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Archive for September, 2013

Two radically different Canadian schools, Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School and Calgary’s Connaught School, have each been recently hailed as exemplars of 21st century advances in school architecture.  They also exemplify, in many ways, the advantages of “Fixing It First” over “Tear It Down and Start Anew” when it comes to building and sustaining true community-based schools for the future.

OpenConceptCommonsThe gleaming new Douglas Park School, a “new build” project designed by Fielding-Nair International, for the Regina Public Schools purports to be a “School of the Future” with its shiny glass walls, open area classrooms, and ‘learning suite’ interior design.  Its futuristic design, highlighted in a fully animated fly-over video, projects the outward image of progressive educational practice.  Presented as “innovative” design features, the open spaces , lack of walls and moveable partitions will be familiar to those acquainted with the infamous “open concept” schools of the late 1960s and 1970s.

ConnaughtNewOne hundred year old Connaught School, completely renovated in 2008-09, is the first sandstone modernization project in Canada ever to achieve silver status for leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED).  In addition to renewing the building, the Connaught project exemplified true community engagement.  Instead of mourning a school demolition, Connaught teachers and the so-called  CBE EcoTeam partnered to create  a series of educational resources using the heritage and environmental features of the school as teaching tools. That’s a leading edge curriculum innovation known among professionals as “place-based education.”

New build schools give the outward appearance of being innovative and “progressive” in embracing so-called “21st Century Learning.”  In the vast majority of cases, they are the creations of school design theorists like Prakesh Nair who are disdainful of traditional school architecture and make a living off disposing of old schools and building brand new ones.  School design visionaries describe traditional schools revered by generations of graduates as “obsolete” and only suited to “preparing students for a world that no longer exists.'”  During the building phase, school user groups are normally either used as ‘sounding boards’ or engaged in giving limited input into the placement of functions. Such designs are seen as such masterpieces that public input is more or less a bit of a nuisance.

One of the most innovative recent school design projects, John A. Johnson Elementary School in Saint Paul, MN, is sure to alter public perceptions.  Once a struggling, inner city traditional school, it has been reborn as “a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement.”  Very much in line with current school design thinking, it exemplifies “Schools as Centers of Community “ principles in opening its doors to the community, tapping into  local talents and resources, while offering community hub services in return.  Considered one of America’s “Great Schools by Design,” it  has also been recognized with the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community.

School  authorities facing financial pressures are finding it simply too expensive to build new as they have for the past fifty years.  Some school boards and districts have responded by focusing on building fewer bigger “super schools” giving rise to “Big Box Elementary” and “Super-Sized High,” and allowing the existing “fleet” of  buildings to run-down strengthening the case for new build replacements.  A few, more far-sighted, smarter school planners are awakening to the “Fixing It First” approach of targeting investments in school renovations and working to re-invigorate urban and rural communities. School projects here are seen as ways of revitalizing targeted neighbourhoods and communities. Central to that strategy is the removal of barriers to “construction and the rehabilitation of schools in established areas.”

The “School of the Future” may not look anything like Douglas Park in Regina.  In its design philosophy and building principles, it looks very much “old school” in the sense that design experts deliver the school and the public stands back in awe.  One of the few academics specializing in school architecture, Neil Gislason, remains cautious about anointing the Fielding-Nair creation as the ultimate in school design. Some of the promoters claims are not supported by evidence, he recently told CJME News Talk 980 Radio, and a surprising amount is “bound up in rhetoric.”

Will schools like Douglas Park alone produce better student learning?  On this question, Gislason, says that Nair is mistaken when he says that the science shows the physical environment has a profound affect on learning.   It simply does not work, his research shows, without proper curriculum alignment and a staff of teachers capable of, and committed to, providing quality instruction in “an open classroom environment. ”

What is “progressive” about the “21st Century School Models”now being planted in empty lots or fields in North American urban and rural communities?  Should community groups and parents be engaged from the outset in determining whether the school will be renovated or completely replaced?  To what extent are the new school designs repeating the mistakes of the late 1960s and 1970s?  How long after a heritage school is torn down does it take to re-build the sense of community?

