Thursday, November 25, 2010

ECE union checkin

Was reminded of this by an Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario tweet late Wednesday, indicating the federation had just signed its 10th group of early childhood educators (ECEs).
The 10 boards are listed on ETFO's ECE website, where the news releases also provide an idea of who signed into ETFO and when.
Compare that to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which on its ECE site lists 17 school boards. Keep in mind OSSTF already represented some ECEs employed by school boards prior to the introduction of full-day kindergarten.
Surprisingly -- I've always expected it to be the dark horse in this race (if one can call it that) -- CUPE's Ontario website for the school sector lists only five news releases of boards that have signed letters of agreement for ECEs. I'm expecting CUPE would be the union representing the lion's share of ECEs employed within the 72 publicly funded school boards in Ontario. The announcements on the page are for signed letters of agreement (essentially extending the ECE PDT provisions on top of a similar contract already signed with that board, valid until the next round of contract negotiations).
As best as I can tell, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association is not chasing ECEs. I don't know enough about the French-language federations to speak conclusively about them, however would note OSSTF has a good number of French-language boards where it's representing ECEs.
So is it possible only 32 boards have nailed down which union represents their ECEs? There have got to be more out there that I'm not finding. Given the sector's contracts expire on Aug. 31, 2012, people are slowly gearing up for whatever will happen in the next round.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There are stronger arguments...

I wasn't blown away by this opinion piece in the North Bay Nugget calling for a single publicly funded school system in Ontario. On the larger question of consolidation and an end to faith-based publicly funded schooling in Ontario, I agree with the author of this, Gord Young. His argument simply isn't compelling enough as it's based on recent capital funding announcements for area boards that -- due in part to the public board's less-than-stellar planning -- produced greater riches for French and Catholic boards than it did for the public board.
In the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, which stretches from Temagami to Manitouwadge north of Thunder Bay, 18 churches have closed over the past two decades and more will be locked up for good by the end of next month, including Corpus Christi, St. Rita's and Saints- Anges in North Bay and La Resurrection in Sturgeon Falls.
People don't attend services like they once did. And the church no longer has enough priests.This was brought to mind recently when Near North District School Board trustees boycotted a news conference where funding was announced for facilities in Mattawa.
The trustees are upset because the public board received $1 million to address accommodation needs at F.J. McElligott Secondary School while the two separate boards -- Nipissing- Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and Conseil Scolaire Catholique Franco- Nord -- are getting funds to build new facilities.
Both French families and Catholics in Ontario have a constitutionally protected right to attend their own schools.
But should the provincial government continue pouring millions of dollars into the Catholic education system when churches are falling like dominoes?
Despite how many Catholic boards would love the two to be more related than they are, the reality is that regular church attendance and Catholic-school enrolment are not joined at the hip. Many baptized Catholics will send their baptized kids to Catholic schools and never attend services at the nearest parish. (We were one of those families) It also negates how some Catholic boards allow other baptized Christians (or anyone at all) to attend their elementary schools. I specify elementary schools because high schools are under an open-access policy and Catholic boards cannot deny enrolment to non-Catholic students in their schools from Grade 9 onwards. The analysis also ignores the complex reasons for why Catholics choose to enrol their kids in Catholic schools -- for some undoubtedly it's a question of faith, but other reasons include location, physical building, programs, etc.
Is there disparity in capital funding between the boards? Absolutely. Catholic and French boards have undoubtedly been bigger benefactors of government capital than English public boards since 1998, when these allocations shifted to (somewhat) of a per-pupil allocation. Those with knowledge of the past would remember that prior to 1998, when public boards received the dollars from all the commercial and industrial assessment in their catchment areas the equation was vastly different. In essence, after decades of being the much, much poorer cousins Catholic and French boards are playing catchup to public boards in being able to offer equitable facilities, recognizing their enrolment and geographical distribution.
Having said all that, this seems more motivated by sour grapes among public school board trustees and administrators in the area than by the larger question of either faith-based schooling or consolidation. Despite my own educational background, I've never hidden my preference for two school systems in this province within this space-- one English, one French. It's been done in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (the latter striking the fear of God into Catholic educators in Ontario) with the requisite constitutional amendments. From what I can tell from this perch however, it hasn't altered the dynamics of aging school buildings, declining enrolment and the need to have a well-prepared capital plan.
With the chances of a constitutional amendment low, perhaps the board in this area should concentrate on getting its ducks in a row for the next round of capital funding, should there be one.
Had there been a single school system the same capital dollars would have likely flowed into the area for renewal and accommodation, so this is not the fiscal argument to stake this position on.

