Monday, February 28, 2011

Would have been a tough one to cover

A decision tonight by the London District Catholic School Board regarding two elementary schools in Oxford County would have been a very tough one for me to cover had I not been on this fellowship. The decision, as tweeted (and soon reported) by the London Free Press' Jennifer O'Brien had the board making its first school-closure decision under the accommodation review committee-era guidelines.
I blogged about this review here and here, though I didn't directly name the schools involved.
St. Francis Catholic School in Princeton and St. Rita Catholic School in Woodstock will close following a school-closure review process that also included St. Michael's and St. Patrick's Catholic schools in Woodstock. From the tweets I gathered that students will be accommodated in the other two Woodstock schools.
So why would this have been a tougher evening for me to cover as a journalist? I have a deeper personal connection to these two schools than most any other I've covered in the region that have been involved in recent school-closure decisions. Both schools come to the Woodstock YMCA for swimming lessons and in the seven years I've worked at the Y I've seen over half of each school's students. With St. Francis, because of its small size, I've seen many students for two or three years as they moved through the class that included the Grade 3 students. With St. Rita, which is spitting distance away from the Y, the kids from the school are regulars.
The village St. Francis finds itself in already lost its public school last year when it closed and was consolidated at a fantastic new building three kilometres up the road in Drumbo.
Two small schools dating to the origins of publicly funded Catholic education in this county will now close.
So I do feel for those who fought to keep these two schools open.
As a journalist however, I would have needed to maintain some emotional distance from the subject at hand had I been there to cover this board meeting. I did so when I was covering the committee meetings before starting the fellowship-- even when I would leave the meetings frustrated that the lessons learned in prior public school board reviews hadn't really sunk in with these communities.
The reality at St. Francis is that this K-8 school only has about 80 students. The main part of the building is over 50 years old and about half the population is housed in portables. Even so, there are only five classes (all split grades) at the school since the student count is low enough that every grade cohort has at most 10 children. As of June 2010, there had been no children registered in SK for that year, and fewer than 10 in JK.
Despite pending installation of municipal water (piped from Drumbo, which the community originally opposed) and the near-distant consideration of municipal sewers that might enable the village at the heart of the school's attendance area to grow, that could never come fast and large enough to make up for the lack of bums in seats today-- nevermind five years from now.
When it comes to St. Rita, the situation is eerily similar. Through previous boundary decisions, the school was hovering around 100 students, with no residential growth available within its attendance area. Woodstock parents insisted the community -- main growth areas to the northeast and southwest, within the attendance areas of the other two schools -- will grow sufficiently to need St. Rita. To add to the mix, the other two Woodstock schools were recently expanded-- a holdover from the previous school-closure process when St. Rita was destined for closure in order to create over-enrolled schools and finally get rid of 30-year-old portables. There was outright stubbornness against accepting demographic realities that overall fewer children will live in new housing and that with only about 20% of all children eventually registering for Catholic schools that wasn't enough to fill the vacant space today (with even greater vacant spaces in the near future).
When the public school review in Princeton was underway, I wrote a feature about the possibility of a joint Catholic-public facility in the village (there are several good examples in Brantford), but as the Catholic school wasn't under threat of closure at the time I wasn't able to get anyone to speak to the idea for the feature.
Given the various fiscal, human-resource and programming realities of running an English-language elementary school in southern Ontario today, keeping both schools open isn't feasible. I could have seen keeping St. Francis open, closing St. Rita and making some serious boundary changes to find a better balance in enrolment. That option wasn't preferred by administration and I don't know if the committee ever gave it serious consideration as a recommendation, since neither community was anywhere near ready suggesting only the other school should close.
Despite how I feel about these two school communities and what lies ahead, my rational assessment of the situation could not have supported keeping both schools open.

Monday DSBN Academy roundup

A set of articles continuing coverage on the District School Board of Niagara's Academy school set to begin in September.
  • The Niagara Falls Review (scooping its sister-paper?) got Minister Leona Dombrowsky's views on the changes to the academy; and,
  • Kate Hammer from the Globe and Mail wrote a longer piece on the school and the path the board has taken to make it happen.
I wasn't surprised by the minister's comments-- they are the bookend to her first comments on the proposal stating she was concerned but leaving the decisions up to the local trustees.
The Globe's piece was a roundup of the issue, but for those who've been reading the St. Catharines Standard's coverage since day one there was nothing new in the article. Happy all the same to see it since I know that Hammer was sent to cover a few of the testy board meetings and then left waiting for anything she might write from the trip to run.

