Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Municipal councils and school boards

In this post-Community Schools Alliance age, there've been a few stories popping up in hotly contested school closure country where reports are near finalized or reviews well underway. Municipalities are now asking for a stronger voice at the table (er, that would be the review tables many are already present at) and asking boards to stop or slow down to wait for them to get their act together and contribute.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is one example, where town councillors continue their efforts to reverse a District School Board of Niagara decision to close Niagara District Secondary School if it doesn't find another 100 students before the end of October. The coverage has been consistent in the Niagara Region newspapers between the Advance, the Standard and the Review.
Simcoe County is another-- Warden Tony Guergis' recent meeting with Simcoe County District School Board trustees along with the recent decision to postpone any high school closures. With only one review underway -- an elementary one -- Clearview Township council is now getting hot under the collar and writing letters to fire off to various points, as reported in this Stayner Sun piece.
Council passed a motion Monday night, moved by Deputy Mayor Alicia Savage and seconded by Ward 7 councillor Shawn Davidson, asking the board to disband the committee.
Savage, who sits on the committee, known as ARC E, put forward the motion after growing frustrated with the board for its handling of the ARC and related issues, such as the board’s capital planning process.
The motion, which will be forwarded to board officials and Ontario Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne, received the unanimous support of council.
The township, in its motion, states that ARC E should be disbanded and that accommodation issues should not be dealt with until the board’s capital plan has been updated, which will determine what schools are to be improved.
Having looked at the agenda for the review committee's Sept. 22 meeting (minutes aren't up), I can also see why council is confused over whether the new provincial guidelines apply. What I would hope the committee learned is that they don't. Even if the board had revised its accommodation review policies to be compliant, the ministry already stated the new rules don't apply to any review struck before today (Sept. 30). This ARC "E" had its first meeting in June.
The request vis-a-vis the capital plan is one I can't speak to as I've not taken the time to read whatever capital plan the SCDSB has, though previous coverage and posts here suggest it wasn't a strong one given dollars haven't flowed as board staff members predicted and trustees expected.
If the committee isn't disbanded -- and given recent decisions, who knows whether it will be -- council is perhaps still taking a better approach. It realizes what's at stake (as I'm sure it always did), but should now realize its role and step up. Don't complain, as it appears to here, of being left out of the loop-- work to make sure you're in the loop and start sharpening your pencils. Come to review committee meetings with feasible solutions that work for the municipalities, the school board and students.
Writing letters shouldn't be the start of building a file full of excuses for feeling left out and unable to contribute to the process.

Blizzard's take on implementing Pascal

This Christina Blizzard column caught my eye-- ran in the TorSun over the weekend and will likely get picked up by a wide variety of Ontario papers this week as it gets tossed on editorial pages for local papers to run. Blizzard is Sun Media's designated Queen's Park columnist, who rarely writes about education. Given Minister Kathleen Wynne's assertions that some details about the first year of implementation of the Pascal report on early learning will be released in the coming weeks, it became Blizzard's column of the day.
Let's face it, kids at that age can only take in so much learning. It isn't necessary to have a teacher in the classroom the whole day.
Pascal's plan makes sense. Why pay a teacher's salary for a full day when kids of that age are more likely to spend most of the day glueing pasta to paper or making monsters out of Play-Doh? Why pay teachers to be babysitters?
The problem is, the government owes the teacher unions -- big time. They contributed huge amounts of money to Liberals in the last election.
I think Wynne's dilemma speaks to a bigger problem. I believe it is a conflict of interest for public sector unions to contribute to election coffers. Essentially, they're giving money to their employer. Is it any wonder the government constantly caves in to their salary demands?
In this case, they are trying to influence public policy. It is simply wrong for a union to have a disproportionate say on how a program will be delivered. It is wrong for them to influence how taxpayers' money will be spent.
She makes a point, one that I'm hesitant to agree with. Despite the coalition of federations that pumped mucho dollars into election ads to elect and re-elect McGuinty, Wynne and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario are not what I would call bosom buddies. ETFO members have already seen that in their smaller retro cheques and lower salary increases after their latest contracts compared to their peers teaching high school and working in French and Catholic schools. The move towards salary parity amongst teachers is gone, at least until the next round of negotiations. ETFO bit the hand that fed it in negotiations and its play for full-day kindergarten is, in my eyes, a thinly veiled attempt at doing nothing more than increase the number of school staff members paying it dues. For their own sake, I hope ETFO members don't abandon this government and toss their support behind another party-- it could have disastrous results as it did in 1995.
I do object, however to Blizzard's characterization that Pascal's recommended model of full-day learning is nothing but a daylong babysitting service. She must have missed the part in Pascal's report and other early learning reports pointing to the importance of learning through play such as crafting things out of Play-Doh and glueing macaroni to things. She also gives opposition leader Tim Hudak his space to promote his perspective on early learning-- which given he was one of the leadership contestants to come out against Pascal in his campaign is only telling.
Blizzard's best point? This one:
Here's what I hope won't happen.
I don't want to see high-powered parents putting pressure on trustees and school boards to get full-day kindergarten in up-market schools.
The neediest schools -- where parents can't pay for decent daycare -- should be the priority for this program.

