Archive for August, 2010

In early December 2009, a 7-year-old Cape Breton boy diagnosed with autism, James Delorey, was found dead after being lost for two days in the woods in freezing cold temperatures.  His heart-wrenching story was headline news and hundreds attended his funeral, some coming from all over Canada.  Since 2001, groups of concerned parents of autistic children, including the Autism Society of Cape Breton, had been pressing the Nova Scotia government to seriously address the exploding demand for special education services.  It took a tragic death to get the crying needs of autistic children on the public agenda and persistent parental pressure to spur some real action.

We are definitely facing a looming crisis in meeting the Special Education challenge.  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now the most common childhood development disorder.  General prevalence rates have soared from 1 in 2,500 in the 1960s to 1 in 110 in 2009 ( Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). In Nova Scotia alone, it is now estimated that some 1,400 of the province’s 132,000 students have been officially diagnosed with autism.  Since 1996, the NS Education Department has implemented an inclusion policy, meaning that — wherever possible — special needs children are “included in their community school with their same-aged peer group in regular classrooms.” Only recently has the Education Department sought outside help.  Last school year, as a stop-gap measure, a limited number of autistic children were financially assisted to attend one of three designated private schools offering intensive support programs, Landmark East School, Bridgeway Academy, and Churchill Academy.

A Provincial Autism Management Advisory Team Report ( May, 2010) did not sugar coat the serious problem. (See  https://www.gov.ns.ca/coms/noteworthy/AutismReport.html ) In a system already under stress, the Report demonstrated that  new needs were emerging and the current ‘patchwork’ approach simply won’t work to head-off the looming crisis for families. With 1 in 110 children now diagnosed with ASD, the total numbers of autistic autistic children now outnumber those with Down Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, Cystic Fibrosis, Cerebral palsy, and Diabetes combined. It is also clear that boys are 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder and that it is the most inherited of all the major disorders.

Autism among children is not new, but it is clear that numbers matter when it comes to getting the attention of policy makers.  It was first identified in the early 1940s by two different doctors, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, and they coined the term “autism” – from the Greek word self – to describe children who seemed to “live in solitary worlds.” Since Asperger included children who had average to high IQs in his study, the term “Asperger Syndrome” has been reserved for child prodigies and high functioning people with the autistic disorder. Some 70% of people with other forms of autism suffer from mild to severe mental retardation. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/autism/

Parents of autistic children learn very quickly that they will have to fight for every bit of outside assistance and often find themselves spearheading the whole program. One of the finest programs is Giant Steps, a parent support program founded by a dozen families in Westmount, Quebec, back in 1981.  (www.giantstepsmontreal.com ) While serving as a Public School Trustee in York Region in the mid-1990s, I helped a Toronto Giant Steps group get started in the Vaughan Secondary School attendance area.  What impressed me about Giant Steps was that it was child-focused, but entirely parent-driven. Today, that little parent initiative has grown enormously. Since 2000, Giant Steps Toronto has acquired its own school site, Flowervale Public School, and operates a “Kids Helping Kids” program for between 500 and 740 kids per year in the Greater Toronto Area, generously supported by the Trillium Foundation. (www.giantstepstoronto.ca)

With the growing numbers of autistic children, Special Education Services in most public boards of education are now stretched to the breaking point. In Nova Scotia, the Department of Education is trying to catch-up after years of benign neglect.  Since 2001, the whole issue has been ducked by successive governments, likely because of the costs involved in providing the needed in-school and after-school support.  A Provincial Autism Centre was founded in October 20o2, funded by the Craig Foundation, endowed by Joan and Jack Craig, parents of an adult son with autism. In February 2007, a Halifax mother struggling with her own autistic son went into full panic mode when rumours circulated that her son’s South End school might possibly close.  Scattered groups of parents in Bedford-Sackville and the Annapolis Valley, on the South Shore, and in far-off Cape Breton soldiered on fighting for their children.  It’s  a  completely patchwork system, heavily dependent upon parent advocacy.

Provincial education ministries committed to “inclusion” are facing a new reality that was never envisioned. The principle of inclusion is a laudable one, provided the numbers are manageable in regular classrooms. Most teachers do their best, but few can cope with the numbers found today in many regular classes. In Nova Scotia, the situation is particularly grim. The recent Provincial Report demonstrated that very few teachers are trained or equipped to deal with autistic children and “teachers do not have time” to even “carry out the autism curriculum” let alone apply the “many faceted approaches.”  The service gap is tremendous, given a survey which showed that 3 out of 5 families in Nova Scotia lack access to school activity or recreational programs, after-school programs, and summer camps.

The looming crisis in Special Education can no longer be ignored in both public and private education. What can be done to respond to the growing need for school-based programs and ongoing parent support activities?  Will “clinical approaches”  depending upon medical professionals work, given the numbers? And is a Special Education model based upon inclusion sustainable in the long-run?