Capital roundup

Here's what's crossed the desk in the last little while:
  • The Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin on the recommendations of an accommodation review of Duntroon Central PS in Clearview Twp.;
  • The Beacon-Herald on four schools in the Avon Maitland DSB being listed as surplus and taking the first steps towards sale;
Not a great amount, but I found the Beacon-Herald piece a good explanation of the process used to sell school properties-- complete with a reminder of how it happened the last time the board listed a group of schools for sale.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bring back a mill rate?

Caught this the day it was published in the Star, but have been distracted by other things. In the meantime, also noticed it was picked up in the comments of a different post.
Former infrastucture minister David Caplan has proposed school boards be, again, allowed to establish a levy on property taxes within Ontario for local purposes. Just to clarify, this would be on top of the 10% to 20% of your property tax bill that your municipality already passes onto the province for education.
Caplan’s bill would have the minister of education create a capital plan forcing school boards to identify what needs to be fixed. Boards could then raise an additional 5 per cent of their annual revenue from property taxpayers.
In Toronto, that would collect an additional $100 million annually.
“That is a far cry from what they need. However, it would start to get them on the way with a stable revenue source to begin to make a dent in it,” he said.
Mindful that property tax hikes are never popular, Caplan insisted for most homeowners it would be $2 or $3 and more for business operators.
“It’s literally a cup of coffee … on your property tax bill,” the MPP said, adding the repairs will only get more costly.
I'm puzzled by so many parts of this.
Caplan, a former cabinet member, is certainly aware of how the ministry of education runs its capital programs. He should, therefor, know that school boards have been submitting rolling capital plans to the ministry for at least the last four years. They know (or, they should know) what state all of their facilities are in and what the priority projects are. The Good Places to Learn program was already supposed to address the most urgent of these renewal and repair needs (and there's been three? four? rounds already) over the past five years or so.
Some boards didn't put some schools on GPTL or other renewal funding lists because if you use GPTL funding on a school that facility should be excluded from being a candidate for closure.
Others have too many vacant pupil spaces, forcing them, until they're able to consolidate some facilities, to spend more of the benchmarked funding to maintain and operate facilities and less on maintenance and repair.
Second, I seriously doubt this private member's bill will go anywhere beyond first reading, with the writ about to be dropped in about six months.
Further, Caplan should at least be somewhat aware that in many parts of the province the education portion of property taxes is decreasing. Two provincial budgets ago, the province announced reductions in the percentage rates for industrial and commercial properties, that pay a larger percentage of their property taxes for education than residential owners do.
When it comes to new growth schools, boards still have the power to establish education development charges-- meaning they can collect a fee when a new lot is registered to put towards new-school construction. However they can't do that if they have too much existing vacant space.
Boards have also been receiving declining-enrolment grants, but those are drying up as they were never meant to be permanent, just stop-gap funding to allow boards to reduce enrolment-related expenses in areas such as its capital programs and utilities costs.
Does Caplan really want boards to plead with municipalities to add up to 5% onto tax bills?
I'm surprised it hasn't drawn an immediate reaction from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, since its members would take the heat for the increased bills, not the province.
Lastly, Caplan's claim that boards don't have a stable revenue source is laughable. With a small adjustment here or there, any board that has been doing its planning properly knows exactly what it's reasonable to expect until about 2013-14. Combined with the capital planning they've been expected to undertake in the last five years, no board should be lost here.
Whether they've been making the best decisions on capital is another possibility altogether-- but an extra 5% won't fix that problem.

Friday, February 25, 2011

WiFi - safe, right?

