Friday, November 14, 2008

Building Hope

The last two weeks have been a bit of a blur. Results Reviews occupy a lot of time for trustees at this time of year. As part of our oversight function, we go out to schools and talk to the Principals about their results last year- celebrating the successes, examining the challenges and discussing implications for the upcoming year. Parents attended most of my sessions and it is always valuable to hear their insights and perspectives as well. Each trustee reports back to the Board on what common themes they heard and this information helps guide the planning for the upcoming year.

I am still sifting through all that I've heard thus far (I have one more review session to complete).

My first impressions are:
(1) The challenges facing teachers today are immense. Teachers are being asked to differentiate instruction for children whose abilities and background experiences are so incredibly diverse. We have children showing up in kindergarten who have had such tremendously rich preschool lives that they can already read. Other children arrive at our schools who have never seen a book and don't know "how it works." We sometimes get hung up on split-classes and the impact that they may or may not have on learning. I would say that my impression is, really, there isn't a single class in Edmonton that ISN'T a split class, when we consider the wide range of abilities. A supposedly "single grade 5" class, can easily have children reading at grade 2 level sitting next to children reading at grade 8 level. The teacher is also likely to have children who are English language learners, children with learning disabilities and sadly, children who are hungry. Somehow, the teacher is to teach them all, nurture them all and see they all fulfill their potential.

(2) There is a growing disparity between our schools. Some schools have incredible achievement results; some do not. How will we confront this disparity and provide support for the schools that are experiencing challenges? I do not believe that there are "bad schools" or "bad kids". This type of labelling is very destructive and when you enter the building and talk to the teachers and see the children's faces...it is simply wrong. Some schools have a higher percentage of "at risk" children. They have a higher percentage of families living below the poverty line. We know there are pockets of need. So, how can we fill those pockets? How can we provide additional support to the families, the children and the teachers? How can we empower the community to help itself? And how can we build the bridges of understanding and compassion between the "haves" and the "have-nots"? How can we strengthen the human bonds?

(3) So much work is already being done. Our schools are working very hard to meet these needs and challenges. We have breakfast clubs, mentoring and success coaches. We have partnerships with Aboriginal Elders and Multicultural health brokers. Teachers do home visits, come early and run homework clubs after school. Principals drive to pick up kids on exam day and secretaries call to wake up kids in the morning. The compassion and dedication is overwhelming. The stories are endless. But still, some kids are falling through the cracks. The band-aid solutions can only take us so far.

(4) We need something larger than individual efforts. I don't think the Principal, the teachers, or indeed the Education system can solve the underlying problems that are facing our schools. A more integrated, cohesive and comprehensive system needs to be constructed to serve the complex needs we're seeing in our classrooms.

What will I do? What can I do?

The solution will emerge by listening. I will be listening to those who understand the problem best and who can help me develop a keen understanding of the barriers to success. I'm not willing to give up on these kids. I'm not willing to accept that "some of our kids just can't make it."

What can you do?
A lot! Join me in learning more about these children, these families and these communities. Don't see these children as "someone else's problem." Reach out. Get involved and most importantly, have the courage to believe that you can make a difference.

Last night, I attended a joint board, cross-ministry (Health, Children's Services, Justice and Education) dinner meeting. A young man spoke about the importance of simple gestures in the lives of at-risk youth. He read a message from a young woman who said that the day her counsellor told her he was proud of her was a pivotal moment. She saw herself differently and from that moment decided to turn her life around.

It was a powerful message: we all have the capacity to build hope.

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