EQAO and conflicts

This one has bubbled up over the past few days, starting with a CBC report earlier this week pointing to Education Quality and Accountability Office board member Lorna Earl's work as an educational consultant. TorSun's Michelle Mandel Moira MacDonald writes about this today, pointing out how political and federation foes will try and use this alleged conflict of interest in a vain attempt to kill the agency's current testing practices.
But whether Lorna Earl has been in conflict with her private and public roles or not, watch out for those who will use this to show why province-wide testing should be canned.
They will latch on to this, especially as it seems critics such as the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario are getting nowhere telling parents, many of whom support it, that this kind of testing is bad.
When people don't agree with you, you can always try death by character assassination. Hammering away at the integrity of the testing agency -- the Education Quality and Accountability Office -- might be worth a shot.
...
Is teaching people how to use test data the same as giving them short-cuts to boost their marks? Could Earl have picked up special knowledge at EQAO that could help her at work? Should public sector boards not be allowed to recruit potential directors with expertise in the same field because of conflict of interest worries? These are questions the commissioner might ask.
Even if there's something there, I suspect it's not what (NDP education critic Rosario) Marchese is driving at. If Earl were using her connections to help Ontario boards "get the numbers up" it's hardly worked.
Grade 3 reading results are listless while Grade 6 results still fall short of government improvement promises. But discouraging news, like concerns about conflicts, is no reason to chuck the test. And Earl likely counsels the same.
I agree with what Mandel MacDonald is saying here. The critics of Earl's status on the board and continued work with her consulting company appear to show a basic lack of understanding of corporate governance. Boards don't usually do the nitty gritty work, they hire staff accountable to them to do this, of which EQAO has them. A conflict here would be if she still worked for EQAO in test development and then ran over to her consulting firm's offices with the confidential tests and data and then sold them to school boards across the province. Or, if she worked for EQAO and was on the board at the same time.
Or if she was using EQAO dollars to funnel test development and analysis work to her contracting firm without tenders or any similar scrutiny, a la eHealth or OLG.
Mandel MacDonald's right on the money on calling out the agency's opponents on how they're going to try and use this situation to their advantage. She's also hit the nail right on the head with her final graph included above on results.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bluewater update No. 11

The more aggressive part of myself as a journalist has been extremely envious of my counterparts in Owen Sound / Bruce and Grey counties over the shenanigans that have taken place at the Bluewater District School Board this past year. Kudos to the Sun Times, particularly Maria Canton, for its ongoing coverage of the issues happening in that district.
Two updates posted last week, which as usual the folks over at MendEd had up far earlier than I. Both come out of the board's first trustee meeting of the new school year held last week. My fav of the two is Maria's on the exchange between the chamber of commerce member who called out the two superintendents on plagiarizing and the board chair.
(Peter) Ferguson, the Kimberley architect who pursued plagiarism allegations against two superintendents all the way to the Ontario College of Teachers, was only a minute into his public presentation when Yenssen, chair of the board of trustees for the Bluewater District School Board, ruled he was out of order and demanded he cease speaking.
The two then exchanged heated words back and forth about who was out of order before Yenssen abruptly called an emergency 20-minute recess.
"The board has to govern under the Education Act and our own bylaws. In the past we've accepted delegations that dealt with personnel matters, but after seeking legal advice we will not allow any delegation to speak about personnel matters again," said Yenssen afterwards.
"In the board's view the plagiarism issue is over and we've dealt with it and we'd like to move forward with developing a policy on plagiarism."
But Ferguson maintains his presentation at the BWDSB's first meeting of the new school year was one based on collaborating with the trustees and that he doesn't want "heads to roll"
That article was published alongside another outlining the presentation from Geoff Williams, one of the ministry appointed "Mr. Fix-its" that have been in the board since their appointment by Kathleen Wynne earlier this year.
"The most important thing to realize is that there are ways out of the situation in which they (the BWDSB) find themselves in now, they need to be responsible for the actions that will move them forward and that's clearly the most important thing," said Williams, who was dispatched to Chesley last spring to help the BWDSB work through its then self-described crisis.
"It is possible for them to move forward and build better relations and if they start acting on some of these recommendations, as well as recommendations that they get from other sources, they can position themselves well, but it will take some time."
Immediate changes the board can take, according to Williams, are ones that are already underway or have been fulfilled, such as the Monday launch of the online satisfaction surveys and the hiring of a communications officer.
The changes that will produce long-term improvements in the system, however, will likely only be put in place in time for the next election in November 2010.
I haven't read Williams' report to trustees, but from the commentary at MendEd and elsewhere they appear to be a set of common-sense recommendations many feel the board should have adopted a long time ago. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stats are an education story

The Tuesday release from Statistics Canada of the latest update on live births and the changes in the Canadian fertility rate actually holds important information for K-12 education in this country. I've reproduced a chart below, embedded from GoogleDocs, showing the percentage change specific to Ontario for live births from 2002-07. It's below the graph I created, however StatsCan's own national table is also here.


It's an education story because it helps explain declining enrolment and the gentle, slow rebound from its impact that is going to start to happen within the next 10 years. For the last decade (many boards' enrolments peaked in 1999-2000), all but five GTA-area boards have been facing declining enrolment-- meaning more students are graduating from high school that are coming into the school system from the bottom end in JK, SK or Grade 1. This demographic situation is tied to all sorts of reasons, but mostly because the children of baby boomers (the baby boom echo) are leaving schools and the GenX'ers and GenY'ers (like me) aren't having the same number of children. In my own defence, it's hard to have kids when you're single.
When those boom-echo kids start having kids -- which is starting to happen -- then the school populations will rebound with the boom-echo's echo. However echos are always smaller than the ones that preceded them.
Quick aside, the five GTA-area boards whose populations are still growing owe that to immigration and migration, as populations shift into their districts from elsewhere.
Long story short: an uptick in the fertility rate two years ago in 2007 in Ontario means the school-age population should see the same uptick starting in two years when these parents start sending their kids to JK. That uptick should become quite obvious in three to four years as those bambinis start Grade 1.
I only wish the data StatsCan provided for free included a breakdown by census tracts (large urban neighbourhoods) or dissemination areas (smaller communities), so we could see where these children are being born. School board and municipal demographers have access to this info however.
H/T to Rob at Cancrime, whose tweet earlier this week inspired this post.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Postponement in Simcoe County