The Simcoe County District School Board is attempting to bury the hatchet on this issue that arose last summer as parents within several of its school communities protested the use of wireless technologies in its facilities.
The parents claimed the radio-frequency waves were causing illnesses in their children.
It caused a kerfuffle, that led to the use of the technologies being suspended in some schools and the delay of implementation in others.
The board received a report this week, as reported in the Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin, indicating the RF levels present in the facilities with equipment are below health standards set by the Canadian government.
(Trustee Caroline) Smith said the report updated the board on the Wi-Fi safety debates that have been ongoing for months now.
"An evaluation of radio frequency (RF) and microwaves levels at Mountain View Public School and Collingwood Collegiate Institute (CCI) was conducted by Dr. Tony Muc & Radiation and Health Consulting," she said.
There has been a great deal of talk and opinion around the subject of Wi-Fi," said Smith. "This report (attached) helps clarify that the levels of RF within SCDSB schools are safe. Muc's report scientifically measures the RF levels within two schools within the SCDSB."
Muc's conclusions state "the RF and microwave electromagnetic field levels in a representative sample of areas normally accessed by students at both MES and CCI are a factor of least 25 below the exposure limits specified in Health Canada Safety Code 5. All the observed levels are far below exposure limits currently established or proposed by the major international or national agencies or organizations for public (including children) or occupational exposures."
That won't satiate those who brought their concerns to light last year however.
Others have taken note, as seen in this coverage out of Peterborough on the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB's plan on implementing wireless technologies at its elementary schools.
I don't think this is the best hill upon which to wage this war.
Low-power wireless frequencies are so completely a part of our first-world lives. We're surrounded by these frequency waves-- in our workplaces, in our public spaces, even in places where we may not be aware of their existence. Not to mention our homes (I'd be curious to see if any of the people protesting WiFi in schools have wireless technologies at home), which are becoming increasingly wireless to suit our demand for convenience.
Though time will ultimately tell, we're also not seeing any epidemic of illness across society as a result of all this exposure. We consciously or subconsciously assume that risk every time we buy into a wireless technology or participate in it.
We should want our schools to give students access to the latest technologies (WiFi being far from  a "latest" technology) and teach them how to use that technology to enhance their learning.

Friday DSBN Academy roundup

Lots of articles from the past week and a bit to aggregate on the District School Board of Niagara's school for at-risk students. Most if not all of it coming out of the St. Catharines Standard.
The Standard should be applauded for its continuing coverage on this. As the editorial points out, it broke the story on the academy before the meeting where it was first approved. It's followed up with all the initial reaction and the reconsideration. Showing attending the meetings is mandatory, but not the be-all-end-all of education coverage through its other coverage.
I do hope they sustain it as registration begins and the school opens in the fall.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When a political columnist does an education columnist's job for a day

This occasionally happens. A high-profile columnist decides in her/his wisdom to come out of their comfort range and write about something related to the education beat.
Witness the latest example-- Christina Blizzard's column from earlier this week about schools in Huron County (specifically Zurich). It got a fair amount of pickup when it was tossed onto the comment pages for the Sun chain this week.
The school column really has to be seen in the light of the wind turbine / gas column Blizzard wrote before this one-- perhaps the reason she travelled out to Zurich in the first place. While I'm sure the community loves the fact that a Toronto columnist actually paid attention to their concerns (be they in education or other affairs), Blizzard is hopelessly unable to do more than go skin deep. From the piece:
Right now, 80% of the kids walk to school.
In 2012, they’ll all be bused.
So not only will they get less exercise, they won’t be able to take part in after-school sports and other activities.
It’s a double whammy. They can’t stay late at school to play hockey or be in the school play.
And they won’t get home in time to take part in those activities in their home communities.
So much for healthy living.
It’s just one more step in a devastating trend that is killing rural Ontario, said Bayfield Coun. Geordie Palmer.
“It started 15 years ago with factory farms, which have virtually destroyed the family farm.
“We’re going to green energy, but now we’re building factory-style windmills.
“The bottom line is we are now developing factory schools — consolidating them all in one spot, so the children are spending more time on buses than they are on education,” he said
Well, anyone covering school closures in the past five years could read this script from memory as it's been heard over and over and over. Why, clicking the accommodation reviews label here would show the same pattern of responses writ large outside the GTA. Yet Blizzard didn't bother to speak with a school board official. Ditto with any of the trustees that may have explained the decision. Neither with the group of parents that proposed the North Maitland Centre of Excellence school model (which was somewhat followed, mostly not). Heck, she didn't even bother to check to see if any other schools in this province are 7-12 schools (um, there are plenty).
How could she know about all these things?
Maybe, just maybe, big-city media and chains should think carefully about who they send beyond the city lights to write about these things. Moira MacDonald files for the same newspaper and is consistently one of the smartest columnists writing about education in the GTA (yeah, I've got a bit of a crush going, so what? For comparative purposes, look at what she wrote this week about the sale of West Toronto Collegiate). I would bet donuts and coffee MacDonald would have written a very different column, instead of this drive-by effort from Blizzard.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Family Day capital roundup