DSBN moves on

Two related pieces about the District School Board of Niagara and its new pupil accommodation rules. The best I can find is the policies page, and the report laying out the recommended changes accepted by trustees Nov. 23 is not online as far as I can see. Niagara-on-the-Lake's Niagara Advance and the St. Catharines Standard took point on the changes.
The biggest one is that public input on school-closure decisions by the board will now be accepted separately from the meeting where trustees would actually vote on the question at hand. This is not an earth-shattering change and I'd be curious to know how other boards deal with this separation, if in fact they do separate the two. The board where I've covered several reviews does have this process in place for public input on proposed school closures-- in fact, trustees there never vote on any public input the night it's received. They can only ask questions of clarification on the presentation. Any votes arising from the presentation must be taken as "business arising from the minutes" in the following board meeting.
This won't separate the emotion of a packed board room from the evening where trustees vote on these difficult questions, but it does allow some breathing room between when people speak to trustees and when trustees then act on all the information they've received-- from administration, from the accommodation review committee report(s) and from the public input. I see this as an improvement in board governance at the DSBN and as stated above would be curious to hear how many other boards across the province follow similar procedure.

What this fellow has been up to

Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII at Queen's Park
It's been some time since I've posted about fellowship activities. Things are puttering away at a somewhat frenetic pace as we approach the end of the fall term. This includes re-writing a paper for one of my courses (seems I wasn't paying close enough attention to what was required) and prepping for the submission of the end-of-term paper in the same couse -- hence the photo of the statue of good ol' King Edward VII. That class (Battle over history education) continues to be a source of some frustration and immense reward as we discuss our readings every week. It has continually reminded me of the reason why I'm here despite how it makes my brain hurt some weeks.
The journalism fellows are about 10 days away from our first international travel. The German foreign ministry and the Goethe Institut are bringing us to Berlin from Dec. 4-11 for a packed itinerary. Some of the highlights:
  • Meeting with architects to discuss city design and planning.
  • Visiting a cultural media festival.
  • Taking in an opera, a philharmonic or both.
  • A better-than-tourist tour of the Reichstag.
  • A visit to, hopefully, Humboldt university.
  • Visits to museums-- history, Jewish and others.
  • Spending some time with a Berlin food critic, as well as at Der Speigel.
After our official itinerary in Berlin is complete, myself and two of the fellows are off to Prague for three nights. Following which, they return to home soil and I travel to visit family in Portugal from Dec. 15-21.
With all this excitement it's very easy to skip over the amazing things that have been happening at Massey in the last month. We had the Feast for the Founding Master this past Saturday, honouring Robertson Davies, one of the three people (with former Gov.-Gen. Vincent Massey and the U of T president of the day) who founded Massey College in 1962-3. The Massey printshop always does a fantastic job with printing keepsakes for the extra-special high tables, and this was no exception with a Davies' quote.
Pretense is wonderfully stimulating to the artistic mind which is why some people lie for fun rather than from necessity! -- A Mixture of Frailties
The dinner was followed by the reading of a Massey College ghost story penned by Davies in his fifth year as master of this college.
As usual, we've had our Thursday guests for lunch with the journalism fellows and selected Massey junior fellows. The lunches are off-the-record chats over good food and beverage and the guests this fall have been:
  • Matt Thompson
  • Charles Pascal
  • Christopher Hedges
  • Stephen Jenkinson
  • Kim Echlin
  • Abraham Rotstein
  • Kevin Stolarick
  • Sabine Sparwasser
  • Michael MacMillan / Alison Loat
  • Austin Clarkson
The past weeks have also been an opportunity to shore up some options for the winter-term courses I hope to audit. I've already lined up a joint-program course on the latest evolutions of urban form, an interdisciplinary course on mobile-phone application design and, of course, thinking about what OISE stuff I'll loiter in.
The blog may be a bit quiet as a result (more so than it already has been) in the next month or so.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ombudsman'ing it

