Friday, October 29, 2010

Anti-closure backlash pending?

With this week's (neglected) trustee elections, I've been thinking about whether Ontario will see any sort of dramatic shift on school closures. Moira MacDonald pointed to it in her coverage of the races earlier this week, noting the Toronto District School Board's newer and reelected trustees have the drive to keep putting off the board's accommodation and capacity issues.
Following the candidates who were running in my district (meaning the one I voted in and would have been reporting on were I not on this fellowship), I didn't get the sense that the 'anti-closure' candidates won. They didn't in my ward-- the one public and one Catholic candidates running on more or less of an anti-closure platform weren't elected. Of three trustee spots, two went to longtime incumbents and one went to a newbie, who has never to my knowledge campaigned against school closures.
Within the City of London (same educational district as where I voted), all six incumbent public trustees were reelected on Monday, despite some bitter battles in some city neighbourhoods over the school closures there. Further, the board will look to strike more school-closure reviews within the city proper in this next term than it has in the last three years. In the Catholic board there are many new faces, but it's due to retirements not school-closure related issues.
I haven't looked into the Simcoe County boards, but trustees in the public board put off a heated decision on five high schools in the county's northwest for the new term of trustees and I'd be curious if this was any sort of a defining issue in the campaign.
A comment earlier this week pointed to a belief that school closures would just stop some time in the next year as the Liberal government doesn't want an election campaign while trustees are voting to close more schools. I don't buy it. Here's why:
  • School-aged populations outside of the GTA continue to drop
  • The government isn't about to do an about-face and start funding renovations and technology upgrates at schools with small populations
  • I don't see the Liberals going easy on many boards (OK, perhaps a few) when it comes to budgets, and will force them to consolidate and then use 'savings' to cover FDK expenses.
As it was in the last term, I suspect many eyes will be trained on the Toronto boards. That's how it should be since the TDSB has largely avoided the world that every other Ontario board has been living in for the past term. Despite Monday's election or perhaps in spite of it, these issues are not going away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Puzzled by TCDSB results

Given what the current term has produced, I was wholeheartedly surprised at the trustee results for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Catholic voters in T.O. returned a surprisingly high number of incumbents to this board, neutered partway into this term when it refused to pass a balanced budget. That refusal spawned a series of conflict-of-interest court cases, which removed two trustees from office and embroiled at least one more trustee. One of the trustees, booted from office this summer by the court but allowed to keep her candidacy, was reelected to the board.
The T.O. media take? I thought the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald had the best take.
Toronto Catholic school board voters chose name recognition and old loyalties over a clean slate, returning six out of eight incumbents running for re-election at the scandal-plagued school board.
“It looks like the Catholic voters of Toronto are in a forgiving mood,” said Robert Dixon, a member of Catholics United for a Responsible Ballot.
The group had worked during the election campaign to get Catholics out to vote and deliver a clean slate at the board.
“As far as CURB is concerned, we’ll certainly be watching them and holding them to account.”
Six incumbents were returned: Angela Kennedy (Ward 11) who was dispatched from her seat by a judge in August in a conflict-of-interest case; Sal Piccininni (Ward 3) who had the highest expense spending of any trustee in a provincially ordered audit, Ann Andrachuk (Ward 2), John Del Grande (Ward 7), Barbara Poplawski (Ward 10) recently exonerated in a conflict-of-interest case, and Maria Rizzo (Ward 5). Apart from Rizzo — who faced a tough fight from Paul Oulahen — all won handily.
Two incumbents went down: Joseph Martino (Ward 1) and Catherine LeBlanc-Miller (Ward 9), the former board chairman who, while admitting she had not been blameless in the board’s problems, had also asked the provincial government and the police to get to the bottom of trustee expense misdeeds. 
The Globe and Mail and the Star also had their takes, but they were smaller in print and largely overshadowed by the municipal coverage. I liked the play, though well back into the paper, the Sun gave MacDonald-- but that's my bias that school board results should get almost-equivalent

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Did the election impact the schools' alliance?