a struggling St. Paul, Minn. public school that is reborn as a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement. In keeping with the latest thinking in school design and planning, John A. Johnson opens its doors to the community so that it may both benefit from local resources and offer social, fitness, and educational services in return. John A. Johnson is a recent winner of the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community. – See more at: http://www.archfoundation.org/2008/06/schools-as-centers-of-community-john-a-johnson-achievement-plus-elementary-school/#sthash.4n1JPhhS.dpuf
a struggling St. Paul, Minn. public school that is reborn as a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement. In keeping with the latest thinking in school design and planning, John A. Johnson opens its doors to the community so that it may both benefit from local resources and offer social, fitness, and educational services in return. John A. Johnson is a recent winner of the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community. – See more at: http://www.archfoundation.org/2008/06/schools-as-centers-of-community-john-a-johnson-achievement-plus-elementary-school/#sthash.4n1JPhhS.dpuf
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A recent Ontario study of some 700 children attending the new Full-Day, Two-Year Kindergarten program claimed that the first cohort was better prepared to enter Grade 1, showing  strong language development, improved communications skills, and better social skills.   That report was welcome news for an Ontario Liberal Government, now headed by Kathleen Wynne, that has staked its reputation on a $1.5 billion program that critics characterize as an expensive form of government controlled day care.  If the gains are real, then the key questions become – do the gains justify the enormous costs and will the head start last?

KindergartenKidsBritish Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec also offer all-day Kindergarten,  but Alberta has delayed its planned implementation because of financial pressures.  In Nova Scotia, the Darrell Dexter NDP Government  has followed a curious, meandering course.  On August 22, 2013, on the eve of a provincial election, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex  announced the plan to open  four little bundles of joy – in the form of spanking new Early Years Centres  for young children in elementary schools scattered across the province.  Initial indications are that universal early learning in Nova Scotia, if it materializes, will most likely be implemented piecemeal, in stages.

Early learning advocates, inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and his Council on Early Child Development, have long identified Nova Scotia as a laggard among the Canadian provinces.  In November 2011, Dexter and his cabinet were stung by the CECD’s Early Years Study 3 ranking Quebec and P.E.I. as tops and giving Nova Scotia low marks (five out of 15 points) for its current patchwork of programs. Since then pressure has mounted on the NDP government to embrace universal, publicly-funded ECD starting at age two in Nova Scotia.

Universal, publicly funded programs like that in Quebec, where parents pay $7.00 per day per child, have proven to be enormously expensive.  Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden made an initial effort, but it stalled in 2006 at the federal level and the campaign was, until 2010, sputtering in both Ontario and Nova Scotia.

With the passing of its legendary champion Dr. Mustard, philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain started carrying the torch for universal, state-funded early learning programs, utilizing the considerable influence of the Margaret and Wallace Family Foundation.

Eighteen months ago, with Ontario’s Liberal government threatening to scale back on its $1.5 billion full day junior and senior kindergarten (FDK) spending, McCain and the universalists began focusing on Nova Scotia. On February 9, 2012, she secured a private audience with Dexter. That’s what finally swayed the cautious-by-nature Premier.  

One Thursday in late May 2012, Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre and—without any warning—announced that Nova Scotia was embarking on Early Years programs in a big way. He unveiled a discussion paper, Giving Children the Best Start, and local media scrambled to report that a previously unannounced advisory committee would be producing a go ahead plan within a month’s time.

The policy paper recycled CECD research and claimed that one out of every four Canadian children “arriving at school with vulnerabilities” was “more likely to fail” out of school with limited life outcomes. Not surprisingly, it strongly endorsed a universal, school-based, state-funded early childhood education program for children as young as two years.

When Dexter and Jennex welcomed the report, it looked like the NDP government was preparing to buck the national trend to austerity by embarking on a costly public spending program.  In July of 2013, the McCain Foundation greased the wheels by investing $500,000, at $100,000 a year, to kick-start the program and fund Early Years Centres.

AffordableEarlyLearningThe McCain campaign for universal pre-school education is not about winning widespread support from daycare operators, parents or families. In early February 2012, Kerry McCuaig, a Toronto-based CECD research fellow, let the cat out of the bag. “It’s political leadership that matters,” she told a Halifax Public Forum, and the Ontario FDK initiative showed that there is “no real need to seek a public consensus.” What about the existing private and non-profit day cares spread across the province?   “There’s a dog’s breakfast of programs out there, “ McCuaig stated. “ Let’s reorganize it. It costs us nothing to do so.”

Nova Scotia’s bold plan for universal Early Childhood Development will, it is now clear, be entering the province through the back door.  That way the government can side-step and delay the whole thorny issue of accommodating the 220 existing private day cares and 160 non-profit day cares currently operating here in the province.

Going to the top is the preferred mode of operations for those promoting single platform publicly-funded programs for every child. The lighthouse universal ECD program, after all, was initiated by the late Dr. Mustard and fully implemented in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  Top down leadership worked in Quebec, Ontario and P.E.I.  Here in Nova Scotia it has – so far– produced a typical ad hoc, staged implementation policy response.