So wish I had something to link to here -- this is the best I can do -- but the London Free Press had a full-page feature today by education reporter Jen O'Brien on the move by NDP MPP and education critic Rosario Marchese to get school boards included among the agencies the provincial ombudsman's office can investigate. Will link or post once the bill is tabled, as well as if the Freeps posts the article online. The Freeps posted the article online Monday.
Marchese intends to introduce the private-members' bill on Monday.
The Freeps' treatment was nice-- full colour page in its Saturday A section, with a photo of four London-area women involved in parents' groups. Their groups support Marchese's efforts, as it would add an additional outlet for issues parents feel are not resolved by school boards. The article has some pullouts with details about some of the incidents the Freeps has received information on over the years.
Marchese's move got some press earlier this week as well.
The current ombudsman, Andre Marin (who has a son named Hugo... great name!), has long been on the record in saying his office would welcome any additional agencies into its investigative portfolio. It's one element of oversight that's missing-- financial oversight through the ministry and the auditor general already exists. I haven't heard, and the article doesn't speak to this, whether school board and trustee associations would support the bill. One might hope they would as they shouldn't really be worried if they're responding to and dealing with complaints in an equitable manner.

Funding disparity coverage

I've been watching the news coming out of North Bay, courtesy of The Nugget, about a funding announcement Friday for schools in the Mattawa area. The paper had comprehensive coverage in the leadup to the announcement and then good reaction after the announcement -- see, in chronological order, here, here, here and here.
In a nutshell, the Near North DSB only received $1 million from the ministry for capital projects, while the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and the French-language Conseil Scolaire Catholique Franco-Nord received about $6 million for two capital projects each board has on the go.
From the second piece:
We've been invited, but we've (trustees) declined the invitation, because we didn't get anything to satisfy the needs of this community," said (NNDSB trustee) Kathy Hewitt.
We're very disappointed something wasn't done for this school (F. J. McElligott Secondary School). They put money into two boards and not us. We know we're not getting it and we're disappointed."
In some of the subsequent coverage, we learn that the Catholic boards are a little further ahead in their capital planning on the two projects at hand. The French board's money is to bring the K-8 elementary school into the same building as an already announced and funded high school (the same thing happened just over two years ago in Woodstock). The English Catholic board's funding is also for a project that is already past the design stage. The NNDSB, which is losing students moving out to one of the new schools, is now faced with what to do with an aged, even-emptier building.
The first piece highlighted the difference in funding received by each board, with an explanation from ministry and board sources explaining that operating far-flung schools in this province's second language is costly. The NNDSB was being pushed to consider partnership opportunities-- but then there's no one speaking as to why the boards didn't continue this thought into the next frame. So it becomes a pissing match between boards and communities-- the public board with a history of better facilities (at the time they were built on the graces of commercial and industrial assessments) that are now aging and suffering from declining enrolment vs. Catholic and French-language boards that had always been poorer cousins of the public system prior to the 1998 funding changes. Combined with a government that's been happy to fund separate facilities for these boards -- witness the number of French-language schools moving from shared facilities and portables to new schools -- it creates disparities. It's the cost of ensuring French-language education rights are maintained however, amongst a community that tires of always having the second-hand and lesser facilities.
What's the solution? Is there a simple one?
Public boards need to be smarter about their accommodation-- they need to realize the ministry isn't about to fund upgrades to all their schools in an era of declining enrolment. The boards that have understood this have reaped the benefits of now almost three rounds of capital funding for new facilities and renovations. The ones who didn't get a jump on a solid capital plan suffer.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