OK. You can't take the newsroom out of the journalist even when you take the journalist out of the newsroom. First election campaign since becoming a journalist that I haven't covered, and sitting on the sidelines tonight was very different.
At this point in the night, I'm left wondering what will happen to those municipal politicos who so eagerly signed up for the Community Schools Alliance two summers ago.
Just out of curiosity, I went looking for results for the Alliance's executive committee.
  • Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft was acclaimed.
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs ran for Niagara Region council and won.
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake Coun. Jim Collard kept his seat.
  • Malahide Mayor John R. Wilson lost.
  • No idea if Hastings Highlands Mayor Ron Emond ran, was elected or not (nothing election related online at township website)
  • Cobalt Coun. Doug Shearer did not run again.
  • Greenstone Mayor Michael Power did not run again.
  • Springwater Mayor Tony Guergis lost.
  • Guelph/Eramosa Mayor Chris White kept his seat.
  • Burlington Mayor Cam Jackson lost.
Only four (perhaps five) of the current Alliance executive members, if they can be called current, were reelected Monday night for the pending municipal term. While I seriously doubt school closures played any part in municipal council elections, does it throw a knife into the back of what's been a pretty tepid Alliance lately?
Reycraft was happier than heck in September as Middlesex signed an agreement with the Thames Valley DSB stating the board would basically do what it did the last time (sort of) and also follow provincial guidelines. See a post about that here. But the website, while updated since my last visit several months ago to include a map (outdated) of municipalities and the September agreement stuff, still has precious little info.
I highly suspect that given the agreement Reycraft now has and those who won't be around come the end of November that the Alliance will slowly wither. That is, as I've already predicted, until the next school-closure review decision by trustees goes against what Reycraft and like-minded munipols want and then they'll be back on the warpath.

Monday, October 25, 2010

History battles

Though my last fellowship update really centred on the "Issues in numeracy and literacy," I didn't want to take away from the fun I've been having in my other course, "Battles over history education."
It's a master's level seminar with only four people (myself included). This past week (Oct. 19) was probably some of our best discussion this term. Our readings, heavy on the Peter Seixas, concentrated on how to bridge the gap between the changes that have happened in the study of history -- I kept calling them "academic historians" -- and those who first teach history to us as students. We've been reading a lot about the history wars in Canada and elsewhere, where on one side you have those who argue for teaching history as part of a national narrative, a set of dates, places, people and events from the past that help define a collective identity. On the other, those who hold the historical process as what should be emphasized-- the ability to research and study primary and secondary source documents, analyse them and then draw conclusions from that analysis that are supported by your evidence. For example, as this class is the class I'm auditing where I have to "complete all the course requirements," on Oct. 12 I led a good portion of the evening's seminar and then had to write an eight-page paper (yikes, it's been a while since I did that) that analysed and critiqued the night's readings. Why, I'm currently stalling on reading this week's assigned readings as I type this post on the very debate.
It's largely a debate that seems to have taken place among Master's and Ph.D's in history, with little input from the very people who are tasked with first teaching history to students. It's an interesting paradox (if that's the best term), where academics complain about the quality of students and how those students have been taught, but don't -- on a large enough scale -- really contribute much towards improving the very instruction they lament. If history teachers in public and secondary schools are the ones that build the foundation upon which we find ensuing generations of historians, then why are they, in many cases, being left out of this discussion? Are they? I've had the privilege of meeting some top-rate high school history teachers, but I don't know if many of them would tackle this sort of existential debate over how they inspire learning about history and historical thinking in their students. This is where our last discussion went as each of us wondered where the emphasis should be placed to improve historical knowledge and thinking.
I must admit, as I have to the instructor, the readings in this course are sometimes, um, dense (poorly written?) -- ex:
Ironically, less than twenty-five years ago, the historian Pierre Nora asserted that the function of the science of history -- and therefore of the historian -- was not to collect memories but to protect people against them through the application of 'instructive reason,' that is, through the analytical and critical activity of the historian, debunker of myth and of all other obstacles to our proper understanding of reality. (Laville, Christian (2004) "Historical consciousness and historical education: What to expect from the first for the second," in Seixas, ed. Theorizing Historical Consciousness, University of Toronto Press, p. 172)
They make my brain hurt. But every week I leave the seminar with my brain abuzz, oft-neglected neurons firing away with the week's discussions. Then I realize-- this is what I came here for. This is the stimulation those neurons don't often get in the day-to-day rhythms of my work. This is what makes it worth it all.