The post that almost wasn't after I accidentally closed a bunch of browser tabs and panicked, not realizing they'd actually all been saved.
This is what's crossed my desk since the last capital roundup.
  • The Sudbury Star on an approved review of an accommodation review committee related decision by the Rainbow DSB;
  • The Kenora Miner and News on another review of an ARC-related decision;
  • The Minden Times on $3.5 million in capital grants to the Trillium Lakelands DSB;
  • Another $1 million for repairs in the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic DSB, in the Simcoe Reformer;
  • The Dunnville Chronicle posts and advancer on a pending ARC decision by trustees in the Grand Erie DSB;
  • Another advancer on a pending ARC decision by trustees in the Simcoe County DSB from the Barrie Examiner; and,
  • CBC Ottawa on school overcrowding in the regional suburb of Kanata.
Apparently, while I was paying attention to something else, the ministry released a bunch of capital grants for the coming year. What a difference from earlier in the government's mandate when these sorts of announcements would be trotted out by local / regional Liberal MPPs to get some mileage out of them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thumping McGuinty with the Gideon question

Caught two mentions of this over the weekend (although they appear remarkably similar) in the Waterloo Region Record and at CBC Toronto. At issue is the question of the Gideons using publicly funded public schools as a vehicle to distribute either bibles or other literature.
Despite the ongoing debate, the premier refused to take a stand on the issue.
"This is the kind of thing that I would encourage the trustees who presumably were involved in this decision to make sure they're listening to parents, and not just parents, but folks in the broader community," said McGuinty. "Is this a practice with which they are comfortable? I leave that to them."
McGuinty, a Roman Catholic, wouldn't say if he was comfortable with Gideons giving Grade 5 kids Bibles to take home.
"I'm not going to weigh in on that, other than to say that I encourage the representatives of the school board there to make sure they give this careful consideration, listen to the population."
Well, despite the criticism, I think this was a savvy play by McGuinty in not rising to take the bait. I say that having previously expressed (twice!) my opinion in this space on a few occasions that religious instruction should take place in the home or in houses of worship and that if faith groups wish to distribute their texts they should do so exclusively through their houses of worship and community outreach, not through publicly funded public schools.
It's the on-the-ground reality that makes McGuinty's refusal to engage on this question the smart move. This question -- and it's always going to be led by the Gideons in most areas as I've yet to hear of a non-Christian faith asking for permission to distribute its texts this way -- has a different answer in different parts of the province. Trustees in local boards, who have been known to complain about how little decision-making abilities they supposedly have, should be the ones listening to their communities on this question.
Kitchener-Waterloo is a bible belt. Rural Ontario would answer this question very differently than larger urban centres. Districts where the Catholic and public boards are almost equal in population would also likely have a different answer to this question.
If trustees judge their communities want this practice to continue and their communities aren't giving them any different feedback, then they can decide to allow it to continue. If they review it and the support isn't there, then they can prohibit it.
Plus, not that I want to disagree with Annie Kidder all the time, but this really isn't an election issue. It's another bait-and-wait issue that would only distract us from the ones the pending campaign should be focused on.

All the way to 20K

A brief moment for minutiae: Some time last week the blog passed 20,000 visits.
Traffic spikes relative to when I actually eke out the time to post, but is generally in the 30-50 visits a day range. That's a nice loyal (returning visitor numbers are on the up) audience.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

ETFO thinks it's made a wedge

The latest newsletter from the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario suggests the federation is getting traction from the government on its campaign against the Education Quality and Accountability Office tests.
In the past few months ETFO representatives have met with Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky and the Premier's staff. At these meetings they emphasized the Federation's ongoing concern with the plethora of EQAO-related assessment initiatives, and invited the government to conduct its own audit of school boards in order to understand the true impact of the testing regime in elementary classrooms.
We are pleased to report that the government has responded. On January 28, ETFO was informed that the Ministry had posted an online survey for local presidents (ETFO, OECTA, and AEFO) and school boards to complete. We are hopeful that this survey, and ongoing discussions, will lead to positive changes ensuring children are provided with a full spectrum of experiences at school including the arts, science, social studies, and physical and health education.
The tone and language is not surprising for ETFO. It's always hated EQAO. What it's never had (and I would argue should have less of given its recent fumbles) is the kind of influence that federations in B.C. have had lately on the question of large-scale testing.
The ministry survey, if the ETFO description is accurate, should really be expanded to a group larger than the one indicated. Asking union local presidents about an assessment their provincial offices have always detested? Gee, I wonder what the results will say. How about a survey of all teachers? One distributed through the college of teachers as opposed to through the ministry, through boards or through their unions?
Then, how about a survey of the parents? 
Or, how about just letting ETFO blow off its steam on this question and letting the EQAO, school boards and those people in the system that take a much broader view of the usefulness of large-scale assessments get on with life?