School closings on Front

Initially saw this Globe and Mail article online through a news alert, but popped down to the common room today to glance at fronts and noticed Kate Hammer's piece on the change at the Toronto District School Board and its effect on pending school closure was bottom-front.
Nothing earth-shattering in the article (the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald expressed similar thoughts, her own, on Oct. 26) as the only board that has successfully avoided the top-to-bottom review of its facilities and accommodation is the TDSB. With a few contentious decisions (I giggled at the midnight meeting remark-- there's a few people outside TO who know all about those) behind it, several trustees attuned to the review process are leaving at the end of the month and are to be replaced by anti-closure candidates.
They launched and completed eight ARCs (accommodation review committees) in 2009/2010 and approved the closing of nine schools, generating almost $50-million in savings on operational and maintenance costs.
That cost-saving consensus may be lost. The new board appears split between pro- and anti-closing candidates, many of whom were backed by the teachers unions, said Scott Harrison, the trustee for Ward 19 (Scarborough Centre) who lost a bid for re-election to David Smith, a candidate who opposed closing schools.
And the proposed closings the new board will consider in coming months will likely face staunch opposition.
“I think this will be very problematic for the board because with fewer and fewer students every year, you can’t maintain your stock hold of properties, i.e. schools, like you have in the past,” he said.
The piece does put a number of (hopefully) misconceptions in play. I particularly loved the trustee saying a 4,000-student-a-year decline is not that big a deal because it's only eight students per school. Awesome. I suppose you'll just bus kids around every September to spread out the demographic changes that equally? Doubtful.
I also found it to rely heavily on financial issues. Closing nine schools = $50 million in savings. Outgoing trustee Josh Matlow noting the new board will have to face financial issues. What about the facility question? Most TO media gushed about the new high school that opened in September, an innovative approach that provides a modern educational facility combined with some private-sector (residential) development.
Another misconception is the description of what school-closure review committees are supposed to accomplish. "ARCs are accommodation review committees: panels of parents, community members and educators charged with identifying schools that are underused and can be closed or consolidated." No. That's not what they do. ARCs don't identify the initial group of schools considered by the committee. Trustees do, on recommendation of their senior staff members. They may make recommendations to close (a) school(s), that agree or disagree with the recommendation(s) already received by trustees from administrators. ARCs provide trustees with opinion and advice based on the committee's examination of the data and the communities' input. It might seem like I'm arguing semantics, but it's phrasing like this that leaves people with the impression ARCs make decisions on school closures. That misconception then amplifies and perpetuates the anger when communities see trustees disagreeing with ARC recommendation(s). Anger that leads to things like the Community Schools Alliance.
Enough about that.
Are there options out there that could lead to fewer school closings in Toronto? I would say yes, but many of them might be reliant on the TDSB squeezing every possible penny out of the Toronto Lands Corp. that it controls. Selling unused vacant properties would net some one-time revenues that could be used to sustain the cost of running under-capacity schools. The bigger revenue -- outside of any continuing pity money trickling down from the ministry -- might be from setting up leasehold agreements at underused facilities. The government created the policy early this year to allow for space to be leased for governmental and non-profit community use. The TLC is an opportunity to develop some leasehold agreements with tenants that could see revenues develop to help modernize school facilities for community use and instruction, as well as cover some costs for the non-instructional space under lease.
The only media I've seen touch the TLC in the past 18 months has been the National Post, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post.
To the larger issue-- as I've continually mentioned, this TDSB process will continue to be instructive for those within the big city and then the rest of us (can I say us when I'm here temporarily?) who've already been through this issue, multiple times.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Grading the new report cards