Think of the neglected, the forgotten

As I type this there remains about 80 minutes until the polls close across the province for municipal and school board elections. We've been inundated in the past week (or perhaps just myself) with the pros and cons of electing certain people as mayor (of Toronto) or not.
Forgotten, relegated to maybe a few articles since the close of nominations on Sept. 10 are the votes for trustee. I think, with some wide gaps in my media monitoring this past month, I read maybe a handful of articles on trustee races in Toronto-- with a good half of them written by the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald. I know the Star and Globe have touched on local trustees, and through news alerts from my own chain I see that trustees have gotten fairly decent coverage (meaning they got any at all).
Education is the second-largest provincial budget item after health care. While how much of that money is spent is dictated at Queen's Park, your local trustee(s) can still make or break the culture within your local public schools in how they administer those dollars. Dollars that make up between an tenth and a third (depending on where you live in Ontario) of the same bill you pay when you fork over your property taxes for municipal services.
And I won't accept continued moaning over Bill 177 -- given the legacy of 1996's Bill 160 and other related legislation at the time and other bills passed by the Liberals, school boards are now governed like businesses. Where the elected members of the board set policy and pass budgets, leaving the implementation of that policy and budget to the one person who trustees directly hire and supervise (the director of education). This can still be an accountable system for trustees who are able to understand it and work within this structure.
So, I hope we get the school boards we want for the next four years. I certainly put enough thought into my vote (back home in Ingersoll) when I cast it late last week.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oh, boys

It's our time to lead, a redesigned Globe and Mail has been telling us since Oct. 1, laying out eight themes where it's arguing Canada needs to be a leader. Week three's theme? Boys. Specifically, how Canada is failing its boys. Though the series is only two days in, I have some thoughts.
First, anyone writing, knowing, etc. about education and children's issues knows this concern isn't new. It's been around for years now, to the point there's a smorgasbord of data to validate how boys are doing less well in school and in life in their earliest years. I'm not trying to suggest the Globe is late to the party on this point, as even it admits this concern has some history to it.
The Time to Lead series appears to be fashioned on the newspaper (as an institution, not the tactile paper itself) as an active member of society, as an advocate pushing for improvement in the causes it chooses to support. This is also nothing new as a journalistic concept, but the Globe holds a prominence among the groups of Canadian society who are actually poised in positions to effect change. For a paper that claims to set the political agenda (I don't doubt this on certain levels), the Time to Lead series is a bold move. Will people (the Globe's people, really) care about these eight themes?
To bring it back to boys, will we care enough when shown the data? By pointing fingers to the five top reasons the Globe says boys are falling behind? By the live chats (some of which I wish I was able to sit in on in what's shaping up to be a busy week) with the lead reporter and various others?
It's drawn me in at any rate, to the point I'll be reading the rest of the week to see where the Globe takes this topic.

ETFO platform ready

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has released a 28-page document, it's platform for the 2011 provincial election that lies at our feet-- once the current municipal election is complete next Monday.
Here's its summary of recommendations:
  • Establish a two-year moratorium on EQAO testing to allow for public consultations on the uses, value, and impact of the current provincial testing regime.
  • Consider adopting a random sample model to measure the appropriateness of the curriculum and the effectiveness of teaching strategies.
  • Place more emphasis on the role of ongoing teacher assessment of student progress.
  • Establish more balance between literacy and numeracy and other subjects including science, social studies, the arts, and physical and health education.
  • Increase the elementary foundation grant (EFG) to provide all elementary schools with specialist teachers in the arts, and health and physical education.
  • Increase the EFG to provide all grade 7 and 8 students with access to design and technology programs.
  • Increase the EFG to provide at least one qualified teacher-librarian per elementary school.
  • Increase the EFG to provide at least one qualified guidance counsellor per elementary school.
  • Reduce the number of prescribed student outcomes and identify, instead, a set of core learning goals.
  • Provide all elementary classrooms with resources that support hands-on, experiential learning.
  • Extend the benefits of smaller classes to grades 4 to 8.
  • Reduce the average class size of the full-day early learning kindergarten program to align with other primary grades.
  • Establish a process to better track class size and maintain class size targets throughout the school year.
  • Base the special education grants on the educational needs of students.
  • Increase the funding allocation for educational assistants, counsellors, and child and youth workers.
  • Revise the English as a second language (ESL) grants to more accurately reflect the number of students who don’t speak English when they enrol at school.
  • Revise the ESL grants to increase the capacity of schools to extend ESL programs to students who need the support beyond four years.
  • Provide classroom resources to support the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.
  • Provide professional learning that addresses discrimination and oppression of marginalized students.
  • Provide specific compensatory grants for schools in disadvantaged communities to support additional learning materials, field trips, and in-school arts programs.
  • Reaffirm the provincial plan to reduce child and family poverty by 25 percent by 2013.
  • Mandate school boards to provide child care services before and after school and during school breaks.
  • Where space is available, use schools to establish community hubs.
It's an interesting list -- many of the items could be reduced to asking for more money for programs or positions that ultimately benefit ETFO members. There's nothing innately wrong with that since ETFO is ETFO so it can advocate for its members. Readers here will already know I'm not often convinced by student-first veneers painted on federation tactics as really, a union's first job is to advocate for its memebrs, the people who after all pay the bills. There are some good suggestion in there however, which shouldn't just be dismissed because the federation is the one suggesting them.
With party platforms still a few months away at best -- I wouldn't expect the first one to come out until the spring of 2011, so we can spend the summer getting tired of them -- I'm curious to see what the reaction to this document is. Will it land with a thud that no one hears? Should it?
ETFO also appears to be first out of the gate on this-- a quick scan of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association shows no similar document.