MacDonald on FDK costs

Another thought-provoking piece from the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald, this time on implementation costs for the province's full-day kindergarten program.
Schools chosen for this year — the program’s first year — and next have been the easy ones, those with enough space to handle the program without having to do much.
But everyone agrees year three — 2012/13 — is when the serious money must kick in.
The program can’t continue to be rolled out without significant construction to expand existing school space and tailor it to kindergarten children’s needs.
Elizabeth Moyer, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board, says the preliminary numbers she’s seen for the capital costs at her board are “just obscene. No one’s going to pay for it.”
Portables will be a part of the mix where capital dollars are not enough to add real bricks and mortar.
The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association told me portables will be necessary in some areas, although boards will try hard to avoid them.
The response from Peel District School Board spokesman Brian Woodland when I asked if his high-growth board would need them to accommodate the program in year three?
“Oh God, yes!” 
I agree the year one and two sites were the "easy" ones-- boards were outright told to prioritize based on need, with the strong caveats of suitable space with little capital dollars needed. So all the schools that had available purpose-built space were used first. Then came the ones that had available classrooms that could be easily converted into kindergarten spaces.
Next come the classrooms that cannot easily be converted into kindergarten spaces -- the ones that aren't anywhere near plumbing in schools built before each classroom had a water fountain or sink, for example. Or the ones that are too small, which would realistically require knocking down walls and amalgamating two classrooms into one (if the school has that space, if not, then as MacDonald says that means portables).
Let me add the additional thought, because I know some boards are doing this in line with their larger capital planning. If an old school (built in the 1950s-70s) requires significant updates, replacements, is under capacity and needs physical work to accommodate full-day kindergarten, how is it not now a candidate for school-closure review? The consolidated school that could result at the end of the process would have the suitable kindergarten space and building new (on a classroom basis) is usually less expensive than renovating and retrofitting.
It means it's not just capital for full-day kindergarten that many boards are facing. It can't be considered exclusively in a time when virtually every board is also dealing with declining student enrolments and facilities that were built over a generation ago and aren't living up to the needs of the kids who learn there today.
MacDonald also puts forth the idea of limiting full-day kindergarten to only five-year-old children and getting rid of junior kindergarten altogether, with a wink to Tim Hudak, whose platform in this subject is decidedly weak.
That kicker is almost a whole other column unto itself!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This week's capital roundup

Another goodie bag of coverage of school boards and their capital issues.
  • The Midland Free Press on an accommodation review in some of the bays of southeast Georgian Bay and a township mayor with development dollars in his eyes;
  • A capital grant announcement for the Lambton-Kent DSB in the Chatham Daily News for new and expanded schools in Ridgetown (home to the Small Schools Coalition-- remember them?);
  • The Hanover Post on an interesting recommendation presented to the school-closure review looking at Chesley / Hanover and area schools;
  • A Sudbury Star piece on construction delays for a post-school closure review consolidation of schools; and,
  • The Orillia Packet & Times on another rural township resolution aiming to keep schools open.
I smiled at the Ridgetown money-- as someone who was among the first to report on the Coalition for Small Schools (I could find no active web page for it) when they launched ca. 2004-05, it was interesting to see capital dollars going to Ridgetown post-committee work to modernize the schools in that village.

Covering the Academy

A roundup post on the proposed Academy at the District School Board of Niagara.
This is slowly falling off the radar beyond St. Catharines, although I have a hunch the pending meeting where the board is to consider a notice of motion to walk away from the concept altogether may get a few more media visitors.

Hey look, trustees followed a committee recommendation!

