Saturday, May 23, 2009

Board meeting agenda- Tues, May 26

Tuesday's meeting has a number of items relating to Special Needs Education and Financial matters.

Here's the line up:

- Background on the names of the 6 ASAP schools (conference report)
- School Resource Officers Program
- Talented Young Writer Award Recipient: Skye Hyndman
- Locally developed courses
- Non-resident fees
- Inclusion of Students with Special Needs update
- Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) update
- Plan for Special Education 2009-2010
- Leasing Summary
- Framework for Involvement in Site-based decision making
- Financial Reporting Profile (surplus, capital reserve, capital assets)
- Interim Financial Statement
- Proposed Budget 2010-2011
- Trustee requests for information re: late buses (special needs), city 12 ward configuration
- Conference report: Principal designations, central admin designations
- Motion: re: urging Minister to explore geothermal pilot project
- ASBA business

For full reports, go to my heading "Helpful Links" and click on "Board agendas". They are organized by date.

Cheers!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sarah O'Donnell's piece in the Journal on the "No Zero" policy has stirred up a healthy discussion about where education is today and where it is going. http://kl.am/idU

I must first confess the impact of my up-bringing vis-a-vis my notions of responsibility. My father, a right-wing Albertan who spent 20 years in the military, has a very black and white view of the world. You show up, do what you're told, respect authority, don't ask for any concessions, make it on your own, mean what you say and say what you mean. He was very strict and things were very cut and dried with him. My mother is a left-leaning British woman, who grew up very quickly during the War, learned to go without, always maintained a stiff upper lip and a strong sense of duty and etiquette. Things were most definitely "right" and "wrong" with both my parents and probably as a consequence, I was a straight A student, who sought the approval of all my teachers. A zero was an unthinkable horror. So, for someone like me... growing up with parents as I did... the mere THOUGHT of a zero was enough to ensure that all my assignments were done on time and all tests were completed on the scheduled day, no matter what. End of sentence.

However, we need to recognize that a) not every student is the same, b) not every family is the same and c) education has shifted away from an authoritarian, one-size-fits-all, controlled model. All three factors tell me that flexibility, understanding and compassion are vital if we are going to get all kids across that finish line of high school completion.

It's my opinion that zeros don't work for kids who are already struggling. They don't motivate them, they don't inspire them to try again and they don't (as much as my Dad might disagree) teach them to "shape up or ship out." Well, maybe the latter but rarely the former. I've heard from teachers that the kids who repeatedly fail to pass in assignments or complete their work WANT zeros, not because it will "set them straight"... because a zero represents the end. It's done. The teacher will stop nagging me now. Instead, these dedicated teachers refuse to give in to the ease of a zero and refuse to give up on these challenging students. The assignments get done because the teachers sit at lunch with them until the work is completed. The test is given the day the students come back. The work is marked when it is handed in. The teachers see the end of the year as the final goal, not this week, not this day. These teachers focus on what the students need to be successful in the next year of school and let go of all the little stuff. They adapt to the circumstances of the student and sometimes, these can be extremely trying. In the "good old days", teachers wouldn't ask and therefore, often had no idea of the struggles students faced outside school.

Most schools have adopted an "Assessment for Learning" model. Under this approach, testing is a tool to help guide the learning, to point out the gaps in student knowledge and to redirect the efforts of both teacher and student so that that student can be successful. We grew up with an "Assessment OF learning" model: testing was merely a means to grade students, to assign scores and to identify the ones who "got it" and the ones who were "flunking."

I recognize that there is something in all of us that wants to punish what we see as bad behaviour. We worry about the notion of consequences being lost and kids growing up without a clear sense of obligation, duty and responsibility. Will they ever learn the importance of deadlines if we don't teach them? Are we letting them get away with too much? I think deadlines are important; I have never missed one. I think being on time is important. For me, these are signs of respect. However, maybe these behaviours comes further down the line, once attitudes towards learning and being in school are improved. Perhaps, they develop after a strong relationship has been cultivated between the teacher and the student. (See www.twitter.com/suehuff for link on the CBC piece where the teacher talks about improved attendance and academic achievement after implementing an exercise program) I think ultimately losing your lunch hour, being forced to complete the work in front of the teacher, is a far worse consequence for most kids than a zero. With the relentless efforts of their teachers, they may learn something far more important than deadlines: that someone cares and thinks they are worth the effort.

At the end of the day, zeros are simply not instructive and we are in the business of learning.

