going to change as a result? Further and perhaps more importantly, how are they going to openly and obviously show that they've learned something since April and are working towards addressing the concerns raised from parents and staff? What things will they identify that haven't been done yet but need to be?
No doubt this report will make the rounds through either the Ministry of Education, the Council of Directors of Education (CODE) and/or the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, as this report has a lot to say about this board and by extension many others.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bluewater update No. 14

So soon after posting the last update, Maria Canton at the Sun Times posted a story late Monday that should make every trustee in the province take a second look at how their boards handle in-camera discussions regarding their employees. An Ontario Provincial Police investigation has been launched into the Bluewater District School Board over allegations trustees illegally met behind closed doors and discussed subject matter that should have been considered in an open, public meeting.
The Ontario Education Act permits confidential meetings when they might disclose "intimate, personal or financial information in respect to a member of the board or committee, an employee or prospective employee of the board or a pupil or his or her parents or guardians . . ."
(Peter) Ferguson argues that the board wrongly held all meetings regarding the superintendents involved in the plagiarism case behind closed doors because "the plagiarism activities of the subject employees are part of their professional lives and concern only their conduct while in the employ of the trustees."
What they fail to realize is the board could have also considered the discussions over the superintendents in question to have been negotiations with employees, which are also permitted in-camera. Canton also notes Ferguson is the person who took the plagiarism concerns all the way to the Ontario College of Teachers and was cut off by the board chair at a meeting earlier this fall where he started to speak about what he thought should be done with the superintendents in question.
This is a grey area, despite how black and white the text of the Act appears. When a board deals with disciplining its employees -- particularly given only one employee reports to it directly, the director of education -- there is enough legal space in the act and, I would suspect case law, to say these discussions qualify as "personal" information. While the alleged behaviour may be related to a person's public conduct as an official of the board, the censure as potentially meted out by trustees -- or rather, as board direction to the director of education for implementation -- isn't necessarily so. Most boards treat director of education reviews and evaluations as in-camera items, as these discussions and reviews deal with personal information.
I'm not a lawyer, but I've spent a lot of time this year looking into municipal in-camera meetings (whose rules aren't that different than what's in the Education Act in terms of appropriate subject matter) and there could be enough space here for the investigation to come up empty.
Or, as Ferguson alleges, the board could have gone too far-- and therefor should have done what to my knowledge would be the first board to ever publicly discuss and then censure its own employees. I'll be following the coverage here very closely as I've come to question my own public board's bylaw that allows a closed-door "caucus" meeting to be held at the call of the chair. Despite my routine coverage and ranting every time the board chose to hold these meetings, it garnered no public reaction and created no appetite for change.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Inspiring reporter quote

I was reviewing my notes from the Education Writers Association seminar last week as I frame some additional posts and tripped across this quote from Michael Klonsky of the Small Schools Workshop and Center for Innovative Schools.
"If you become a connoisseur of schools and education, you'll know a good teacher and a good school when you see one."
OK, I may have massaged the quote a little bit from the mess that is my notes from that day, but you get the general idea.

Bluewater update No. 13

A quick update on Bluewater District School Board activities-- as usual, a few days behind the Owen Sound Sun Times' Maria Canton and the folks over at MendEd.
Tuesday could be a good day in the district as the results of surveys with current and former parents, students and staff members are released and reviewed by the board of trustees.
"We haven't seen the survey results yet, but we are looking forward to finding out what the public has had to say," Jan Johnstone, vice-chairwoman of the Bluewater District School Board of trustees, said yesterday.
"I honestly don't think there'll be any surprise, but rather the results will provide us with an opportunity to again move forward. This is something we need to do annually, take the pulse of our community."
I'm curious as well, and will try and make a point of posting Canton's update as soon as the news alert crosses my desk and I have a spare moment. To my knowledge -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- the BDSB is the only one to have conducted this type of survey. It could say a lot, or very little, about perceptions of the board within the communities it serves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bottled-water hoo-ha

