Wednesday, June 16, 2010

ELP flexibility on extended care

This one popped out at me at a budget meeting on Tuesday. Kept digging on it and even caught it in a news alert, where I noticed, with kudos, that Kate Hammer of the Globe & Mail actually scooped me on the story. Mine is filed and will run Thursday.
The province has passed a regulation (225/10) allowing school boards to skip running the extended-day component of the Early Learning Program / full-day kindergarten. This is a very, very interesting development.
From the regulation itself:
Exception, staffing and projected enrolment
2.  (1)  This section does not apply if the projected enrolment of pupils under clause (2) (a) in the relevant portion or portions of the extended day program, is 20 or more pupils.
(2)  Despite section 1, a board is not required to operate the before school portion, the after school portion or both portions of an extended day program in a school listed in Schedule 1 in a school year if, by the day before the last day of the preceding school year, the board,
(a) concludes that,
(i) the projected enrolment of the school’s junior kindergarten and kindergarten pupils for the school year, in the relevant portion or portions of the extended day program, will result in a pupil to staff ratio of less than 10 to 1 (my emphasis) , and
(ii) subject to subsection (3), the ratio cannot be raised to 10 to 1 or higher by including up to a maximum of 25 per cent Grade 1 and 2 pupils (my emphasis) of the school in the projected enrolment in the portion or portions of the extended day program; and
(b) in a form approved by the Minister,
(i) provides the information on which it based its conclusion under clause (a), and
(ii) affirms to the Minister that it reached the conclusion in good faith, based on that information.
(3)  Subclause (2) (a) (ii) does not apply if the board has a written agreement with a third party under which the third party operates a before school program and an after school program on the school site for pupils in Grades 1 and 2.
(4)  In reaching its conclusion respecting the 10 to 1 ratio under clause (2) (a), the board shall assume that the extended day program will be staffed by either one or two employees.
(5)  The board shall base its decision as to whether to assume one employee or two employees under subsection (4) on its assessment of the minimum number of employees required to operate the program safely, given projected enrolment.
(6)  The assumption made by the board does not limit the actual number of employees that the board may in fact employ to staff the program.

In a nutshell: If boards won't have 10 four- or five-year-olds at one school whose parents sign them up for before- or after-school care, the board can ask to be exempt from running the program. In that case, if there's a third party running a similar program for school-aged kids in the school, the board can continue to include four- and five-year-olds in that partnership. If there's no third party in the school, the board can also include Grade 1 and 2 students to get its ratios to something more feasible.
There's always two sides to the coin—
Full-day kindergarten's detractors will point to this as an example of how the initiative is falling apart and/or is ignoring the intentions of the Pascal report.
School boards see this as much-needed flexibility in offering the program. Many boards have long said they're concerned with the budgetary impact of this. With extended-day programs, you need two early childhood educators with an overlap midday and enough time (per Bill 242) for these ECEs to consult and plan with the kindergarten teacher. Now, boards can hire one ECE and have that person work almost the same schedule as the kindergarten teacher, using other supervision resources in the building to give the two their planning time.
It also throws a bone to the third-party providers already running programs in schools— though as I've stated in this space before, the loss of four- and five-year-olds from before- and after-school care wasn't their biggest worry to begin with.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Harris backlash

Kudos to the North Bay Nugget, who've been all over the developments in the Nippising University decision to award an honorary diploma to former premier Mike Harris. That includes running plenty of letters from those both in support of Nippising's decision and those opposed to it (here, here, here, here, here, and so on..) underpinned by an editorial critical of teachers' federations for their calls that working teachers boycott Nipissing teachers' college students seeking practicums.
From the editorial brick:
(Ontario Teachers') Federation president Reno Melatti told The Nugget this week unions such as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario are vehemently opposed to the honorary degree. There could be boycotting," he warned. If there are not enough placements, it could be difficult for faculty to place them." Harris was tough on education during his time as premier, but to target hardworking education students because of the university they attend sends the wrong message. No matter how appalling the federation finds Harris, its actions to target Nipissing student teachers would be just as offensive.
I agree, completely.
This move by the OTF is another one that is simply too rich to miss commenting on. Luckily, I had graduated from high school before the OTF really started to ramp up its opposition to some of Harris' more controversial legislation and amendments. So I was never impacted by their job action.
I would note, and will always remember, with a smirk, that the teachers' federations very own disgust over Bob Rae's social-contract and "Rae Days" is what in part led to the defeat of that government. Federations and other public-sector unions turned their backs on the Ontario NDP in 1995, which led in part to Harris' victory. Then they all got burned.
To continue this opposition over things Harris did over 12 years ago, which have largely been reversed in the years since, is simply petty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shameless self-promotion