Many parents across Ontario with kids in elementary schools have either already received or will soon receive the new fall 'progress' reports that replaced the traditional fall report cards that used to include a grade. The Globe and Mail touches on report-card reform in a general sense in this piece, the Toronto Sun and its sister papers included an actual scan of what the progress reports look like. Most other media out there also touched on it in the back end of this week.
When the switch was announced, it brought out the gamut of commentary on the move-- from those critiquing the government for giving into elementary teachers' federations who have long advocated for a no-grade report card in the fall, to those who don't care and those who see a report card that supposedly speaks to bigger-picture comments of progress rather than ranking as a positive.
The troops were out in full force again as the report cards started coming out this week.
I'm left asking myself whether what's on a report card matters as much as what a student and her/his parent(s) are going to do with the information. I realize some parents just want to see that A-grade mark (or C-grade, really, for some parents) and not really concern themselves far more with anything else. An edu-speak comment that just confuses (or perhaps provides useful information) isn't helpful to that parent.
However, as most schools schedule the first round of meet-the-teacher or parent-teacher interviews shortly after these fall reports, that's where my question of what parents do with this assessment information comes in. I would see myself as a parent (I'm not yet a parent) that would attend all of these regardless of the evaluation my child had received to ask the teacher questions about what was behind his/her assessment-- good or bad. It would be interesting to see if these new progress reports bring more parents in to ask teachers what the heck the comments really mean than would have come in under previous years' fall report cards.
At the same time, this could place even greater pressure on teachers and their federations, who've argued six (or eight) weeks isn't enough time to properly assess a child's progress. So now they're assessing and providing comments instead of grades-- which if the comments are at all meaningful may take just as long or longer than grading. Then, when/where parents inquire, it also puts those teachers in position where they need to explain what the comments mean and why they chose to make them. I hope for many teachers this won't be that difficult-- their federations and boards are telling us in the public teachers are always using multiple assessments.
Now that they've been given an opportunity to show the public one of these other forms of assessment, let's see how they do.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fringe fellowship benefits

One of the many (oh so many) benefits of the Canadian Journalism Fellowship program is that we get the opportunity to do some travel, meet people and have conversations we wouldn't normally be able to do if we were all still working in our newsrooms.
One such opportunity arose earlier this week as the fellowship travelled to Kitchener-Waterloo and spent just over day in the twin cities as guests of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The itinerary: Morning welcome and quick introduction to Perimeter (at PI), followed by a roundtable and tour of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Lunch was held at Communitech, where we had the pleasure of meeting officials from Christie Digital Inc., Desire2Learn, the Canadian Digital Media Network and RIM. Following a brief rest, we trekked down to Waterloo Collegiate Institute to hear MIT's Seth Lloyd (I'll link the feed of the lecture once it's posted at PI) speak about quantum physics and photosynthesis. That wonderful lecture was followed by dinner at PI's renowned Black Hole cafeteria, where I had the pleasure of being seated across from Lloyd and one of the physics guys long-associated with PI, Lee Smolin.
This was a light-speed (no pun intended) jaunt through the region, a nice return for me since I started my journalism career there in 2002 and am a frequent return visitor-- though never with the access and experiences we had Wednesday.
The day was a stimulating series of conversations with people about the intellectual conversations and community construction that continues to happen in that region. From the academic and scientific gains being made at the institutes to the work being done at places like Communitech to enhance collaboration and invest in innovation and new-business incubation.  From the mathematical to the physical, technological, digital and intellectual, the day had all of our synapses firing continually. It was an eye opener for some of the fellows as well who had only a passing familiarity with Kitchener-Waterloo and were impressed at how the area has transformed itself. PI was compared, on several occasions and by ourselves, as the sort of meeting place that Massey College is-- although Massey is interdisciplinary and PI is for the brains of physicists.
It sets up our group for the pending travel-- we are off to Berlin for a week in December courtesy of the German government, and to cap off the fellowship in April we are (now confirmed) travelling to Finland and Denmark courtesy of those two countries' governments.
After the past day, even coming back to Massey seems like falling into a slightly lower level of the stratosphere.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hold your nose and think of England...