Catching up to a few things today, including a series of developments on the northwest Simcoe County accommodation review and the Simcoe County District School Board's decision on the outcome for five high schools.
Readers here will be familiar with this review, involving schools in Midland, Penetanguishene, Elmvale, Stayner and Collingwood. Earlier this week, SCDSB voted to postpone any further consideration on any of the recommendations from either the review committee (it recommended a status quo, have your cake and eat it too solution) or its senior staff members.
The happiness may be only temporary. Trustees can revisit the issue in the future.
(trustee Brad) Saunders said the matter may be best dealt with by the next board of trustees, which will be elected next year.
"Given our division on this issue, it's the only way to go," he said.
Trustee (Donna) Armstrong disagreed.
"Postponing indefinitely is like putting our heads in the sand," she said, adding the decision does nothing to achieve much-needed renovations at EDHS (Elmvale), which is aging and overcrowded.
In the meantime, Tony Guergis and Anita Dubeau, the mayors of Springwater Township and Penetanguishene respectively, both said the decision gives their municipalities the chance to show that they are growth communities, and that their high schools should stay open.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks last night behind closing any high schools was the lack of provincial funding to build new ones.
Trustees have tried to point their finger at the province, blaming it for not making funding available to the board for either solution. I find these statements do more to show the failure of the board's staff members and trustees to dot their i's and cross their t's on their own capital planning documents. There are other boards in the province that have managed tens of millions in capital construction projects coming out of their first round of reviews (or not even) and SCDSB's cry of poverty lets it off the hook way too easily.
As to Guergis and Dubeau? Pardon the vernacular, but if it hasn't already been at several points in the past two years, now it's time for these mayors (and the others) to piss or get off the pot. Talk about what your municipalities can do and can show is cheap. Open your wallets and come to the board with genuine offers for partnership that will improve the physical spaces your community's students are learning in and meet your objectives. If this is a 'smart' moratorium on the closure of several schools as Guergis was requesting in his executive role on the Community Schools Alliance, now he's gotten one. What's he actually going to do with it?
The Examiner followed up its coverage with an editorial Friday, flawed in showing its writer(s) couldn't see past the dollars at play here.
Because the lack of provincial funding seems to be the over-riding reason why there's been, at least, a stay of execution for high schools in Elmvale, Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood and Stayner.
...
And after numerous meetings, this ARC recommended last May a five-school option to keep all five schools open -- including a replacement school in Elmvale.
But school board staff instead presented a three-school solution: keeping CCI and MSS open and building a new high school in either Elmvale or Wasaga Beach.
It was this action which trustees have decided to postpone indefinitely.
This isn't necessarily a victory for those opposed to school closures. It's just a battle won, not the war.
Trustees will eventually have to make a decision on these schools, although there are already indications that it might be the next board of trustees, not this one (there are municipal elections in 2010).
The problem with school closures is that trustees seem to look at the issue with dollar signs in mind. They have a budget to meet, as deficits are forbidden.
But students and parents look at it from an emotional point of view. They don't want to lose their school. Students get displaced, relationships are affected, not only with other students, but with teachers, as well.

Again, the Examiner is simply joining the board in looking for an easy scapegoat. It does ask, later in the editorial, why there doesn't appear to be funding available. If it scratched the surface, it might be able to answer that question. Passing off trustees' inability to pull the trigger and fire off any decision in this review as due to a lack of money shirks them of the responsibility they have to all of their high school students in northwest Simcoe County. A responsibility to have those students learning in the best possible spaces in the best possible places.
The next board of trustees will be no better prepared to settle this question than this group is. However maybe, just maybe, they won't be afraid to make that decision.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

G&M on full-day kindergarten

Adam Radwanski's piece in Monday's Globe and Mail touched on the options at the McGuinty government's feet when it comes to implementing full-day kindergarten in Ontario. The first phase of this implementation is set for September 2010, about a year before the next provincial election campaign begins in the fall of 2011. From the piece:

At some point, the government will need to ramp up its spending commitment, or else some of today's toddlers may have children of their own before their schools have been expanded. But for future generations, a gradual phase-in may prove a blessing, since there is a strong element of trial-by-error to all this. Over the next few years, officials will be taking notes on everything from cost containment to curriculum to the allocation of human resources, and attempting to learn from their mistakes - of which, given the scramble to be ready for next year, there will probably be a good number.
Equally uncertain, until the phase-in has begun, will be the ripple effects. A particular concern among government officials is what effect full-day learning will have on private daycare services. If most of the four- and five-year-olds in an area are pulled out, will some of those centres be forced out of business, leaving children three and under stranded?
Ontario is entering uncharted territory with early childhood plans that will likely prove more ambitious than any that Canada has yet seen at a provincewide level. The slow pace won't thrill parents of children who will be too old to take advantage of the new services by the time they reach their areas. But over the next few years, Mr. McGuinty's government will be learning as much from its new education programs as the children enrolled in them.
He hits the nail on the head with some of his comments in regards to how this whole thing is going to be rolled out. While there was general commitment to fully implement Pascal's recommendations, the dollars being allocated will push that into the middle or end of the next decade, providing the government of the day remains supportive.
The impression I got from Pascal earlier this year was that he's OK with a staged, careful and possibly 'messy' implementation of his recommendations. Trial and error, etc., and constant re-evaluation will ensure the end goal remains in sight and can be reached eventually. It's more important to get it right than to rush towards it just to say it's been done.
H/T to Malkin over at the SQE blog.

Niagara launches PFLCs

The Standard's Tiffany Mayer (recent recipient of a farm writers' award-- kudos from a former ag reporter) had this posted Monday in regards to the District School Board of Niagara's first Parent and Family Literacy Centre. PFLCs have been around for a while in Toronto, and the Ministry of Education has been expanding the concept across the province in stages. My district opened four of them in the last school year.
The Lincoln Centennial Parenting and Family Literacy Centre is one of four centres the District School Board of Niagara opened throughout the region this school year.
The purpose is to give children from infancy to six years old a head start in learning through play in a “real, feel good type of place,” said Wendy Faragalli, manager/co-ordinator of the centres.
There are also resources and a lending library for parents, stocked with books in different languages to cater to Niagara’s diverse population.
Faragalli said such centres have existed in Toronto for the past 20 years. A $372,000 grant from the Ministry of Education enabled to concept to spread to Niagara.
“We always talk about parents as partners” Faragalli said. “The DSBN has always said that we’re partners in education. Here’s our chance to do that.”
Not only do children learn colours, shapes, numbers and have access to activities they wouldn’t at home, they get used to school long before their first official day, thanks to some of the more structured activities, such as a reading circle.