I've been holding this under my hat for about a month, under request not to yell it from the rooftops until the official announcement that happened Thursday at the 20th annual Canadian Journalism Foundation gala.
I am the recipient of the Gordon N. Fisher journalism fellowship at Massey College / University of Toronto for the 2010-11 academic year.
This means that starting this September, I'll be on an unpaid leave of absence from my job at the Sentinel-Review and living full-time in Toronto. The program provides a stipend and allows me to audit any course, at any level, offered by any faculty at the U of T.
My plan, and goals, are to audit courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (conveniently, at the end of the block from Massey College) for the upcoming year. This exposure will feed the policy wonk in my heart and reflect itself in my post-fellowship reporting.
At this point in time, months away from beginning the fellowship, I don't know what will happen with the time for this blog. Given I've had so little in the last six months, it may actually increase. Or, surrounded by the college-life ambiance, I may have less time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Diluting the brand for short-term gain

I've been somewhat fascinated and somewhat puzzled while covering a local school-closure review within my district's Catholic board.
The review itself just passed, after a marathon meeting last night, its third public-input meeting. The fourth and final public-input meeting is scheduled for Oct. 13, after which the committee will continue to hold working meetings as it develops its recommendations and its report. Documents are all posted here.
This is the first school-closure review under the post-2006 guidelines for this board. Its coterminous English public board is already on its third round of closure reviews since 2007, with three schools already closed in the coverage area, one new school opened, one high school closing in a few weeks, four schools closing in June 2011 with a new school and four more expansions pegged to open in September 2011.
In this case, one of the schools recommended by administration for closure was under the gun in 2002-03 (under the old rules) and then was saved when boards were told they could no longer gerrymander student counts by closing some schools to create over-capacity schools in other places to generate new-pupil-place grant. The other school recommended for closure is a very small rural school, furthest east in the district, with a body count (note I didn't say FTE) of under 100 students K-8.
What has surprised me is that over and over, parents of the schools under the gun keep bringing up this board's registration requirement for elementary schools. Unlike other Catholic boards in the region, this board requires Roman Catholic baptismal certificates for the children attending the school and at least one of the child's parents.
A repeated theme is that this is too restrictive. Many believe that allowing non-Catholics (but likely still Christian) into the Catholic school will be one of a few panaceas to boost enrolment and bring the smallest school out of the "fewer than 100 students" danger zone. They see it as an opportunity to evangelize, as the non-Catholics admitted would be immersed in the faith and, hopefully, converted.
For the record, as stated in this space before, though I'm a graduate of a Catholic school system, I support a single publicly funded system-- one English, one French.
The trustee chair of the committee, along with administrative support staff members, have repeatedly told the people asking for this the board reviewed the policy two years ago and kept it as is. Trustees are concerned that opening the doors in elementary schools to non-Catholics will dilute their schools and then make it more difficult to hire only Catholics. They contend doing so could be the slippery slope that would only fuel the argument there should be no Catholic schools at all. This is a board where faith is a matter to be staunchly defended-- we're in a bible belt, but Catholicism is far from the dominant Christian faith.
The challenge is the number of Catholics as a proportion of the overall population in the area is declining. A demographer (who was largely ignored by a public whose minds are swollen with Toyota-fuelled impressions we're booming, which we're not) told the crowd only 19% of the population in this region sends their kids to Catholic schools, and that number is declining. The board already knows that over 90% of Catholic school supporters send their kids to Catholic schools, so there are few Catholics not attending Catholic school in the area.
So, in a shrinking market, do you batten down the hatches to protect what makes you unique? Or do you throw open the doors and let anyone come through to boost your numbers?
What all this ignores, of course, is that despite any short- or medium-term gain allowing non-Catholics into these Catholic elementary schools might provide, it doesn't erase the overall drop in the number of school-aged children. One would think the closure and consolidation of the smallest school's neighbouring public school this past year would cement that impression. It hasn't.
Given that, I don't see the benefit of diluting the brand, so to speak.
The money here is in getting Catholics to send their kids to Catholic schools. Most already do in the area. Loosening the restrictions, regardless of how I might actually feel about them, is a Band-Aid solution at best that does nothing to address the long-term issue of declining enrolment. The only thing that addresses the long-term decline is more babies. Be fruitful.