How beneficial is universal, government-run Early Learning?  Should such universal programs begin as early as age 2?  Are such universal programs affordable for governments facing long-term financial challenges? What’s the impact of introducing such programs on families, as well as private and coop (not-for-profit day) cares?  What is gained – and lost- in implementing a single platform system? 

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Anxiety and the jitters are winning the Back-to-School internal tug-of-war with excitement and exhilaration.  Today’s schoolkids are full of worries, feeling threatened by cyberbullying and being diagnosed with new forms of childhood and teen anxiety and depression. “Typical” Parents are hovering in helicopter formations waiting for schools to open, and a few are fretting about, and envious of,  Finnish education.  Pencil, pen and paper teachers wedded to chalkboards are quietly derided as throwbacks for resisting mobile learning devices and shunning the latest Apps.  While all of this is a gross distortion of reality, it does reflect the impressions and perceptions conveyed in Back-to-school media reports, including the recent series of articles featured in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

BacktoSchoolHigh anxiety clearly consumed Canadian news columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.  In “Back-to School Stress,” The Globe and Mail, 31 August 2013, she grabs our attention with this lead: “The week before school begins is often filled with a special anxiety.  Every night is dominated by the hour of the wolf, the sleepless time of dread: What will class be like this year? Pass or fail? How to keep up? When it’s all over will there be any jobs left that don’t require a polyester uniform?”  That’s just the pretext for apiece about Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.  Reading it will only generate more worries about why our kids are falling behind those in Finland in the international race to the top.

One Back-to School news story produced by CTV News, aired on September 4, 2012, is back and posted on “Back-to-School” section of The Globe and Mail website.  The news clip, “Nerves and Excitement on the First Day of School,” is enough to rattle even the most seasoned parent and educator.  It focused on the first anxious day for kIndergarten kids at Carlton Village School in Toronto and was followed by a Metro Toronto Police news story warning parents about the child safety dangers of dropping-off their kids at school.

Letting your kids walk to school is now a practice that can produce deep parental angst.  “Just as exciting as your kid going to first grade is your kid walking to first grade,” advises Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a daring mother who achieved infamy by allowing her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway on his own.  She recently told The Globe and Mail that “letting go of the leash” can be liberating for today’s helicopter parents.  “It’s only in this moment in time that we are paralyzed with fear about what’s normally a lovely part of childhood.”

Today’s parents are bombarded and innundated by professional experts and well-intentioned elementary school educators dispensing advice.   THe videos posted on The Globe and Mail website tell the story.  The titles speak for themselves:  “Why jittery kids feel stressed this time of year.“Getting gadget ready for school.”  “Is your kid a picky eater? Try packing these lunches.”   My favourite recent advice piece, Kate Carraway’s “A letter for your locker,” is an aunt’s idea of what it takes to survive and thrive in the veritable jungle of the Middle School. It ends with this honey-coated line: “I want you to have an incredible life, but more than that, I know you will.”

Even today’s teachers are feeling the pressure.  For educators, trying to keep pace with technology is daunting. After all iPads have only been on the market since April 2010, and now they are the all-in-one device that is insinuating itself into every corner of daily life, including the schools.  Social media inspired educators like Thomas Whitby, founder of #edchat, are a constant reminder of how much more teachers could be doing to integrate technology into teaching and professional learning.  Shutting the classroom door and carrying on the usual “chalktalk” routine are getting harder when your SMART Phone Twitter feed contains a stream of links to pieces like those aggregated on  Edutopia.

SchholKidsatDesksFew education observers or policy analysts dig a little deeper trying to fathom and explain why going back to school has become such a source of  ‘over-the-top’ anxieties for kids, parents, and teachers. Buried in those Back-to-School stories is one that does, a September 2012  interview with Zander Sherman, author of The Curiosity of School. In that interview with Chris Berube, Sherman argues the changes in the nature of The School are the source of the problem.

School is something you dread when it’s associated with unpleasant experiences.  In Sherman’s words: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters, today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

What’s gone wrong? Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning,”   Without the capacity to instill that curiosity,  Sherman points out that schools can have a deadening effect on children and teachers. Going to school should be like going to the gym for personal fitness — an experience people actually look forward to.

What’s the real cause of Back-to-School stress for students, parents and teachers?  To what extent do professional experts and well-intentioned educators contribute to the hype and apprehensions?  Do schoolchildren today dread school anymore than their parents — or grandparents?  How legitimate is Zander Sherman’s claim that changes in The School itself are heightening the natural anxieties?

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