To all the naysayers who point to how the accommodation review committee process is flawed, fixed, etc., well... here's a committee that recommended all schools under review remain open, followed by a senior administrative response that agreed and trustees who agreed as well.
The Globe and Mail's Kate Hammer is the only coverage I saw of this the day after it happened.
The Jane and Finch ARC was the most contentious. The first community meetings involved shouting, tears and insults, with some members of the community accusing the TDSB of targeting their community because they’re poor.
Trustee Stephnie Payne, whose ward includes the affected schools, cautioned her colleagues against ignoring the community’s wishes.
“You are going to have a war on your hands if you do anything other than what the committee recommended,” she said.
At a community meeting in January, Daryl Sage, the TDSB’s strategy and planning director, told residents that the staff would recommend that no schools be closed because of a future development near York University, where a subway line will soon reach. He said this meant the area’s five elementary schools could be needed to accommodate growth.
Trustee Irene Atkinson, however, said she had received complaints from residents about the recommendation that no schools close, in light of the fact that all but one of the schools is operating well below capacity.
“We are bereft of space and desperately need money,” she said.
This is not unexpected. At least one writer predicted this outcome after the Oct. 25, 2010 elections, given the feeling of the new trustees towards school closures.
To those of us who report / read outside Toronto, this won't help the notion that only small, old rural schools are being targeted, but of course the Toronto District School Board trustees don't give a patootie about that. Nor should they.
The article also mentions the sale of a closed secondary school to the local French-language board, with a provision to continue leasing out space for continuing education programs. That sale revenue can't be used to sustain these four schools kept open this week, either operationally or for capital improvements (if memory serves on the latter). It must go into the board's "proceeds from disposition" account and be used for land or new construction (again, if memory serves on the latter).
So the subway line is being built (projected completion?) and the higher-density development adjacent may come but the TDSB needs to continue to operate these four and plenty of other under capacity / small schools until that student growth occurs. The writing's on the wall that the province is expecting the board to use operational savings from consolidated facilities to underpin provincial priorities such as full-day kindergarten. While I don't expect flat-line grant allocations across the province later this year, some boards already flat-lined last year when you subtracted one-time capital allocations from their total revenues. There's no reason to believe the province won't fund its commitments in wages and benefits and other increases, along with its priorities. Everything else that boards do will have to be adjusted to real student numbers to compensate.
When trustees thumb their noses to closing any schools in a review area, it should make all of this so much more difficult in the medium- to long-term.
Let's see if it does.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My long goodbye to OISE

Last week I attended what will probably be my last formal class of this Massey College Canadian Journalism Fellowship at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It's one of a few things in this final term of the program that is a somewhat mournful reminder that this wonderful experience is coming to an end.
Aside: Another is that the program is now accepting applications from working journalists for its 2011-12 year, with a deadline of March 1, 2011 (hint, hint to any ed reporters out there...).
Additional aside: Another is that we're headlong into planning our second European travel adventure, which will take us to Finland (Helsinki and Turku) and Denmark (Copenhagen and likely Samso) on 'official' travel with possible personal side travel to St. Petersberg, Iceland and/or London, U.K.
It was always a personal and professional goal of mine in this experience to take advantage of OISE's location. Massey College is only hundreds of metres away from the hulking 12-storey building that houses the University of Toronto's initial teacher education programs and graduate-level institute. From the application process onwards, I have to be quite complimentary to the deans and associate deans at OISE. Former dean Jane Gaskell pointed me towards associate deans Mark Evans and Kathy Broad, who've met with me numerous times since August.
As readers here know, I spent the fall auditing two courses -- a graduate-level course on the battle over history education and a Masters of Teaching (a two-year initial teacher education program) course on issues in numeracy and literacy.
This term, I was allowed to shadow -- as much as my schedule permitted given some conflicts with non-OISE classes and fellowship commitments -- the fourth year Victoria College / primary-junior cohort of OISE's concurrent education program. The program is still very much wet behind the ears as the students in the cohort I'm following are the first ever admitted to this program at OISE.
After a wickedly busy five weeks, these ConEd students are now at primary schools throughout the region in their first long-term classroom practicums that last until the very end of March, just as we're about to depart for Europe. They get another one in their fifth and final year of the program (compared to the four that the MT students get, or the two month-long practicums most B.Ed students get over eight months).
The term was instructive to my continuing curiosities about what we're teaching our teachers and how well they might be prepared to face the reality of their first classrooms.
As the literacy / numeracy course wrapped up, I heard about those students' late-fall placements. A good number were frustrated the things OISE was asking them to think about in terms of their pedagogy and philosophies on teaching ran headfirst into established systems and procedures in their placement schools. A number mentioned stark differences of opinion with their associate teachers, the people who welcome teacher-education candidates into their classrooms. I felt a little sorry for those as I have seen the practices in use in the program at OISE being used by teachers when I've shadowed classes for assignments. I also wondered whether the teacher-education candidates 10 years from now would say the same things about these folks as they were saying about their associate teachers today.
If they're patient enough, tactful enough, these candidates will bring change to the classes and schools they end up teaching in.
Though I haven't seen the ConEd students return yet, I'm very curious to see what their practicum experience will be like. I may only see them once or twice more before the end of my program. As they headed out, I wondered how many of them were really ready for what they were about to experience. My curiosity also leaves me wondering if they'll come back with the same feelings as the Masters of Teaching students.
Lastly, for now, I am encouraged by the quality of the faculty I've seen in the initial teacher education programs. I would have been glad to have any of the four instructors I've seen and am reassured that they're teaching teacher candidates-- if some of what they're doing at OISE rubs off on the students then that's great.

So a campaign on FDK?