Monday, June 7, 2010

ETFO goes after ELP ECEs

The war has begun.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has openly begun its campaign to represent all the early childhood educators (ECEs) who are being hired by school boards for the full-day kindergarten / Early Learning Program. It even has a glizty new website,, to woo ECEs and perhaps even school boards over to organizing through ETFO. President Sam Hammond has a video and the member newsletter referred to the federation targeting not only public English-language elementary schools where its teacher members are, but also Catholic schools and boards.
Is ETFO hunting for dollars? The ECEs to be hired over the next four to five years for full-day kindergarten in schools represent a lot of new dues-paying members for any union. Given ETFO is already battling declining enrolment among its traditional membership, is wooing the ECEs part of some monetary strategy?
Given what ETFO had to say about ECEs — rather what they had to say about more kindergarten teachers — during the post-Pascal report to government program structure decision time frame about ECEs, this is a surprising tack for the federation. See examples here, here, here and here.
If I was an ECE, I would have some trust issues reconciling past statements from this particular federation with the current love-in for my dues. Particularly a federation that is trying to tell me they understand classroom issues and supposedly understand ECE issues.
I'm sure ETFO is also facing a huge uphill battle on this with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. CUPE already represents the vast majority of unionized public-sector ECEs across Canada. I'm also aware of several situations where CUPE is already representing ECEs who work for school boards. CUPE has just as much, if not more, experience in bargaining with school boards than ETFO, given CUPE locals for all kinds of positions exist in virtually every publicly funded school board in Ontario — public and Catholic. The creation of the district boards and other 1998 changes also didn't change CUPE as it did change public elementary teachers' federations. CUPE definitely has a lot more experience with ECE workplace issues than ETFO could ever dream to have given the thousands of ECEs they already represent.
Certainly if I was a newly hired ECE at a school board, I probably already worked in the childcare sector, likely for a public-sector or non-profit. If my old job was unionized, chances are it was with CUPE.
So which organizing drive and membership card would I be willing to sign when two are thrust in my direction? CUPE? ETFO?

LFP wraps school-cash series

Noticed with interest this weekend the London Free Press capped off its series that began last September where it asked a number of families in the London area to track all the dollars they sent to school with their kids for various reasons.
Reporters Kelly Pedro and Jennifer O'Brien stickhandled this series throughout the school year, with a one-page-plus feature running this Saturday in the print edition that featured two wrap-up articles (one, two) and a Q&A with Minister Leona Dombrowsky on fundraising guidelines. The entire series has been thrown up in a single section of the LFP website.
Kudos to the two reporters (and the editors who were silently behind them) on this series. It's a great example of taking what can be complex policy, or lack thereof, and writing about it in an accessible way. The end result, two dollar figures — over $500 and over $2,500 — that everyone understands.
It also provided a voice and an outlet to parent organizations that have been on the issue of fundraising for school purposes for years, such as school councils, parent involvement committees and People for Education. It's been a thorny issue for some time— an Ottawa Citizen piece published Monday shows some of this context together with a healthy foods guideline.
As I've said here before, I'm envious the LFP did this series. Wish I had thought of it and done it myself.
I do continue to caution on the lack of context in how the paper tackled some of the numbers. It states, matter-of-factly, that fundraising in both boards totaled $28 million in 2008-09 school year. That oversimplifies the actual number. The $28 million is the total school-level generated funds— all the money that flows through school bank accounts for all purposes. Neither board the LFP is citing for that total published detailed school-by-school breakdowns for where this money came from— the Catholic board used to, but didn't in 2009-10. I suspect based on past research the vast majority of those dollars are the nickel-and-dime spending the LFP tracked in the series. But a large component of the amount is also school-based community fundraisers. Things like Terry Fox runs, Jump Rope for Heart and one-off fundraisers. I suspect the 2010-11 figures when released will be higher, as every school in the province did fundraisers for Haiti in January. Those bucks get folded into the number LFP implies is school-based fundraising for classsroom purposes when they're not.
I already know the response to this admittedly very minor quibble— all the money still comes from parents, doesn't it? Well, yes. It does. But the LFP is trying to bolster an argument that all this nickel-and-diming are expenses that should be covered by the province as part of an "equal" (rather, equitable) publicly funded system. In that case, there should have been some context, or further work to break down that $28-million total, to separate the SMART boards from the Terry Fox runs.
OK, I've nattered enough. None of this takes away from how this series was a great idea, overall well-executed and one that should garner some industry acclaim in 2011.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