Do unions really control school boards?

The folks at the Society for Quality Education posted two items Thursday and Friday, cumulatively questioning whether union endorsement and donations to the campaigns of trustee candidates means those unions end up controlling school boards. From the Friday piece:
Because the average voter is hard-pressed to be well informed about all of the electoral races and issues - mayor, local councillor, regional councillor, referenda, school board trustees - many teachers gratefully accept their union’s recommendations and vote the party line. While lots of people mark their ballot only for mayor and maybe councillor, leaving the school trustee part at the bottom of the ballot blank, most teachers do get all the way down the page and vote for the trustees too. And of course, many retired educators run for office, increasing the chances that their former colleagues will make the effort to vote for them: this is reflected in the fact that a higher percentage of teachers vote in elections than most other occupations. All in all, it’s safe to say that education providers are well represented at the polls.
SQE beleives it's safe to say that these endorsements lead to trustees' successful runs for office being on the backs of the teachers whose very unions endorsed them. It's an interesting extension of logic, but I'm not there yet. Do I believe more teachers vote than other occupations? Probably. Do I believe they all vote for the union-endorsed candidate(s)? I'd hope teachers are better at critically evaluating candidates, regardless of any endorsements. Given those doubts, I wouldn't attempt to say teachers elect trustees who are friendliest to their own interests.
If I extend what I understand to be SQE's logic, does that mean there are council candidates out there in municipalities who owe their elections to police and firefighter associations? Both types of unions also have a very long history of endorsing candidates and making campaign donations to those candidates friendliest to their interests. Given councillors and mayors provide direction for firefighter bargaining (the little that doesn't seem to be settled by private-sector arbitration) and also sit on police service boards that set police budgets, shouldn't we be as outraged over that as SQE is trying to make us over teachers' union endorsements?
Further, so much of the collective agreements (dollars, scales, broader working conditions) are now being negotiated at provincial discussion tables that this only dilutes any one trustee's impact on one particular contract. SQE points out that trustees sit on the management side of the table at negotiations. While technically true, I'm not aware of boards where trustees attend these sessions-- rather they provide direction to their director of education, who then bargains based on that direction.
Despite diverging on opinion (again) with SQE, I would note it's once again using publicly available data to make a point. If you agree or not with their concern, you should be aware that all municipal / school board election candidates must by law declare their expenses and any donations over $100 (I believe, it's been awhile since I looked at the limit) to the municipal clerk. The clerk must then make these results public. I believe the timing is around the end of March or some time in April following a municipal election, so if your interest has been peaked, drop by your township/town/city hall and take a peek.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guilt by association?