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All of us are now inundated with information. Every day we are literally bombarded with new facts and opinions. On the Internet and television as well as in newspapers, magazines and textbooks, writers and posters present ideas they want us to accept.  Academics and media analysts argue about the real impact of  overexposure to violence, skinny models, and gratuitous sexuality on today’s children and teens. One educational progressive says we need to “respect the child” at all times; an education reformer rails about the latest abysmal test results and says we need to restore “standards.”

Today’s educational world is downright confusing to most observers. Rarely do the educational “experts” agree and when they do get ready for wholesale implementation of the idea. One of my favourite little books, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions (Prentice Hall, 2001) puts a finger on the essential problem: In most cases, you are faced with the prospect of deciding on your own which ideas to accept, which to reject, and which to withhold judgment on.

Since the time of the Ancients, education has been guided by philosophical principles. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates observed that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  It follows, then, that a truly educated person is one who lives “an examined life.”  And one would expect to find many such people in the world of education. Yet everywhere you look educators seem to be parroting dogma or accepting most of what they encounter, making someone else’s opinion their own. It’s become so prevalent that whole books are being written and workshops being given on “How to Do Critical Thinking” in schools.

Self-examination is good for you. In my case, it was prompted by being asked by Stephen Patrick Clare to do a “Question and Answer” piece for a local Halifax monthly magazine (The Southender, August, 2010). That little exercise forced me to think more deeply about my core philosophy and what really makes me tick.  Here’s a sample of my responses:

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing you?

Engaging the public in education is the biggest challenge. Schools and school systems tend to be surprisingly insular and can become modern day fortresses. Our aging population is gradually becoming more disconnected from the educational world. We need more public accountability in education, not less. Public concern over the state of education remains high, but many feel powerless and adults without children in the system can be indifferent.  Most educational “research” is politically-driven, so there’s a great need for people who can cut to the heart of the matter.  It takes a crisis like the whole Ken Fells fiasco for most people to sit-up and take notice.

Q:What are the rewards of doing what you do?

Educating children, mostly teenagers, and leading schools has been my life’s work for over three decades, in Ontario, Quebec, and now here in Nova Scotia. Since the founding of Schoolhouse Consulting in September 2009, I am enjoying the new-found freedom to think, read, and write about issues that matter. Being accountable only to yourself is far more satisfying and I’m much happier tackling big issues than fretting about petty issues or administrivia.

Q: What motivated you to write The Grammar School: Striving for Excellence for 50 Years in a Public School World?

With the Grammar School’s fiftieth anniversary approaching, I became fascinated with the untold story of the School’s unique origins, trials, and triumphs. Board member John Kitz, son of one of the Founders, Leonard Kitz, piqued my curiosity and provided a missing link. It was through John that I learned of the important role Hilda Neatby’s 1953 best seller So Little for the Mind played in sparking the whole Grammar School experiment. Right from the beginning the School has been a “lighthouse” seeking to raise the standard in what Neatby called a virtual “sea of mediocrity.” It’s a ‘warts and all’ story of one school’s titanic struggles to carry the torch for standards in a public school world. It ended up being my gift to the School and a fine way to finish my tenure.

Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges currently facing the city’s – and the province’s – education sector?

Our education sector is in far better shape than that of the United States, where the “School Wars” are tearing the public system apart. Judging from Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) we are fortunate to be living here. Having said that, we do face our own challenges.

Complacency and insularity are bigger issues in Nova Scotia because we are quite removed from the main currents of educational change. Our Halifax Regional Board has aggressively embraced standardized testing and systematized school improvement strategies. People are now asking “how much testing is too much?” and can we continue to defend the “one-size-fits-all” model of public education?  We are lagging behind in “resetting” the system for the 21st century.

Closing the alarming educational gap is becoming one of my biggest concerns. With 81% of Nova Scotia students securing a high school diploma, we are producing far more university students than we can possibly absorb in the workforce. Yet about 38% of Nova Scotians still lack basic literacy and are facing gloomy life prospects. We simply have to narrow that gap between the educated and the undereducated in our society.

Q:What are some of the solutions to those issues?

That’s a much tougher question and there are no easy answers. If it was up to me, I’d focus on restoring academic standards, developing workplace transition partnership programs, and social enterprise solutions such as Pathways to Education. We would benefit greatly from introducing more school choices within the publicly-funded school system. Your everyday garden variety public schools suffer in comparison with mission-driven schools. More school options for parents of autistic children are desperately needed, as are “stay-in-school” programs that actually work to produce motivated, productive citizens.

Q: What does the future look like for the Canadian education sector?