Interesting messaging today as the province announced that many if not all school boards are now accepting junior and senior kindergarten registration for September 2011.
It was a hard/soft sell announcement on the second year of implementation for full-day kindergarten, complete with the requisite ministerial visit to an elementary school. Outside of the formal announcement however, it was a chance for Leona Dombrowsky to start framing a plank in the Liberals' election campaign. From a CTV piece online:
The full-day kindergarten program is shaping up to be a key campaign issue in October's provincial election.
Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky warned the program could suffer setbacks if the Conservatives form the government in October's provincial election.
"Our very distinct worry is that we are looking in phase 3 to have 50 per cent of the junior and senior kindergarten students in Ontario accommodated. I would say that is very much at risk," she said while visiting the Holy Name School in Toronto on Wednesday.
The Conservatives say that if they win the election, they will freeze the rollout and look for other, less expensive options.
As I've said in this space before, I would love to see one of the pending election's squabbles be over alternating visions for the future of education in this province. Not the drive-by disaster that was the faith-based funding issue in 2007, but a deeper look at things like how to implement full-day kindergarten. From my admittedly biased perspective it could be a deeper conversation than hydro bills or (and please may this not take root) buck-a-beer sloganism.
The Liberals are feeling their way through implementation -- exactly as adviser Charles Pascal said they would -- and making changes to the initial plans as they judge it fit to do so. The Tories have said, when the program launched in the fall, that they wouldn't fund the "Cadillac" version of the program they say the Liberals are implementing.
Here's the reality. There are approximately 2,000 publicly funded elementary schools in this province. By October, almost 800 will have full-day kindergarten. Likely later this spring or during the campaign, phase three schools will be announced, which will probably bring the program to around 50% implementation.
There are those who would say full-day kindergarten is a holy grail-- so appreciated by parents whose children are in existing schools that no party would dare dismantle the program. Certainly, no party is saying it would. But to freeze implementation at the 50% mark could be disastrous.
So if we exclude that possibility, that still leaves an opposition vacuum where some sort of alternate vision for implementation should be.
Of course, the underlying question remains whether this issue, or education as a whole, can really dominate a campaign that's for all intents and purposes looking to be centred on our pocketbooks.

DSBN starts stepping down

I think the St. Catharines Standard is the only print media to have anything on this today, after a District School Board of Niagara meeting Tuesday night.
Unlike previous discussions about the need for the school, however, this time there was no mention of the DSBN Academy being directed toward students from low-income families.
Board spokeswoman Kim Yielding later confirmed the board has reconsidered its low-income criteria for students at the new school. Instead, she said all students who need supports to overcome barriers that may prevent them from attaining post-secondary education will be considered.
"It's not a totally new direction. Part of breaking the poverty cycle is the attainment of a post-secondary education," she said.
She noted the criteria — which formerly stated children must come from low-income families and where neither parent attended college or university — will be used as more of a guideline, and that applicants will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The above just reinforces the notion this is an alternative school, as I'd basically stated a few posts ago. Heard there was other media in attendance, but I don't think there will be other articles from them until the notice of motion referred to in the linked article above goes to a vote.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bound to collect dust?

I caught wind of this report on the day of the snowstorm that wasn't when I went to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education searching for whether or not my Wednesday morning class had been cancelled. It was on the OISE front page, having been released back in January.
It is Stakeholders' Perspectives on Induction for New Teachers: Critical Analysis of Teacher Testing and Mentorship, published in December 2010.
My first reaction after reading through it this evening (I set it aside... had to focus on classwork) was to give my head a few shakes and check what year it was. The data research for this report was done in 2005-06 -- important to note as a time of transition between the Ontario Teacher Qualifying Test (OTQT) and the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP). Fair to note however that one of the researchers involved was ill and then passed away before the report was published.
For a report released when the NTIP is entering its fifth/sixth year of reality, it deals preciously little with any real critique of that program itself. The bulk of the text focuses on the failings of the OTQT as a method of adequately preparing teachers for the classroom-- which, if that's your perspective, you've been celebrating its death virtually since the day the data collection for this report ended. Any analysis comes in the conclusion.
NTIP is also intended to address the transition from student to teacher. NTs (new teachers) in our study describe how they had felt overwhelmed in their first years teaching with very few supports. They want a program that can be personalized and based on individual needs, and to help them with day-today activities. SAs (Principals) and TEs (teacher educators) are skeptical about how the provincial program would unfold, and wonder about adequate funding to allow for release time. They did not necessarily believe that a one-on-one mentor-mentee relationship was ideal. TEs discussed the need for careful selection of mentors, as well as selection of those with whom they will be partnered. (42)

