Thursday, May 27, 2010

Board motion re: community schools

At our next public board meeting on June 15 (which is the last public board meeting of this school year), we will be looking at several important things, including the budget for the upcoming year.  I'm sure you've read about our leaner budget in the Journal. We've done what we can to minimize the impacts felt at the classroom, but it will still be a challenge. Over the next couple of weeks, trustees will be meeting with principals and central decision unit leaders to understand the full implications of the budget.

On June 15, we will also be debating the following motion that I put forward:

That Edmonton Public Schools ensure that schools offering regular programming (also known as local or community schools) receive an equitable level of district promotion and support as schools that offer alternative programs or programs of choice.

The point of the motion is equity between schools, not preferential treatment for one type of school over another. I believe many parents appreciate choice within our system. However, in my opinion, our current choice model does not fully embrace the community school and it is important to ensure a balanced approach so that all choices, including community schools, may flourish. Currently, we have a number of practices and policies that seem to favour alternative programming over community programming. For instance, schools offering programs of choice are free to advertise across the entire District. Community schools may only advertise within their catchment area. Schools offering programs of choice qualify for bussing, while community schools typically do not. Is it any wonder that, with the cards stacked against them in this way, many community schools are struggling with declining enrolment? Could your business succeed if you could only advertise to  people living within 10 blocks of your store, while your competitor could advertise to (and provide subsidized bussing for) customers across the entire city of Edmonton? I would suggest that it makes sense to create a level playing field for all schools.

The District website and glossy publications (see pg.10) highlight all the schools offering alternative programs. Schools that do not offer these programs are not listed or profiled (see pg. 9). We have a whole administrative department, called Programs, focused on alternative programs and these skilled administrators work to develop, support and ensure the success of alternative programs. Schools receive additional funding to implement alternative  programs.

Is there an equal level of administrative focus and support to promote and nuture community schools? The short answer is "no". In fact, I cannot think of a single District-level promotional effort focused on community schools. Occasionally, the media will pick up on the achievements of local schools, like Westglen Elementary, which became the first school in Alberta to reach Earth III status, but this was more due to media interest and a fabulously on-the-ball teacher, rather than a concerted effort by the District to shine the light on the success of a community school. If fact, unless you knew about our "Find a School" tool on the EPSB website, you might not even know that there was an exceptional local school in your neighbourhood.

To my knowledge, EPSB has never engaged in a discussion with the public about the many benefits of local community schools. I would love to see the occasional EPSB communique saying: "There is a great choice in your own backyard." or "Save the Planet- walk to school." or "Get connected- meet your neighbours at school."  Perhaps EPSB will prove me wrong and enthusiastically partner with EFCL's upcoming "Living Local" campaign.
I also think the very language we use seems to suggest a two-tiered system of education. Local, community schools are said to offer "regular programming"- I don't know about you, but to me, the word "regular" doesn't sound very enticing. It suggests ordinary, plain, bare-minimum rather than extraordinary, adaptable or impressive. Contrast this with: "Programs of choice" which implies something that it is definitely worth choosing. The word "choice" suggests we will get something better. (Think: "choice cuts of meat").
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that everything currently in place for schools offering programs of choice be duplicated in exactly the same fashion for community schools. I'm talking about equity, not necessarily identical treatment. For instance, it may not be logistically possible (or environmentally sound) to add 100 more bus routes to cater to community schools- but we need to recognize the existing inequity and think of ways to offset the imbalance. Neither am I suggesting dismantling our system of choice: that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater! I believe we can move towards restoring balance through sensible and thoughtful consideration.

So, that's my thinking to date--- I have a couple of weeks to gather feedback and ideas to develop this idea further. I would encourage you to write to me: to let me know what you think. I am open to (and appreciate) all constructive feedback.  It helps me to elaborate on my ideas when you point out the flaws or gaps in my thinking, so please feel free to disagree with me!
If you would like to speak to the board on this item (or any other), you may do so by registering with our Board Secretary prior to June 15. Email: and indicate which item you would like to comment on. You will have 3 minutes to speak. I suggest timing your speech- 3 minutes goes by quickly!

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