The centres were also mentioned as a best practice in the Pascal report earlier this year, an example of community early years use in a school setting that provides resources to families of young children that assist in their development. Together with the hubs described in his report and full-day learning these help build a continuum of early years education and resources. They also help with school readiness, and often the more prepared a child is for that first day of JK, the better their chances of doing well in later assessments.

EQAO bulletin

In earlier posts, I've referred to the Education Quality and Accountability Office getting better at putting out information to demystify what it does. I received the latest example of this earlier today, the agency's online newsletter. There are some very agency things in this edition, such as messages from EQAO staff, etc.
However, there is also a "how would you score this" portion that I found fascinating.


It then provides the rubrick that would have been used by the markers to assess this open-response answer and assign it the relevant code. Each code also contains an example of an open response from the same section of the assessment that was scored at that level. For example, this fellow/gal likely wouldn't earn top marks (given the errors in conventions and some awkward sentences).
So, how would you score this?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bluewater update #10

Owen Sound Sun Times posted this Saturday on things that are coming to some conclusion at the Bluewater District School Board. The meetings have been held, now there is going to be a wider opportunity for more public input through phone surveys.

“I think if the (BWDSB) can work through some of the recommendations they will be well on the way to putting things right,” said (consultant Geoff) Williams.
“But my report is only one source of recommendations to them. They also have to be listening carefully to the material that comes to them in various other forms . . . and using everything to move forward effectively.”
Williams focused largely on practices and policies at the BWDSB that could be done differently, including holding bi-monthly evening meetings instead of monthly daytime meetings.
He also suggests the director of education’s performance review should be done on an ongoing basis and not as an annual event. Director Mary Anne Alton has yet to have her performance review for this year.
Readers here and over at MendEd will remember this story started almost at this point last year-- although didn't publicly erupt until the local MP's critical letter of the board was published in the Sun Times at the beginning of the year. So far, it's been revealed superintendents at the board plagiarized something they co-authored, parents felt left out of a decision to change intermediate instruction away from a rotary system and other similar complaints against the board of trustees and its most senior staff members. It's led to the resignation of one trustee who was chair at the turn of the year, along with the appointment of two "fix-it" consultants and the involvement of Peggy Sattler, a Thames Valley District School Board London trustee and past-chair who works for a communications consulting and research company.
With all the angst over the public-interest regulations in Bill 177 and the already royal-assented Bill 78, the thought occurred to me as I typed away here that there's nothing in those controversial measures permitting provincial takeover of a board where there are concerns such as the ones raised at BDSB.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Minutiae update

Just a brief update-- the blog hit its 3,000th visit over the past day.
It's now receiving an average of about 1,000 visits a month, approximately 30 a day, with over 300 unique visitors in the last month alone. Individual page views are a hair over 5,000. For those who weren't already aware, I use both Google Analytics and Sitemeter to track site visits, solely for information purposes.
Thanks for stopping by folks. This is far better than I anticipated when this project began back in March.

NDSS coverage, cont'd, again #3

A Thursday story in the Niagara Advance speaks about a discussion at a Niagara-on-the-Lake committee-of-the-whole meeting this week regarding Niagara District Secondary School.
This is the sort of discussion that perhaps should have come forward earlier, but in this renewed age of municipal-school board loving and the Community Schools Alliance, kudos are deserved for it happening at all.
At Monday’s committee of the whole meeting, Councillor Gary Zalepa Jr. took a different approach from ideas thrown around before.
Instead of seeing the addition of programs to the school to attract students, he said he would like to see something be taken away: a “moth-balled” wing.
The Virgil wing of Niagara District Secondary School (NDSS) has been closed and condemned for many years now and he said council should consider partnering with the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) to lease out that wing to the Town.
“Our administrative offices are bursting at the seams and town officials are working in such crammed spaces that this could definitely be an opportunity to take advantage of that empty space.”
This is exactly the kind of sharing of vacant school space encouraged in the draft policy -- one that school boards and municipalities can create now should the will exist on all sides to do so. The one thing it doesn't speak to however is how this addresses the enrolment at the school. With approximately 250 students, leasing shuttered space doesn't address this challenge, which is part of what prompted the review in the first place.
For a council that voted to screw the board on its preferred location for a new Virgil school (OMB hearing pending) however, it's a promising step.

Busing headaches -- updated

This Welland Tribute article published earlier this week hit very, very close to home. I worked with a local family earlier this year on this exact concern, where the mother was saying the exact same things. Her choice was to enroll her children in a Catholic school, and then in the French immersion program. Her bus time was ridiculously over the board maximum-ride policy.
This fall, I received a few more e-mails from the family indicating the situation hadn't been resolved. Anyway-- in the Welland piece, the issue is minimum busing distances, where the family has actually switched schools (and boards) in order to qualify for busing.
The Catholic board and District School Board of Niagara have a shared bus system and harmonized transportation policies. The cutoff for busing for children in grades 1 to 8 is 1.6 kilometres.
(Tammy) Mott said she believes the distance is too far for her children to walk and she is unable to accompany or drive them to school because of her job.
"I'm a single working mom. I'd have to quit my job."
Her home, near the intersection of Princess and Goderich Sts., is close to the Peace Bridge and the QEW. The route the children would have to take to school sees a lot of traffic and would require her girls to cross some streets without a crossing guard along the way.