A former blogger sent me this link on the weekend, encouraging me to look into it.
It's a blog setup in opposition to Halton Catholic District School Board trustee (and chair) Bob Van de Vrande's run in this month's municipal election to keep his seat.
The anonymous, unknown blogger seems to take issue with the fact Van de Vrande is running to keep his job as a Catholic trustee when the real estate brokerage he runs has a fundraising arrangement with a local private school, one his school-aged son happens to attend.
There is also information on several charities that Van de Vrande is linked to. The blogger is trying to get readers to connect the dots between two charities, Van de Vrande and contact information for one charity with a phone number that traces back to Van de Vrande's residence.
I'd be more inclined to ask Van de Vrande about the second portion of this blog than I would the first, but that's me. The links are above and on the other blog for those with an interest in spelunking.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Forcing their doors open

This one`s at least a week old, but I wanted to write about it here because open-access and open government is one of my pet projects as a journalist. Though it`s not being maintained while I`m on fellowship, the "Open your doors, Oxford" section of my newspaper's political blog is a good example of some of the work I've done trying to educate people on why they should care about when their councils meet behind closed doors.
The Record was the newspaper excluded from covering a Waterloo Region District School Board committee meeting on Oct. 4. Two days later, it published the article linked above with the director of education and chair's apology to the Record and reporter Luisa D'Amato for kicking her out of the meeting.
“There was no malice, and I really regret that it happened,” Waterloo Region District School Board chair Mike Ramsay said Tuesday.
The meeting at issue was Monday’s agenda development committee, which was deciding when to hear a motion about school bus service for 400 students.
The Record was interested in the meeting because families were anxious to make their case to trustees as soon as possible. There were, however, some concerns that the motion would not be considered high priority and would not be heard by trustees promptly.
On Monday, the Record was denied access to the meeting. Ramsay, who also chairs the committee, had said it was a “management meeting.” Education director Linda Fabi had said that the meetings of this particular committee are not open to the public, and the board has always done its business this way.
I'm curious as to what kind of reaction this has drawn among the chattering classes in the Region of Waterloo. D'Amato explained in the article that much like municipalities, school boards and all their committees are bound by (in this case) the Education Act's section on closed-door meetings. I suspect that like at the WRDSB, boards have a tradition of being very unaware of this. Already struggling to attract any sort of public crowd on a good night to regular board meetings, it's no surprise to me that many committee meetings attract nothing but staff members and/or trustees. That doesn't mean they're closed to the public, as this board had assumed.
I rallied against the continual abuse of closed-door provisions in the district board that I cover, given they'd built a provision into their bylaws (one that contravened the act, by my read) -- Sec. 5.19 on page 11 -- that allows for closed-door "focus groups." The board was holding an average of two of these a year until halfway through this term. As much as I would write about them, no one cared. Which only made my blood boil even more, since these focus groups were being called to discuss things like the budget, school accommodation and other issues where there was actually a public interest.
When I polled trustees, one replied he didn't want the public to see the trustees' "family feud," and that certain trustees wanted a smaller setting to express their views. My reply was that elected office is a challenging responsibility-- if a trustee couldn't respectfully state their opinion and disagree during the discussion of a certain issue then it should cause that person to question why they're an elected official.
Anyway, kudos to the Record for pushing back and getting the apology.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Massey update

It's been a while since I posted about life here at Massey College, so I thought it apropos for a few quick thoughts.
It looks as though this term I'm settled into two courses-- The Battles over History Education and Issues in Literacy and Numeracy -- both at OISE. Some recent attempts to join some interesting courses elsewhere are being met with either erroneous information / incorrect time tables or, in one case, a professor who perhaps rightly stated I shouldn't have waited until week five of a 12-week term.
I am adoring the two courses I'm auditing, and perhaps auditing them with enough vigour (OK, that does sound odd) that any person watching over my shoulder at the college won't get too pissy.
Battles over History Education has become a weekly conversation on why we should be teaching history in schools. Guided by our readings every week (including reading a whole book in a week for this past week's seminar -- what the professor would call a "graduate-level" pace), we hash out what each has to say about why history should be taught in schools and how it should be taught. I've left class on a couple of occasions with my brain just bursting, but have come to realize that's why I'm here. I want my brain to hurt a little (I certainly don't have the academic reading-retention skills I may once have attained) because the reality of my newsroom life right now is that it doesn't get challenged in this manner.
The six-week numeracy section of the literacy and numeracy course has simply been devine. A good portion of this is the professor -- who instructs the class in such a manner I wish I'd had this prof throughout all of my math courses and my entire B.Journ. program. Each Wednesday morning, she keeps pushing this group of teacher candidates to forget all the bad ways we've been taught math and learn how to teach math in a way that keeps students involved and creates / continues a collaborative, conversational culture in classrooms.
Both of these courses are feeding my policy wonk / article I will write before leaving journalism desire to gain a better understanding of what we're teaching our teachers and even providing a tentative first few steps towards evaluating whether we're doing it well.
In the meantime, the journalism program components are just flying by. We've already organized and hosted two lunchtime seminars -- with Mozilla Foundation's Matt Thompson last week and Charles Pascal this week -- and have guests confirmed until the last week of this term and several weeks into the next term. I've volunteered to be the point-person in the group as we organize and liaise with the German consulate for what will undoubtedly be a very fast-paced trip to Berlin from Dec. 5-11.
College life has continued to be superb. The founders of this college and those who have guided it since have created a wonderful environment for interdisciplinary exchange at all levels. I've pretty much decided that should I ever decide to pursue graduate-level education, I will be taking a serious look at the programs here at the U of T and applying to be a fellow at Massey College.