So, what's so bad about kids getting zeros, flunking and eventually dropping out? Maybe it's what they deserve, I can hear my Dad saying. Thirty years ago, society could afford to have kids quit school. They could find work without a high school diploma. They could join the Army and have discipline instilled in boot camp, as my Dad did. But today, we face a different world. The vast majority of jobs now require AT LEAST a high school diploma. The statistics show that, given our aging demographics, we will need each and every high school student to graduate, be productive and help to keep our economy and our society going. On a purely self-interested level, we can't afford to have any high school drop outs.

Economics aside, the most important thing to me is the moral imperative. There should be no "throw away" kids. Every single one deserves as many chances as they need to succeed, because the cost of them failing is just too high. Equality is not giving everyone the same thing- it's giving everyone what they need to be successful.

So, I say, hats off to the dedicated teachers who willingly take on the extra work of finding multiple ways to reach and teach kids. We all owe them a huge debt.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thoughts on Bill 44

As you've probably heard by now, the proposed Bill 44 is stirring up quite a bit of controversy, especially the section which would allow parents to remove their children from classes dealing with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. On first blush, this might seem reasonable and, in fact, this does happen already. Parental rights are well protected under both the School Act and Alberta Education Policy. Issues are currently dealt on a case-by-case basis at the school level and it appears to me that there have been very few problems. Schools are accommodating parental wishes easily and with little fuss. Which begs the question, why do we need additional legislation if what we have is working?


The real problem with Bill 44 sits with the requirement for teachers to give advance notice to parents for any discussion of sexuality, sexual orientation or religion. As this bill falls under the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multicultural Act, many fear that the inadvertent failure, on the part of a teacher to give advance notice, could result in litigation and cases coming before the Human Rights Commission. Many have expressed concern about how this could create an untenable situation in classrooms, where the issues of religion, sexuality and sexual orientation often bleed into current events discussions, social studies, science, drama or literature classes. Teachers I've spoken to feel they "couldn't teach under Bill 44;" they would feel paralyzed by it. Good teachers see their job as more than just "curriculum-delivery", in fact they often say that the most important teaching happens outside the curriculum.


So, why are religion and sex such hot topics of conversation? Can't it simply be covered on one day, as per the curriculum outline? In my opinion, both sex and religion cut to the core of what it means to be human and that's why they thread through so many other topics. Here are some real life examples of situations, that a provincially-acknowledged "Excellent" teacher has told me around the dinner table, all of which have Bill 44 implications:


- Teaching the prescribed "contraceptives" class to a group of very quiet and attentive grade eight students on Monday and having a student follow up with questions on Wednesday about the female condom. (hey, this is not something I could absorb in one day, either!)

- Having one kid remark that a classroom activity was "so gay" and the teacher taking the time to identify the comment as inappropriate, talk about words, what they mean, how they can exclude and hurt, and how people who are homosexual often feel marginalized by the word "gay" being used to mean "stupid, lame, boring, dumb, or a waste of time". Having the kid say, "well, there's no one gay in this school so what does it matter?" Which leads to a discussion about 10% of the population being gay and assumptions on what gay looks like.....

- Teaching the grade 8 social studies curriculum!! The entire year is focused on world view and how different people throughout time saw themselves and their place in the world. In every case, their view of religion/god played a central part in how they behaved.

- Doing a project for the Social Studies curriculum, where kids have to make propaganda posters for Shogun Japan, in which many kids include "No Christians allowed" warnings. (This is accurate, as Christianity was banned at that time.)

- Students are in a play with has a group of girls huddled together around the monkey bar, whispering the chant: "girl talk, girl talk, girl talk, SEX!!, girl talk, girl talk, girl talk".

- An award-winning professional play called "Are we there Yet?" comes to the school. The open and frank discussion of sexuality encourages kids to bring forward their questions; the actors answer them candidly and without embarrassment. The atmosphere of openness continues after the play has moved on to the next school.


The examples go on and on. Sex, religion, religion, sex. As children grow, they struggle with both. What do I believe? What do others believe? Why is my body changing? What am I going to do with it? Urges, needs, hopes, beliefs and desires. Humanity is this flesh and this spirit. And to say that it can be cut aside, neatly "covered" in one or two perfectly contained classes and then never revisited is naive.