A frequent if anonymous tipster sent this along earlier today. Avon Maitland DSB is adding its name to the list of school boards moving away from bottled water. There are a number of other boards who've done this over the past several years and a few more who've considered it but not moved to a full ban or cessation on the sale of bottled water from schools.
Advocates for doing this in the school system note boards should be leading by example and that the practice of moving away from bottled water fits hand-in-glove with elements of the environmental education curriculum.
Critics note the sales of bottled water do generate school-based funding for those schools who have them. Bottled waters, juices, flavoured waters and milk products became the only options for vending machine drinks in elementary schools a number of years ago after the sale of pop was banned from these schools.
Here's my issues with stopping the sale of bottled water at schools-- and I say these as someone who never buys bottled water, preferring tap water.
We should be teaching students in the appropriate forums about the impact of bottled liquids. How the production of plastic affects the environment and how the money we all spend on municipal water (or well water available in schools) produces safe, clean, tested, drinkable water.
We should pressure boards to setup recycling programs that match or better the one run by the municipality the school is located in-- currently, within my county children can recycle more at home than they can at school.
However banning bottled water doesn't rid students of responsibility for the things most bottled-water critics hate most. Vendors will simply replace bottled water with flavoured waters (which are tap water with flavour added in most cases), vitamin waters (ditto) or a plethora of other non-pop drinks that still come in plastic containers. By banning bottled water you haven't reinforced the lesson of reduce, reuse, recycle, you've simply replaced one product in the machine with another.
Plus, as a trustee at another board noted when it was debating this issue, isn't it better when we arm our students with information and encourage them to make the right choice?

PFE on school closings

I was out-of-country when People for Education released its annual report on school closings. However, it's a significant report and issue, so here I am catching up to it almost a full week after it was initially released.
First, let me quibble with some of the data. Assembling this information on school closures, accommodation reviews and 'replacement' schools across 72 boards is challenging enough, and ensuring it remains current is also a challenge. There has to be a cutoff or the report would never get published with the constant changes taking place. That said, in a board I'm very familiar with, there are currently five reviews underway (two of which are now before trustees, with a few more not far behind), and these are not encapsulated in PFE's report. The number of replacement schools is also underreported. I also quibble with the chart on page 5 showing 5,000 students are needed to fund an educational assistant. If this is truly the case (I've not gone looking into the funding formula to verify) then how do boards manage to place at least one EA -- if not full-time then part-time -- in every school?
The focus on closures was the greatest foible of the reporting I was able to see on the report as well. Let's all focus on the number of schools closing and not provide the full context as to why, nor the context of what happens to the students in these closed / closing schools. Let's ignore the fact that in some cases, the replacement school -- though larger and perhaps not as local as its predecessors -- provides a vastly improved learning environment. Which is ridiculous, given the report is only 14 pages and actually includes some of this context on page 2.
Now as to the report's actual content?
PFE wants a review of the funding formula -- which was promised by 2010 (now 2011) by the government. It wants that review to re-align those elements of staffing and maintenance (etc.) still dependent on pupil populations reaching a certain threshold. From the report:
Before the review of funding, the Ministry of Education, in co-operation with Ministries such as Children and Youth Services, Health, Health Promotion and Municipal Affairs should:
  • examine research on optimal school size;
  • investigate the impact of a community hub model on things like overall health promotion, neighbourhood viability, youth violence and poverty reduction; and
  • develop policy and funding to support and promote integrated planning and schools as community hubs.
The school size one is interesting given my recent exploits. PFE suggests high schools in the 600-900 range, which per our definitions earlier this week would actually be "medium-sized" high schools. This is also a range where many boards are currently able to make high schools work under the current formula.
PFE is bang on when it says Ontario is falling behind on the development of community hubs in its schools. Where this hasn't occurred naturally due to geography or by intent due to construction in times where childcare or other services were integrated, we've fallen behind. The abandonment of any further expansion of the Best Start program after the federal government pulled its cash out of the initiative to fund measly childcare credits for families has put Ontario behind.
The report also fails to address how the recent "surge" in school closures is directly tied to the moratorium on closures requested by former minister Gerard Kennedy. That request, which virtually every board in Ontario complied with, created a backlog of issues -- school physical condition, population decline, etc. -- across every board that wasn't dealt with from December 2003 until well after the new guidelines were released in October 2006. Many boards also spent a lot of time (and money) subsequent to the release of those guidelines preparing capital plans. Kennedy said he was going to personally review each of these, but moved on to other pastures before most were even submitted. His successors at the ministry backed away from that commitment, making the capital plans working documents subject to continual change and approval from ministry staff members.
The end result was that it was at least another academic year after the guidelines were released before boards had their own internal policies and procedures prepared and aligned to begin tackling a backlog of school accommodation issues.
This as during this time many boards' largest grade cohorts began moving from elementary schools into high schools. The next four years will be even more telling as student population declines begin to stabilize in elementary but hit high schools hard and comparatively fast-- remember the declines had eight to 10 years to move through elementary schools. The impact will be felt in a four- or five-year time frame across high schools.
Is a review of the funding formula needed? Yes. It should be continually reviewed, with major updates every five years or so.
Does the province need a community hub policy and practice? Yes-- desperately.
Should all closures be abandoned until this is figured out? No-- this strategy has led us to where many boards have been in the past two academic years and another moratorium will only create more challenges than the closures it may actually prevent in the long term.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Small high schools -- Lincoln and High Tech High