The newspaper followed up its coverage with an editorial 'brick' Friday, criticizing the board's decision not to allow an exemption to its 1.8-kilometre busing distance.
The distance itself struck me as odd-- some consortia and boards stagger distances based on age (so a five-year-old doesn't have to walk two kilometres) and have policies to take safety into account. I'm aware of several local schools here where busing is provided so elementary students aren't walking across busy roadways or railway tracks.
What are others hearing about busing in this school year? All boards had to reduce transportation spending by one per cent for this year, and consortia are also coming into place. Any other horror stories out there I haven't come across?
****
The paper updated this story Saturday with some video and information gathered before the mother here pulled her kids and switched them to the public school so they would qualify for busing.
Family and Children's Services of Niagara agrees with mom and supported her position the distance was too far for her daughters to walk.
"Given the proximity of the school and ages of your children, it is not a suitable plan to have the children walk unsupervized," a child protection worker at FACS wrote in response to Mott's email.
"As a parent, it is your obligation to make arrangements for your children's transportation to and from school. Please contact us to confirm the plans in which you make for your children's transportation."
 Mott spins that to mean her kids deserve busing, but I think all F&CS is saying is that it's too far to walk, period. Well, that's not what they're saying.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A different take on EQAO

I spent a good chunk of time this afternoon doing some different data analysis on board-level results released by the Education Quality and Accountability Office. Going back to an earlier post, I wanted to see the Level 2 results, and the change over the five-year period included in the multi-page board reports. This also included a look at the change in Level 3 and 4, "provincial standard" results. The page is embedded below, and linked here.

The chart doesn't publish well embedded as you can see, but the link will take you to the sheet as a webpage over at GoogleDocs.
As I started doing the analysis, it ended up showing in these three boards — the Thames Valley District School Board, the London Catholic District School Board and the Conseil scolaire des ├ęcoles Catholiques du Sud-Ouest — there isn't any significant movement from level to level. Up to a four per cent swing in Level 2 results, but you have to go back and look at Level 1 and Level 3/4 to see where the resulting gain or loss comes from.
I didn't end up doing much with this for my print article on the results given how 'all over the map' this chart is. The attempt, however, was to try and show Level 2 — equivalent to about a 'C' grade — results and how they might change over time. Change at this level is one other way of showing whether a board's particular efforts are leading to any improvements.
If I come back to this, I'll post more.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not the status quo in the Haliburton Highlands

Bancroft This Week ran a story today showing the recommendations of a review of elementary schools, with a recommendation two schools remain open but change organization. One would become an early years / primary division school (JK-3) with the other handling the two communities' junior and intermediate panel students (Gr.4-8).
Their only rules were that they couldn’t keep the status quo, they couldn’t build a new school and they couldn’t move the school board’s boundaries.
In order to increase the number of students – making double, not triple grades – Wilberforce students who would have previously gone to J.D. Hodgson Elementary School in Haliburton for Grades 7 and 8 would stay in Highlands East.
“What that means is that you can have double grades and no more than double grades all the way to Grade 8,” (outgoing Trilliam Lakelands DSB dir of ed Kathy) Verduyn said.
In the end, the three possible scenarios the PARC had to choose from were to use both schools with a different composition, keep Wilberforce open or keep Cardiff open.
The committee made its decision by secret ballot, originally arriving at four votes for both schools while the other four votes were undisclosed. 
Trustees will face the presentation on this recommended option later this year, with a vote on the matter likely early in the new year. Yet another example of how communities have responded to the challenge of accepting recommendations that do not include the status quo, recognizing the need to change their schools' setup for program, organization and staffing benefits.

We're up and reviewing

Two from the Sault Star today on the Algoma District School Board's first meeting of the year, where trustees both struck a new review committee and reviewed preliminary enrolment counts for the 2009-10 school year.
From the review article:
"It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone involved," said Mario Turco, director of education, at the conclusion of the meeting.
"We have been in informal discussions with the school communities about this possibility for about a year now and (Tuesday) we approved going from an informal process to a formal process with meetings, reports and an eventual recommendation."
All schools being analyzed are victims of declining enrollment (sic), he said, and declining enrollment results in fewer programming options.
Manitou Park will be reviewed toward possible closure, and its students accommodated in nearby existing schools for September, 2010.
Schools in Iron Bridge and Spanish will be reviewed for possible closure or a possible change in accommodation status, such as becoming JK through Grade 3 or JK through Grade 6, and its Grade 7 and Grade 8 populations having the option of attending a nearby high school for September, 2010.
Should Iron Bridge be closed, states a report to trustees, parents would have the option of registering their children in Thessalon or Blind River and if Spanish closes, the option could be Blind River or Elliot Lake.
This first review article could be a key one for the Star. Given the geography involved, I would be highly surprised if the paper is able to follow this review committee through its various meetings, likely only returning to cover its final meeting, recommendation and trustee-level presentations and vote. However, spelling out the initial recommendations is important-- particularly under the spirit of guidelines that ask boards to come to the table with everything on the table.
Running this article at the same time as another discussing an increase in enrolment from initial projections could cause confusion and lead to those who've misunderstood the overall picture quoting from this to ask why reviews are needed in the first place. Key part--
(Superintendent Azima) Vezina attributed the surge to the 1,219-student kindergarten population which was an increase of 169 students over projections, including 150 additional JK students and 19 additional SK.
Eight half-day JK classes have been added.
"We continue to experience declining enrollment but at least now it is a slower rate than in recent years," said Mario Turco, director of education, at the conclusion of the meeting. 
What's missing from the piece is what the overall decline is. The projected enrolment was lower than actual, but how many fewer students does the board actually have in this preliminary count versus the 2008-09 school year? That information is needed to put this increase above projected enrolment into the proper context. The ADSB is still a declining enrolment board.