We want children to be critical thinkers, to be adaptable and creative. We want them to understand other people's perspectives and accept differences. How can we accomplish this if teachers are not free to seize those teachable moments and guide, inquire, correct and respond to important questions? We must trust that teachers are not out to inculcate. They are not there to "turn our kids into homosexuals" (!!). They are there to teach. I, for one, want to let them teach and I'm glad that our kids trust them enough to ask those important questions.


In my opinion, Bill 44 is flawed and needs to be amended. I encourage you to write to your MLA and express your point of view before it goes to third and final reading.




Some additional info, if you are a "details" person:

Under section 50 (1) of the School Act, schools have the right to prescribe religious and patriotic instruction and exercises.

Under subsection 50(2) provides a clear opt-out provision that is essentially identical to section 2(a) and (b) of Bill 44. It is as follows:

(2) Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises, or both, the teacher or other person shall permit the student

(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction or exercises are taking place for the duration of the instruction or exercises, or

(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction or exercises.”

With respect to sexuality or sexual orientation, schools have long been guided by Alberta Education Policy 1.7.1 (Sensitive Issues) which for the 2008-2009 school year has been repealed and replaced by the Controversial Issues provisions of the Guide to Education. The Controversial Issues provision is as follows:

”Controversial issues are those topics that are publicly sensitive and upon which there is no consensus of values or beliefs. They include topics on which reasonable people may sincerely disagree. Opportunities to deal with these issues are an integral part of student learning in Alberta.

Studying controversial issues is important in preparing students to participate responsibly in a democratic and pluralistic society. Such study provides opportunities to develop the ability to think clearly, to reason logically, to open-mindedly and respectfully examine different points of view and to make sound judgments.

Teachers, students and others participating in studies or discussions of controversial issues need to exercise sensitivity to ensure that students and others are not ridiculed, embarrassed or intimidated for positions that they hold on controversial issues.

Controversial issues:

  • represent alternative points of view, subject to the condition that information presented is not restricted by any federal or provincial law
  • reflect the maturity, capabilities and educational needs of the students
  • meet the requirements of provincially prescribed and approved courses and programs of study and education programs
  • reflect the neighbourhood and community in which the school is located, as well as provincial, national and international contexts.

Controversial issues that have been anticipated by the teacher, and those that may arise incidentally during instruction, should be used by the teacher to promote critical inquiry and/or to teach thinking skills.

The school plays a supportive role to parents in the areas of values and moral development and shall handle parental decisions in regard to controversial issues with respect and sensitivity.”


Monday, May 11, 2009

Board Agenda- Tuesday

Tuesday's meeting looks light to me. Sorry for this late post... but the weekend was a blur of Mother's Day celebrations and sunshine. (and I got a new bike!!)

For the full agenda, with reports, visit:
http://www.epsb.ca/board/agenda.shtml

Here's the quick overview:
Improving Student Achievement- report from Westlock Elementary
An Act to Follow- 36 individuals recognized for outstanding contribution to the District
Locally Developed Courses to be Approved- some continuing, some new (Advanced techniques in Sculpting and Pre-Engineering). This list makes me want to go back to school. Our students certainly have a stunning array of choices.
Transportation Fees- ETS services plan 16% increase. We are funded at 3% increase from the Govt. Board will look at the idea of covering the shortfall with our transportation surplus, rather than pass on increases to parents.
Joint Use Agreement: Land. New type of reserve land called Community Services Reserve to be established.
ASBALE Survey- ASBALE stands for Alberta School Boards Association for Language Education.
Early Years Policy- Draft for Board's consideration, outlining critical importance of the 0-5 years.
Conference Report- (item 10)- Leadership Services designation, our ASBA Friends of Education nomination, Board position on local bargaining, change to Request for Information process.
Withdrawal of Trustee Gibeault's motion re: the travel ban (in light of the fact that it was lifted earlier this week)

As always, our meeting starts at 6 PM. All welcome. Free parking underground. This one should be finished by 9 PM, I'm guessing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Open Letter #2 re: Swine Flu

This is a reprint of an email I sent out today to a number of parents who contacted me over the past 24 hours:

Dear concerned parents and community members,

Please forgive the blanket response, but I have received quite a few emails and phone calls on this topic, so it is difficult to give personal responses to everyone. First let me state that I understand the frustration you are feeling and have great sympathy for all those affected. If this were my child and my money, I would be very upset.