NDSS' last call

There are a few other irons in the fire right now, but this alert just came across the screen and given the many posts in this space, I would be delinquent to put this off or simply leave it for another day. In a matter of weeks the last cohorts of students will walk the halls of Niagara District Secondary School. This week, Minister of Education Leona Dombrowsky refused the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake council's request to consider a "right-sized," "centre of excellence" school in the town.
From the Standard article (and I would note my many posts here would be nothing were it not for the sustained and pertinent reporting of both the Standard and the Advance):
"The ministry does not have the authority to overturn boards' decisions about school closures, attendance boundaries and programming choices in their respective communities," it stated.
The town and the NDSS strategy committee submitted a 100-page petition to Dombrowsky in April that called for a stay of closure in order to support a new, environmentally friendly "centre of excellence" that was an appropriate size for the town at the current NDSS site. The mayor also asked for a meeting between the minister and members of the committee through a request by Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor.
"While we recognized there are some limitations on what the minister can do about school closures, we are deeply disappointed that she would not formally meet with us to gain a fuller understanding of the impact this closure has on the community," said (NOTL Lord Mayor Gary) Burrows.
Despite the many twists and turns the future of this school has taken within this community, I do empathize with those who believed this proposal was going to be the one that kept the school open. I'm not surprised by the minister's response, in fact, may have predicted it in this space many months ago.
The province, particularly the minister, may issue prescriptive guidelines that channel these school-closure processes down a particular path that puts high schools such as NDSS (or one in my own coverage area also set to close in a few weeks) but it will never intervene. The day the province intervenes and reverses the decision made by a district board of education is the day you can kiss the last remaining elements of local control over publicly funded schools goodbye.
So many already claim that so much in education is controlled out of the ministry offices on Bay Street. Do we really want the mandarins there to control street-level decisions on where schools should be? The moment the minister reverses a school closure you'd have every slighted community in Ontario asking her to do the same. Then, in essence, you'd have every school-closure decision being made by the Ministry of Education and not the locally elected district school board trustees.
I'm sure the minister and the government are quite aware of this. They may make trustees feel like they're handcuffed on these (and other) decisions, but they won't take that final step.
As to the NDSS community-- the centre of excellence model should have been promoted with the vigour it has been this year from the moment it was first conceived. It wasn't. When the school board made its unique decision to give the school a year's reprieve and allow the community to make good on its word that enrolment would grow, this plan was backburnered. It was only resurrected when the Oct. 31, 2009, countdate was unavoidable and the enrolment had not grown (as predicted by board personnel, I might add).
Alas, there are no more reasonable options and the school will close. For the few -- and I hope students are not in this group -- who still believed the doors would reopen this September, it's time to focus on transition. On helping the families and students make good choices for the schools that lie ahead.
For the rest of us, this storyline is full of lessons. Don't wait until the accommodation review process begins. Communities, school councils and municipal councils need to be monitoring student populations. Medium- and long-term planning should include elements and developments to support stable student-aged populations. Options need to be developed and pursued when that high school's student numbers start to dip towards 400 (in southern Ontario English-language boards, of course). By the time it reaches 300, 250 or lower, it may be too late.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Slow on the uptake?

I can't tell if there hasn't been a lot of coverage, or if my many absences during the month of May mean I just haven't seen the coverage that has been done. What coverage? School board budget coverage.
Through my own work, I know the Early Learning Program is underfunded and as of right now will run at a deficit in many boards. I also have seen only a few budget stories since I plugged into my full gamut of media clippings and news alerts post-May.
One came from Owen Sound on the Bluewater District School Board's current deficit (complete with correction). I did see in May that the Toronto District School Board appears to be done its 2010-11 budget— exceptionally early for a board that has always been a deadline-pusher.
What else are people hearing in their districts about budgets? Is it getting coverage or not?