Alliance exec to meet with Simcoe County board

The Barrie Examiner had this Wednesday on a pending meeting between Simcoe County Warden Tony Guergis, Springwater Township mayor (home to Elmvale DSS) and Community Schools Alliance executive member, and the Simcoe County District School Board.
The SCDSB was unable, after several lengthy meetings in June, to reach a decision on the fate of five high schools in northwest Simcoe County that had been part of an almost two-year review. The communities in Midland, Penetanguishene, Elmvale, Stayner and Collingwood await the vote on the fate of secondary school education in a huge swath of the county, hopefully at the end of this month.
In the meantime, Guergis will meet with the board of trustees. From the article:
"With the board of trustees, this will be our first actual discussion about this," said Diane Firman, chairwoman of the Simcoe County District School Board. "This alliance is new to us, (but) our goal is to find the best strategy to help every kid and our municipalities, as well. I think we're on the right path."
Trustees approved a motion in June, accepting Guergis' offer to join forces to meet with Wynne to discuss funding levels for the local school board, which are among the lowest per capita in the province.
Guergis called the funding levels "ridiculous," particularly in a rapidly growing area such as Simcoe County, which covers an area the size of Prince Edward Island.
"This is a fast-growing region with lots of issues," he said. "But our taxes are subsidizing other jurisdictions. Are we getting bang for our buck?"
Firman said board funding levels are below average, but the figures aren't that far out of whack.
"Those numbers are certainly something our staff has been looking into," Firman said. "The difference is not huge, not gazillions of dollars."
Both Guergis and Firman say the public school board and local municipalities have a good working relationship, but the warden wants to see it strengthened.
"There are lots of places they're seeing school boards won't even talk to (municipalities), so we have a good rapport," he said.
Firman said she believes the public school board has a positive relationship with local towns and townships, and the two cities.
"We want to continue that," Firman said, adding the Simcoe County school board's relationship with local municipalities is "absolutely different" than some of the others in the province, which are decidedly strained. 
This is the second such meeting I'm aware of, with an August meeting of Middlesex County attended by Thames Valley District School Board director of education Bill Tucker. So here's what I'm curious about-- what did Simcoe County, or its lower-tier municipalities of Midland, Penetanguishene, Springwater Township, Collingwood and Clearview Township bring to the review other than their participation and criticism? Did they offer to partner with the board, cough up some capital dollars for renovations or leases, etc.? Or did they sit at the table and join the chorus of boos without adding anything to the discussion or the options?
If Guergis' meeting is going to be productive, he should be coming to the table not only with the Alliance's list of desired outcomes, but with something tangible to offer trustees that his municipalities are prepared to do in partnership. Otherwise, all we get is hot air that does nothing to change the realities that led to the northwest Simcoe review in the first place.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Alliance says thanks

Just a quick post— the Community Schools Alliance sent a letter recently to those municipalities who endorsed its summertime resolution to become members. The letter is over on my GoogleDocs. From the letter, authored by Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft:
We took this message directly to Education Minister Wynne during a recent meeting and in response to our concerns, the Minister provided us with a draft policy entitled “Encouraging Facility Partnerships”. While this policy is an important first step in addressing some of our concerns, it falls short of addressing our collective goal of protecting this vital component of our public infrastructure.
As a result, we need your help to encourage the Minister to implement a “smart moratorium” on disputed school closures by passing the attached resolution if you have not already done so.
The goal of the “smart moratorium” is to provide time for the Ministry, school boards and municipalities to work together to develop policies addressing issues such as planning for declining enrolments, a mutually agreed upon Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, a review of funding to rural and small community schools and establishing a working relationship between municipalities and school boards that is transparent and accountable.
The letter then provides a link to the alliance's website, where it has posted its Aug. 17 presentation, in addition to the cover letter and draft policy. See previous posts on those documents and the meeting here, here and here.
Here's what I'm waiting for:
  • A list of municipalities who've signed on and passed the alliance's resolution
  • The alliance's response to the draft policy, posted on its website
  • Details, details, details-- how does it see a redrafted accommodation review process that is 'more inclusive' of municipal wishes? How could a municipality's role change in the review process beyond what it may already be in many existing reviews? Etc.
  • This fall will see the creation of more reviews— how do alliance members intend to participate and proceed?
I doubt I'll ever get a response here, given the alliance frequently reads posts here and forwards them on to others but hasn't replied on the record to posts. Within my newspaper coverage my opportunity to do alliance stories isn't as broad as it may be elsewhere, given municipalities have accepted the disputed school closures here will go ahead regardless of anything they or the alliance might achieve. We're also at least a few months away from any review that would include a municipality that has become a CSA member.

Safe schools?

The start of the new school year has brought with it a series of incidents in and around schools that prompt one to ask why these incidents are happening. What might be leading to this spike in violence in and near schools?
With the start of classes last week, several students were injured in a stabbing at Sir George Ross Secondary School in London. A man is stabbed outside a school in Toronto. This week, two students stabbed behind Bloor Collegiate Institute. Again in London, a school lockdown is initiated at Westminster Secondary School after reports of someone wandering the property with a handgun are received. Even today, reports are received of a man wandering through a Brampton elementary school with a shotgun.
The incidents prompt responses from the constabulary that schools are safe.
"Our schools are safe," (London Police) Chief Murray Faulkner said yesterday.
"But we have to keep in mind that schools are a reflection of a our society and we are seeing more and younger people involved in violence than ever before," Faulkner said. "It's not like the old days when two people have a disagreement and fight and maybe even become friends afterwards. Now there's a group mentality that kicks in where all the friends get involved. That then heightens the violence and the chance for more severe injuries."
The LPS is one of many that has school-based community resource officers, whose appearance in and of itself has drawn coverage and concern over the safety of schools, and in the linked example, whether their presence is the most appropriate option.
Are these incidents coincidental? Or are the symptomatic of a changing demographic? Or are school-based incidents simply being reported more frequently in the media than in the past?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Quick, create 100 more high school students!