Here's a slideshow of some of the photos I nabbed at the last two schools we visited in San Diego. I kept the camera in the bag at Kearney for some reason.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Small by design v. small by nature

One of my first awakenings at the Education Writers' Association small-high schools seminar earlier this week was a key difference for us to remember in Ontario. You can be a small school by design, or you can be a small school by nature.
All of the high schools -- a mix of public and public-charter -- we visited during the seminar were small by design. Meaning the district or the charter board purposely planned out the administrative, instructional and in two cases, physical design of the school to be small.
Look at Kearney High Educational Complex-- formerly a composite high school with approximately 2,000 students. It was closed and reorganized into four 'small' schools of 400 or so students. It includes the Construction Tech Academy (this site was loading very slowly...), the School of Digital Media and Design, the School of International Business and the School of Science, Connections and Technology. All schools have project-based (or, "experiential" as we might call it in Ontario) learning, advisories for students and other small-school concepts.
Similarly, at High Tech High, the first school and campus were purposely designed to have no more than 400-500 students, including the project-based learning and administrative and teacher organization to bring small-school concepts into play. These were replicated on the same campus as the first school with the High Tech High International and High Tech High Media Arts schools.
All of these schools are different from many of our small schools in Ontario, which are 'small by nature.' Our schools are small by nature mainly due to two factors:
  1. These are schools that, by geographic, financial or other circumstance, were built small. These are the campuses that physically were never meant to accommodate more than 400-600 students from the moment the foundation was poured and the walls started to rise. Other than this physical characteristic, there's nothing else that inherently exists in these schools from the small-school model.
  2. The other 'small by nature' school is the one that regardless of what physical size it was built to accommodate, has a small population due to the demographic changes of the past decade or so. Population shifts (from established to newer neighbourhoods, or through urban renewal) and our declining birth and fertility rates have created these 'small' schools.
So when, in accommodation reviews I've covered, or ones I've posted about here, advocates trot out the 'small schools' card and throw the small-school movement out as a reason why their 'small by nature' school should continue without changes, we need to be aware they're throwing dust into our eyes. For the most part, the small-school benefits have happened in these schools by circumstance, not through planned implementation. Some of the small-school concepts -- those not in place across district boards or the province (more on this in a subsequent post) -- used in the schools we visited in San Diego don't exist in 'small by nature' schools. Why? They're composite public high schools with small populations, not really 'small schools.'
We need to remain cognizant of that difference -- small by design v. small by nature. Each produces different schools and very different environments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Small-high school seminar

So the small-high school seminar I attended this week ended Tuesday afternoon and my brain is swimming in the things I've witnessed and discussed since Sunday. I will be going through my copious notes and drafting some posts to put up here as a result of attending this conference, as I doubt I would be given the space to write about the past three days in print.
As a sneak peek, I'd like to give you an idea of what we did and where we went here in sunny San Diego, thanks to the Education Writers Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-- one of the main movers and shakers in the small-school movement in the U.S.
  • Sunday was all about panels-- we heard perspectives from New York, Chicago and San Diego / L.A. from experts and researchers on how small high schools have been setup and what it is about them that works. We had some divergent opinions amongst our various panelists that I'll get into in subsequent posts.
  • Monday we travelled to Kearney High School campus, a public school in the San Diego Unified School District. The high school is one of three formerly "large" schools whose campuses were modified and now contains four "small schools" within the same physical space, a campus that houses approximately 2,000 students. We spent time in the School of International Business and the Construction Tech Academy.
  • Monday afternoon, we travelled to Lincoln High School, a large urban high school which closed for five years and then was re-opened four school years ago. It remains one large 2,400-student school administratively, but contains for small "learning community" campuses. All Grade 9s enter a social justice program, and then in Grade 10 attend one of three other campuses-- science and technology, arts or public safety.
  • Tuesday, we spent the morning and early afternoon at High Tech High, a publicly funded charter school located on former naval lands. The school has a mix of public and private-foundation funding, and contains three "small" high schools-- the original High Tech High, High Tech High International and High Tech High Media Arts. The campus we visited also contains a middle and elementary school campus.
For future purposes, the terminology here of "small" refers to schools of between 400-600 students per campus / administrative school division. We didn't actually visit a school campus where there was one standalone facility with 400-600 students, or, even, fewer than 400 students.
More on these schools and the sessions in the coming days as I review my notes and think of how to frame some posts. I did take some photos and even one video, which I'll embed as appropriate.