Saddened by Superman

I've just returned from a screening of "Waiting for Superman," the U.S. documentary on public schooling in that country.
I left the movie feeling very sad. Perhaps it was an effective play on my emotions, but I was just floored by how schooling isn't fair-- a prospect this documentary thrusts into the spotlight as it wedges its way into the never-ending discussion on school reform. Prior to heading out to see it this evening, I had read the reaction from People for Education, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (or its former dean, anyway) and others as covered (mostly) by the Toronto Star.
Being of a certain mind, I wanted to go see the movie for myself rather than rely on the different voices that had spoken out about the movie, such as the groups above (PFE has a 'Superman' page, the Society for Quality Education has also entered the fray).
The documentary does an effective job of painting (admittedly with some broad strokes) the challenges facing the American system of public schools. Despite some of its most pointed criticism, I didn`t walk away from the film with a distaste for teachers`unions (no more than I may already have, anyway) and didn`t feel it was really that harsh towards them. It was equally harsh to the bureaucratic status quo (schools upon districts upon states upon federal) as it was about teacher tenure and a laughable teacher evaluation.
I cringed at the denouement (spoiler alert), watching Bianca as she and her mom missed out on the Harlem School lottery. In 20 seconds, that six-year-old child`s face showed her reaction and acceptance that she`d lost her last shot at having a better life than her mother. The last frames of this child show only acceptance that she, at that age, already knows she won`t get a competent education and ultimately do better. The producers are hoping that sense of hopelessness inspires change, but with battle lines so entrenched I cannot say they might be successful. This debate in the U.S., and to some extents here in Canada, has moved beyond a reasoned conversation and become a shouting match.
That any child, particularly one at that age, should have to realize they are done, educationally, is sad, no matter where it happens. I`m not that naive to think children and families don`t reach the same horrid conclusion on this side of the border, but I`d like to think it happens far less often.
Having said all that, I don`t think this is a carte-blanche endorsement of the charter-school movement. Though I have not delved into the mounds of research that are likely available, my fundamental problem with charter schools is the significant barriers to entry. I have also seen precious little attempts at taking the things that are working in the best charter schools (in and of themselves a minority of all charters) and doing system-wide reform. I have seen how some of the things Ontario has chosen to adopt from the reform movement (ex: teacher advisers / student success teachers) have been implemented system-wide. The untold story of the ministry Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat has had a more positive than negative influence on changing how core subjects are being taught in our schools.
I would agree with the film more than Annie Kidder on the role schools play in society for the underprivileged and improverished. The film stance is that bad schools contribute and are perhaps a foundational reason for why we fail those who are at the bottom in our world. Kidder says:
The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families.
She goes onto say strong teachers, strong schools are an essential part of that, but it leaves me straining for that vision of the integrated approach that I know Kidder supports because she has spoken about it in the past. I think the reality may be it is easier to move towards that starting with schools. Improve them and then the rest of the supports will follow or, at least, find an amenable home as they are being implemented.
It also gave me another opportunity to note the disparity between K-12 reporting in this country and that in the U.S. The Education Writers Association has a treasure trove of resources for journalists on this movie and the issues it delves into (*sigh*). I only wish we had any Canadian equivalent for any journalists up here who might have wanted to tackle this.
Lastly, if you have any interest in K-12 education, go see this documentary. Watch, ingest, digest, react. We may not agree this Superman solution is the answer, but we need to be having this conversation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

And so it ends. Or does it?