Thus, the competencies defined in NTIP and in the TPA – and SAs’ application of them – become
“high-stakes.” The role of the SA is particularly salient, since it is her/his sole responsibility to apply these criteria in the evaluation of NTs under her/his supervision through the TPA process. SA conceptions of good teaching and how those perceptions relate to the competencies defined by the Ministry are therefore privileged. These competencies – and SAs’ and districts’ applications of them – become “high-stakes,” since poor evaluations appear on the teacher’s Certificate of Qualification. Consequently, SAs’ conceptions of good teaching and how those perceptions relate to the competencies defined by the Ministry are privileged. (43)
And so on.
In a nutshell, both are still bad because they only serve to reinforce the status quo, or narrowly defined criteria.
This report? Destined to gain some dust on the shelves at OISE and the other participating faculties of education. The current government is unlikely to adversely change the NTIP it setup five/six years ago. Any change in government isn't going to change things away from an NTIP model -- possibly, maybe (and I'm not scaremongering) we'd see a return to a more aggressive form of teacher testing.
The question not asked? OK, not asked because the data collection ended four years ago?
How many new teachers have had their Ontario College of Teachers' certification (ah, the OCT...) revoked after an unsuccessful NTIP? That number, if it even exists, isn't reported out anywhere I'm aware of.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Full-day check in

This isn't a long piece or really indicative of what I think should be done, but it's the first thing that's crossed my desk that actually speaks about how full-day kindergarten is doing past the halfway point of the program's first year.
Kudos to the Simcoe Reformer's Barbara Simpson, writing for the Delhi News-Record on how two school administrators see the program at this point in the year.
The province's full-day learning plan initially drew some concern when it was unveiled in October 2009. Four-and five-year-olds might not be ready for a full day of school every day, suggested some parents and educators across the province. On-site before and after school care also raised concern with private daycare operators.
Some adjustments to benefit students were temporarily introduced to the daytime routine, (Grand Erie District School Board superintendent Wayne) Baker acknowledged.
"The teachers on occasion at the beginning brought in activities that were a little more sedated," Baker said, adding that students have now acclimatized to the new daily routine.
Sacred Heart (a Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic board school) principal Zoltan Rapai also found this adjustment at his school. Some of the 36 kindergarten students started off slowly with half-day attendance.
"By the end of the first week, there was no question -- the children were ready for it," he said.
So, here's my wonder. I am very familiar with the Reformer as it's been a longtime sister paper to the newsroom I'm currently on leave from. A staff of six people put out that newspaper five days a week in addition to the Delhi weekly. She had time to make a few phone calls. I would also note the reaction, given Norfolk County is about as rural in southern Ontario as one can get.
What could others, elsewhere, working an education beat full-time, or for a greater amount of time anyway, have done? I have seen a followup to the Globe's kickoff in September on full-day kindergarten (sort of). I don't monitor the Star as religiously, but I can't remember seeing continuing coverage.
This is a missing piece of the puzzle-- going back to families, parents, teachers, early childhood educators-- heck even Charles Pascal himself and asking how things are going now that this province is in the sixth month of this program.

DSBN Academy coverage keeps growing

Almost every day of the past week or so has seemed to generate another clip, another article, another editorial or opinion piece on the District School Board of Niagara's plans to establish an alternative school for children from low-income families.
A quick summmary (far from an exhaustive list):
I don't think I've seen anything that answers the questions and thoughts I had when I first posted about this school. In the meantime, the school will probably open as planned and its students will probably be OK.

Another capital roundup

Another week (and a bit) another roundup of stuff that's crossed the news alerts and Twitter on school-closure reviews or other capital-related topics.
  • The Orillia Packet and Times on the meeting of a group trying to save all rural schools, particularly the one in their neighbourhood which has been identified by the Simcoe County District School Board as prohibitive-to-repair;
  • A Pembroke Observer piece on a local school board employee seconded to the ministry to work on the capital asset evaluation tool-- which means 2002 audits are finally going to be updated by the province soon.
  • The Owen Sound Sun Times on why a municipality doesn't have a committee member on a school-closure review currently underway in the region; and,
  • Though this one isn't exclusively about capital, an Ottawa Citizen article on the premier's comments regarding overcrowding at some schools and the dollars provided under the current government's mandate for operational and capital.
Dalton McGuinty's points in the last one should be appropriately noted. His government has invested billions in school renewal, expansion and construction since 2003, but at the end of the day despite any provincial pressure as to where all that work should happen it's been trustees' decision (or at least confirmation) as to how it's spent.