The current situation, which seems to change daily, is being closely monitored by the District and the Board. We are aware that many health officials have advised that travel bans are not necessary and certainly if this were a simple family vacation, that would be the end of the discussion (for me personally, in any case.) I would rely on the advice of health officials, weigh in the possible risk and in all likelihood decide that the benefits of the trip far outweighed the possible risk. However, as an organization in charge of thousands of students and staff, it is more complex. We must evaluate how other countries are implementing their pandemic plans and how Canada is being perceived as a site of the pandemic (after Mexico and the USA). We must be aware that Canadians today were quarantined simply because they are from Canada, not because they were displaying any flu symptoms. With a pig herd in Alberta being identified as the first to pick up the virus from humans, how will this impact world perception of Alberta in particular? No one knows. There are many world variables that we as a District cannot control. The school trip is an extension of the school environment and we are charged with providing a safe school environment as job #1. Our definition of safety is more far-reaching than simply protecting them from contracting the swine flu.

It has been suggested to me that we should leave the decision regarding personal safety to individual parents and individual staff members. We could have parents sign additional waivers to assume any additional liability. But how do we protect our staff? How comfortable would a staff member feel expressing concern about the added responsibility of traveling at this time? If the teacher decides not to go, the trip could be canceled due to lack of teacher supervision and then all the parental concern and disappointment would be focused on the staff member. In my opinion, that would not be fair. I understand that some staff are eager to continue with the trips and do not feel burdened with any additional complications. This may be true, but it may also be true that other teachers are feeling anxious, trying to imagine at what point they would seek medical attention for a child with a cough and what might happen to the supervision of the other students, if the group was “down” one adult. We as a Board must consider all these variables.

I am a parent of two children and I accept risk every day as an integral part of their healthy development. I believe children need to be allowed to grow without a constant cloud of fear and anxiety. I send them to the park on their own. I let them bounce on the trampoline. However, I would be less likely to feel “okay” with this same level of risk if I was in charge of my neighbour’s child. I give this analogy to help people understand why the District is being so cautious (in some opinions, “over-reacting”). At the same time, the Board is listening to parents. We are listening to the health officials and Ministers in the provincial government. We are well aware that we are one of only a handful of school boards to take this step and if an amendment is deemed necessary, we recognize the value in rendering a decision sooner rather than later. I can assure you that no one is taking this lightly and we are exploring alternatives that we can all live with.

Whatever decision the Board arrives at, it will be imperative that we clearly communicate the reasons behind the decision and all the valuable input we have considered. I have been and will continue to post on my blog as one avenue to continue the dialogue and build two-way communication.

Thank you for taking the time to contact me. I do appreciate your input.


Best regards,

Sue


Friday, May 1, 2009

Swine Flu- round 3

The Swine Flu travel ban continues to bang around inside my head as we approach the debate on May 12.

The National Post has an article today on why travel bans are not recommended by leading epidemiologists and doctors. You can read it here:
http://www.nationalpost.com/news/world/story.html?id=1551451

I also looked at the WHO website to get a clear sense of the levels of alert. We are at Level 5 now and it was interesting to note that Level 5 and 6 are grouped together under the heading "pandemic". Here's the link:
http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/phase/en/index.html

I heard an interview this morning on CBC Radio with a parent from Westminister School. There were a few pieces of misinformation in that interview that I would like to address:

The decision to ban travel is not, in my opinion, primarily driven by a concern for students being stranded in a foreign country. That is one concern to consider and not one that I had immediately thought of, but I believe the primary concern is the safety of students and staff. Some may feel cynical that this is more about litigation than safety, but having had the opportunity to work with the Superintendent closely over the past year, I would say that student safety is his primary concern and was indeed the motivating factor behind his decision.

Secondly, the interviewee stated that an unanimous decision was necessary for the Board to amend the travel ban. This will is incorrect. It will require a majority vote (5/9) to pass. The confusion arose from my explanation (obviously not too clearly!) that an unanimous vote was required to waive notice of motion and decide the outcome of Trustee Gibeault's motion to amend the travel ban on the same night that he proposed it. (i.e. this past Tuesday). The unanimous vote is required to proceed with the debate, without the customary two-week notice time, in order to protect even one dissenting trustee who may feel that they are not adequately prepared to enter into the debate fully and responsibly. It is a common measure in place to protect anyone from being "surprised" with a debate.

I hope that helps to clear up any confusion.

Again, I welcome all points of view in this discussion. So if you feel that your opinion is not the "popular" one and are afraid to voice it... I encourage you to contact me. I am a great proponent of freedom of expression, which is there to protect all views, even unpopular ones.