Saw both news alerts on this Thursday and also got an e-mail or two on it. The Friends of NDSS (Niagara District Secondary School) dropped the judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the high school earlier this year. From the Standard, who have provided the most consistent coverage of this entire saga:
The Friends of NDSS issued a statement saying dropping the legal fight doesn't change the fact they believed they were wronged by the DSBN "in the past several years of neglect that led to the closure of Niagara District Secondary School."
"We had seriously hoped that the DSBN would be accountable to someone — if not the taxpayer and not the ministry, then perhaps the court of law," they stated.
Georgina Keller, a spokeswoman for the group who was named on the application for judicial review, said the battle has been emotional and stressful.
"It's been a long battle, but it's time to move on," she said.
"We will continue to be watchdogs of the DSBN. We've done too much to stop now."
I'm happy the group came to a reasonable conclusion that in its battle to prove it was "right" and the school board was "wrong," that a judicial review wouldn't provide the solace the community was seeking. As I'd opined here previously, that's not what a judicial review is meant to accomplish. The comments at the end of the article indicating the fight isn't over just provide a contradiction to the claim the group is moving on and accepting the school's closure. It confuses me when people participate in a process and then get caustic only after the ensuing decision is made and it's one they disagree with.
But what can we learn from this? Well, given that accommodation reviews are not going to stop anytime soon (unless we all start having many, many more babies and money starts growing on trees to update tired school facilities built 50 years ago), communities need to know what can be done and more importantly, what shouldn't be done.
The decision that led to NDSS' closure stands out for its uniqueness. Faced with a community that said it could grow enrolment at its school, trustees provided an opportunity to do so. Was it too short of a time line? Was it destined to fail? No doubt many would answer yes to both those questions since the school's enrolment didn't reach the target set by trustees. When you don't reach a goal, it's easy to use hindsight to claim the challenge was unfair. Only when it became clear that the enrolment target wasn't going to be reached was the board then faced with a steady stream of last-minute, desperate attempts to keep the inevitable from happening. The application for judicial review illustrated this to a tee-- the main reason the related request for an injunction to the school's closure was turned down was because it was filed two years after the board vote and only heard within weeks of the school's official closing date.
Is your community facing the prospect of a pending school-closure review?
If you're in an English-language school in southern Ontario, ask yourselves whether your elementary school is approaching 100 full-time students or your high school is under 400. If the enrolment trend is heading downwards (looking at five to 10 years of data) and population projections for school-aged children aren't showing any type of increase that could erase the history of decline and provide a stable population, don't wait until the trustee vote to form a review committee. Start meeting with trustees, community groups, your local municipal council, etc. This is the best time for the conversation to begin on how to sustainably grow the population of school-aged children in your community. It's also a great time to see where potential partners might exist to help renew the facility (if this is a concern).
When / if the review gets struck, for the love of a duck, participate. Read the information voraciously, ask plenty of questions. Develop comprehensive alternate recommendations and ensure the committee's ability to receive the requisite data it needs to develop these is not ignored. Don't neglect the board's need to serve all its students, across all its schools in all communities. Your community doesn't have an exclusive hold on good teachers, innovative programs, involved families and the sense of community-- this exists in varying shapes, sizes and flavours in every school. Don't aim for the status quo-- if the status quo was working, the review would never have begun.
Remember the review is not taking a trustee's job away from her/him. It's the board of trustees' responsibility to weigh all the information and recommendations received from its staff members and the committee and make what it determines is the best decision.
If they make a decision you don't agree with and you feel there was an abuse of process, petition for an administrative review. Remember these aren't meant to retry the evidence/recommendations, but to determine whether the board was negligent in its duties to conduct a public process and receive public input through the committee and subsequent public presentations.
As NDSS learned, timing is of the essence. I have no doubt, as stated in the article, that if the judicial review and application for an injunction had been launched in 2008 and not in 2010, the justice(s) would have had a more substantial opportunity to frame a different set of decisions.