News from the Standard posted Friday showing Niagara District Secondary School is still 100 pupils short of a 350-pupil goal set by trustees in the spring of 2008. If the goal isn't met by the Oct. 31 Ministry of Education count date, the original motion called for NDSS to close at the end of this school year.
The goal is business as usual.
“Obviously, we’re working towards that end,” Cockburn said. “We want the kids to have an extremely good year and the staff likewise. Everybody’s energized.”
Meanwhile, supporters are trying to come up with ways to give the school a reprieve.
Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs said he’s trying to meet with the director of the school board and chair of the board to introduce the town’s new CAO and find out what they have to say about NDSS.
He said he wants an extension to the Oct. 31 dealine.
The decision by District School Board of Niagara was a unique one when it came down just over 18 months ago. The community presented all of its rationale for why NDSS is a superior learning environment and could be even better with more students if the community and the school had a chance to do some real recruiting and boost enrolment. In the midst of covering my own review of a 250-pupil high school in a single-school rural community (far more rural and not at all as touristy as NOTL) where advocates had devised a boundary solution that would temporarily alleviate low enrolment, I advocated for similar flexibility in a column published in the early summer of 2008. No one listened to it on the local board, but 16 months later, I'm not that offended given the outcomes in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
NDSS supporters were given that chance-- but the school's enrolment has been hovering around the 250 mark for the 2008-09 and, but by the looks of it, 2009-10 school years. Below the target and the number some in the community said quite confidently they'd reach.
Burroughs told the Standard in 2008 the community would have no problem raising $100,000 a year to give entry scholarships to Grade 9 students-- I don't know if this actually happened, someone please enlighten me. Service clubs pledged their support. An IB program is coming to the school (it may be too late, as the school might close before the first IB credit starts) and even football was seen as a saviour. Friday's article speaks of a team itself too short on players to even compete.
From the same 2008 article, note the following prescient comment:
St. Catharines trustee Dalton Clark wasn't happy with the outcome. Demanding a certain level of enrolment puts the onus on the community, when it is the board's job to make tough decisions, he said. This decision means trustees "don't have to be the bad guys tonight.
"We can all walk away tonight with the crowd cheering us, but what are we putting on that community?"
So, here the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake now lies, with NDSS' enrolment being pretty darn near where its projections said it would be. The petition did nothing, the Community Schools Alliance and its 'smart' moratorium, even with two NOTL civic politicians on the executive committee, hasn't changed NDSS' fate. Not even screwing the school board out of a preferred site for a new Virgil school -- OMB hearing pending -- has changed anything about this outcome whose date is circled on the calendar. There still aren't enough students to meet the 350 target and erase 'last day of classes, ever' off the NDSS June 2010 calendar.
The community has failed in its efforts.
Could they do it with more time? I don't have an answer to that question.
It's one trustees will face this fall, likely, and it will be interesting to see how many remember Clark's words from 2008. Also interesting whether the result -- an extension, if granted -- would produce any different result, or just extend into some unknown future time the same arguments that are happening today.
Maybe someone will be able to turn up that recipe to instantly bake up some 14- to 18-year-olds. A dash of lethargy, a pinch of vanity, a smidgen of youthful exuberance... I know I had that formula around here somewhere. Where did I put it?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Good for some thought-provoking chuckles

This 'Canada Free Press' piece authored by a Manitoban social studies teacher caught the eye on a news alert earlier this week. I think the attempt here is to discredit the work of the government here based on the recent release of EQAO results.
The author criticizes the results, without any explanation as to what the EQAO provincial standard is -- see previous post here for more on that problem. Then, goes on to say:
Even more disappointing was the inadequate response from Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s education minister. In an interview with the Canadian Press, Wynne acknowledged reason for concern. However, she went on to note the Ontario government has measures in place to address the situation. That includes reduced class sizes, more money for math and literacy coaches, and expanded availability of full-day kindergarten. Unfortunately, none of these measures are likely to result in better test scores for students.
He then picks apart each item.
There is indeed research that speaks to smaller class sizes and fuels the debate as to whether or not this is an effective way of improving how much students are able to learn. There were a few quiet proponents of this research when the Primary Class Size initiative was being implemented in the last six years, but most were school board officials who were struggling with the caps on its implementation. I've not seen a parent or student quoted in any media complaining about the class-size reduction.
His critique of coaches is these are redundant in schools that function well. However, not every school does and a coach approach is a way to ensure that officially, a teacher is designated to take on that role. It's also provided additional professional development to these teachers that many may not have had previously or through experience. In schools where that wasn't happening, the coaches make a huge difference.
Lastly, he points to those countries where full-day early childhood learning hasn't produced measurable improvements in student achievement. OK, fine, but it neglects the research conducted by Dr. Fraser Mustard and others since showing early learning does indeed have a significant impact on the development of our youngest citizens, along with its impact on society.
I think politics has again interfered with what could have been a much more rational examination of Wynne's statement and the government's policies.

Circular loving

A link to my recently published column touching on several summertime posts and comments here on this blog. The column was written prior to the start of my nine-day hiatus Aug. 31 and focuses more on the early posts and discussions on the Community Schools Alliance.