Always scintillated by the research and reports that non-governmental organizations in Ontario do regarding K-12 education. In the past several days, we've had the updated version of "Sunshine on Schools" released by the Society for Quality Education as well as a report on Ontario's school councils released Monday by People for Education. One got coverage (read: the Star, the Ottawa Citizen as two examples), the other really didn't.
The coverage I've seen seems to skim over some of the more interesting parts of the PFE report, regarding how school councils communicate with parents, as well as with the mandated parent involvement committees (PICs) that exist at the board level. PICs get cash from the provincial government based on the board's student population, that is supposed to be used for activities that support increased parental involvement in schools. The report also appropriately speaks to the research showing that parental engagement (read: being involved in your child(ren)'s school) has a positive impact on student achievement.
The focus? Fundraising. Again, given PFE released its report on fundraising earlier this year, perhaps it was the easiest thing to write about. School councils report that while they'd like to be doing more of all the other things they're supposed to be doing (check the regulation), they spend most of their time on fundraising. If that's so offensive, then why not just stop? No one -- except perhaps school council members themselves -- is putting pressure on these bodies to fundraise. It's tradition, certainly, in the case that many school-council predecessors existed solely for the purpose of fundraising to support the things parents wanted in their schools.
But I come back to the question-- if fundraising is the 'dirty evil' that's an anathema to these school councils, then why do they keep doing it?
The PFE report offers no insight into this. Perhaps it's a question for next year's study.

What is Our Kids trying to say?

I remain puzzled by this post over at Our Kids that popped across my horizon in a tweet the other day. For the uninitiated, myself included, it's about school closures in Vancouver. I'll admit I'm out of my element when speaking about how school funding and the accommodation processes work in British Columbia. This article though, left me scratching my head. Definitely, the point that school closures are not a simple subject by any means is made and understood. I'm left wanting however-- in the examples cited, what are the student populations? What are the physical conditions of the schools involved? There is a reference to demographics at one point -- that enrolment is up slightly despite the much larger predicited decrease -- but nothing on which direction the overall enrolment trends might be heading, other than a vague reference that it's expected to rebound. Rebound to what? To the same level it was at when?
Here's an example of what I mean.
It’s also a matter of placing more importance on quality than quantity. The provincial government may have to rethink, or be more flexible, with the funding model that provides financial support for each school district in B.C. based on the number of students enrolled. Whenever possible, we urgently need to find ways to tackle budget cuts and financial efficiencies without uprooting school communities.
Still, the issue is not black and white.  School trustees are conserving and using resources in the most productive way in deciding to close certain schools with low enrollment numbers, says Charles Ungerleider, professor of sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and a former deputy minister of education for B.C.. It’s justified to close a school in cases when a school is only filled to partial capacity, devoting pricey heating, lighting and cleaning services to the “surplus” space, he says in an interview with Our Kids Media.
In the wake of the erosion of public school funding, private schools, which have reportedly seen an increase in enrollment in B.C., can be an excellent alternative as they tend to offer smaller classes and high academic standards. But unfortunately not everyone can qualify for financial support or afford to send their children there.
Regardless of the numbers involved with budgets and private school fees, quality education and the ability to keep school communities together should not only be a privilege, but a right for everyone. We need to treat children and schools not just as numbers, but as valuable communities and the key to healthy societies. We need to invest in education, our schools and our children, in every way we can.
This piece, I think, points to an attempt to explain a school-closure process, but without providing all the necessary context. Saying school closures are complicated and can change a community is not cutting-edge-- it's well known and given that change is the one constant in education, should be anything but surprising.