It’s much brighter than that of the United States. We would benefit from taking a hard look at what’s happened to the entire American school system. Some say it’s “creative destruction” but I see it as more of a “class struggle” for control of the schools. We have to overcome the desire to provide schools that try to be ‘all things to all people.’ Public issues that inflame racial tensions in Nova Scotia continue to be worrisome to me. Good sound curriculum, more effective teaching, and support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged remain the best routes to better schools and educating motivated, purposeful children.

Thank you for bearing with me and taking the time to consider my responses. You are, in all likelihood, a thoughtful person.

Why the rambling discourse? Have I hooked you?

If so, the Big Question is: What Makes You Tick? And what matters most to you in education?

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More than one in three 14-year-olds in Canada’s poor neighbourhoods still drop out before completing high school, and the figures are even higher among the most disadvantaged families in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Halifax.  Shockingly high school dropout rates of 50% and higher persist in spite of years of efforts by the provincial Ministries of Education, local school boards, and myriad community-based social service agencies. Amid all the gloom, where might we look for inspiration?

The latest Stay-in-School Initiative is Pathways to Education, a ten year-old Toronto-based social enterprise which can claim to be making a real difference. While educational authorities focus on raising provincial “attainment levels,”  Pathways has been quietly reclaiming teen lives in Canada’s hidden urban and suburban ghettos.

Since 2001, Pathways has stepped in where school boards often fear to tread. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” says Toronto’s Carolyn Acker, the feisty former nurse and  co-founder of Pathways to Education. When large groups of kids are left behind, the undereducated, disadvantaged class swells and the long-term costs to society are enormous. The Canadian Council on Learning has issued a dire warning that, by 2013, up to 70 per cent of all new and replacement jobs will require post-secondary education. We simply cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer.

This coming September, Pathways will expand to twelve different sites, in Metropolitan Toronto, Kitchener, Kingston, Montreal-Verdun, Halifax Spryfield, and North End Winnipeg.  Teens entering Grade 9 in ten different cities will be given a rare opportunity to break out of  the persistent cycle leading to being stigmatized as “high school drop-outs.”

The Pathways program does represent a new departure. It’s designed to be a grassroots, “bottom-up” mentoring and tutoring program bridging the gap between school and real life for teens. Instead of raising school standards, testing students and tightening discipline, or the extreme of firing the teachers, as in Central Falls, R.I., the formula is quite simple. Students entering Grade 9, at age 14, are offered a $1,000 tuition scholarship for every grade they pass. Upon graduation, they earn $4,000 in tuition credits, enabling them to continue their education.

The Pathways’ formula has, so far, achieved incredible results. Free after-school tutoring, mentoring, bus tickets to school, and the tuition scholarship have driven down dropout rates in three of Toronto’s most troubled communities, Regent Park, Lawrence Heights and Rexdale’s Jamestown.

In Regent Park, Canada’s oldest public housing district, the dropout rate has been slashed from 57 per cent to 10 per cent and post-secondary attendance has soared from 20 per cent to 80 per cent of graduates. One of the first of the 593 high school graduates, George Brown College student Sabbir Khan says, “Really, it changed my life.”

How did it get off the ground? After its initial success in Regent Park, the Toronto business community and the United Way took notice. A 2006 Boston Consulting Group report lauded its record in reducing dropout rates and attracted serious donor interest.

In partnership with the Toronto United Way, Pathways secured $11 million in funding to expand in late 2007 to two more sites, with plans for two more. The Ontario government then invested $19 million over four years to further extend the program to Ottawa, Kitchener and Scarborough. With new private and public sector financial support, it is now moving into Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Why is Pathways spreading like wildfire?  “It’s a community-based program,” Acker insists. “We don’t go into communities. They invite us and local support must come from within.”

In Halifax, the sponsoring group is Chignecto Community Connections, a long-established community development agency in Spryfield, one of Halifax’s scruffiest suburban neighborhoods. The city’s business and university community have rallied to the cause, and Nova Scotia’s power utility, Emera, has coughed up $400,000 over four years to kick-start the fundraising.

Central Spryfield is typical of most Pathway’s urban sites. It’s a priority neighbourhood because of its alarmingly high dropout rates (57%) and a “sense of urgency” expressed in 2006 by staff at Rockingstone Heights School. Since then, student performance results continue to lag, especially in Grade 8 literacy (11 per cent below par), the clearest indicator of future academic dropout tendencies. Even at its earliest stages, Pathways shows far more promise than the rather anemic Halifax school board system-wide initiatives.

Closing the achievement gap and producing employable, productive citizens is crucial to Canada’s future. The Big Questions are: Why has Pathways to Education enjoyed such remarkable success when many other efforts have failed? Does the secret lie in adapting the social enterprise model to education? Most importantly, why is it that we have come to rely on solutions originating outside the education system?

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