Bill 177 / provincial interest consultations

This bubbled up again while on hiatus and earlier this week, a short work week where we were short-staffed, so the ability to give this space some lovin' was compromised. Nonetheless, the media coverage of Bill 177 and the associated public interest regulation consultation which closed Aug. 31 has drawn commentary across the province.
Moira MacDonald wrote about the bill and the regulation consultation at the beginning of the month. The Ottawa Citizen came in a few days later, nicely timed with the start of Ottawa boards' second week of classes, with an article outlining Ottawa-Carleton District School Board chair Lynn Scott's concerns.
From the Citizen piece:
The new regulations will dovetail with Bill 177, introduced quietly last May and expected to get second reading this month.
Observers fear the changes would limit flexibility in the school system and threaten local democracy.
"The whole thing is troubling to many of us," said Lynn Scott, chairwoman of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and a 15-year veteran trustee.
"There are so many aspects of student success that are beyond a board's control. If funding is not sufficient to do certain things, whose fault is that?" she said.
From MacDonald:
Officially, Bill 177 is supposed to clear up the job descriptions for trustees, school boards and set student achievement as school boards' focus. But what the bill really means won't be known until the Liberals release its related regulations -- after the bill passes.
That big unknown is what's making the education sector squeamish.
Thanks to the discussion paper, they already know it will mean the government stepping in and taking over school boards that show "persistent problems relating to student achievement, effective stewardship, and good governance."
Real consequences for poor student achievement? You can see why trustees would be outraged.
School board feedback on the paper was due back to the province yesterday -- one reason boards are mad. They felt the province pulled a fast one by giving them only two months to consult on something with potentially dire consequences for themselves.
Both seem to forget one important facet of the regulation situation. Back in the spring of 2006, then-minister Gerard Kennedy laid the foundation for Bill 177 in Bill 78. It was seen through to Royal Assent by Sandra Pupatello, but this bill was the Liberals' first omnibus tweaking of the Education Act. Attention at the time was easily focused on the amendments Bill 78 made regarding trustee honoraria and student-trustee roles. It also included the New Teacher Induction Program, replacing the much-hated teacher recertification intro'd by the previous Tory government. However, it included a number of clauses allowing the government to set regulations on student achievement.
The Liberals just haven't set those regulations yet. Now, with Bill 177 moving through the Legislature, they've issued the provincial interest regulations. Some of these however, already have the legal authority to be implemented by cabinet thanks to Bill 78. This current bill takes the next step permitted by Bill 78 -- we can set standards for boards regarding student achievement, now we're telling you what the consequences might be for not meeting them.
The summertime consultation... yes, trustee associations have a point in their feedback. The Ontario Public School Trustees Association release and submission (which correctly ID these regs as pertaining to both bills) both speak to what could be conspicuous timing on the province's part. The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association hasn't posted its submission yet, if it indeed prepared one.
As a concluding comment, I'm not a big fan of legislation through regulation. Regs are easier to put into place as they are implemented by the 'Lieutenant-governor in council,' legislative jargon for the provincial cabinet. As such, they're not subject to the more public airing and debate that naturally happens when legislation is created through bills. So the legislature debates bills giving the government the power to then create and set the actual rules at the cabinet table.
Works great when cabinet's priorities are aligned with broad public opinion. Doesn't work so well when the cabinet's wishes run contrary to what people want or what actually works best.

Bluewater update #9

It's been a while since there was one of these, but some interesting information has come out in the past few days. First, Owen Sound reported a few days ago the Bluewater District School Board would take no further action against two staff members -- Alana Murray and Jean Stephenson -- despite a ruling from the Ontario College of Teachers' disciplinary committee.
Copies of the college's decisions previously obtained by The Sun Times said superintendent Alana Murray was to be admonished in writing by the college for "failing to acknowledge or attribute where the information was obtained to support an article associated with her that was published in the Nov. 2008 issue of Make it Your Business," a local chamber of commerce publication.
Superintendent Jean Stephenson, credited as co-author of the article, was to receive a caution in writing from the college "to exercise good judgment in all circumstances and is reminded that teachers are significant role models in our society."
The college said it was up to the board to decide if either woman should have stepped down.
This was followed up in the paper with a piece with the reaction of the original complainant, Peter Ferguson, who, no surprise, is disgusted the board is not disciplining its superintendents in any meaningful way.
According to board chairwoman Jennifer Yenssen, the trustees decided not to pursue any further action based on legal advice and the fact that the college didn’t recommend the matters go before a disciplinary committee.
“The college could have taken further action if they deemed it necessary, but they didn’t,” said Yenssen.
“Basically we interpret what happened to them as a warning. We now want to move forward realizing that plagiarism is a very serious issue.”
Yenssen added the trustees consider the college ruling to be a “dismissal” because it didn’t go before a disciplinary committee, despite the fact that both Murray and Stephenson were admonished and cautioned, respectively.
The trustees will now begin the process of developing a board-wide plagiarism policy that will also apply to Bluewater staff members. Currently, each school has a individual plagiarism policy that applies to students.
This has, again no surprise, drawn suitable reaction from the online community over at MendEd. It also provides another snapshot of the reasons why this board is in a quagmire -- having seen one trustee chair resign, a pair of fix-its appointed by the Ministry of Education, two mediated public sessions, the hiring of a communications officer and a report pending on Sept. 22. From how the board handled rotary instruction in the intermediate grades to this latest peek at staff members' inappropriate behaviour, the public's view into this board keeps getting better.
Especially since, apparently, the director of education and trustees at the BDSB believe it's OK to have their senior administrators -- supervisors and mentors to principals and those who set the tone for professional practice and instruction in all the board's schools -- plagiarize the work of others. In Bruce and Grey counties' public schools, employees are allowed to lie and pass off another's property as their own, and receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a wagging finger saying "you should have known better, don't do it again."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Back to school

Ramping up from a refreshing nine-day hiatus, where I withdrew from posting here but was keeping an eye on various news alerts, etc.
For many across the province, this is the second week of classes. For the rest, today is the first day. First-day coverage is always an interesting read, though I delighted in reading the headlines noting absenteeism from those schools with a pre-Labour Day weekend start was relatively low. Simply another change that people dealt with.
Noted with interest today a series the London Free Press has started on the cost of school, speaking to all the little extras that families chip in for throughout the regular school year. I'm envious of the idea, which I won't replicate given our mutual coverage area, however-- I will note there has been some previous local reporting on school spending in Owen Sound this summer, here and here.
The first Free Press article is here and reporter Kelly Pedro is looking for a family she can follow throughout the school year, chronicling its school spending. Obviously, a family within the Freeps' coverage area (preferably London), which includes Oxford, Elgin, Middlesex, Perth, Huron and even a bit of Bruce counties.