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Archive for May, 2014

For the past three months, parents of students attending Park West School in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park have been in a state of upheaval. Concerned parents now find themselves essentially ensnared in a Boundary Review Process, managed by the Chief Superintendent, excluding the elected board, and providing political cover for “rezoning students” and implementing pre-determined school grade reconfiguration plans.

ParkWestSChoolBoundary Reviews are often contentious because they are a concrete demonstration of the coercive power of the education state. Under provincial Education Acts, school boards are entrusted with establishing school attendance zones (catchment areas) and “assigning students to various schools” in the district. Some boards spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on enforcing attendance zones and on balancing “the catchment population with the capacity of the school.”

Major metropolitan boards in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto have learned to become more flexible, establishing free attendance zones and broadening the range of school choice for parents. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is more representative of the majority of school boards which invest much of their administrative time in re-engineering school communities to occupy vacant school spaces.

Most recently, the HRSB initiated an extensive 12 school boundary review process targeting two schools, Park West and Grosvenor Wentworth Park, deemed by the Superintendent and school officials  to have more than the optimum number of students. When the board’s real agenda, moving Park West’s Grades 7 to 9 students elsewhere, was eventually revealed, hundreds of Park West parents led by local Kumon Math manager Janet Lee, rose up in protest.

A clear majority of the Park West Parents are opposed to the enforced school reconfiguration and the shipping of their senior grades to a school some 45 minutes walk away.   While the school with 783 students is over capacity, it was never an issue until the board decided to “fix” the non-existent problem. School enrollment projections going forward, unearthed by the parents, show an actual decline of numbers and do not support the board’s preferred scenario.

The Boundary Review has proven just as divisive as a school closure process. A Save Park West School P-9 petition was posted on Change.org and generated a strong response from aggrieved parents and community members. Former HRSB board member, Dr. David Cameron, spoke out against the disruptive intervention in a healthy, harmonious and diverse school community. On April 13, 2013, Save Park West advocate Janet Lee issued a circular letter to 26 public officials and reporters lambasting the process.

Save Park West parents have expanded their critique to include the entire HRSB Boundary Review process. The 12-school Boundary Review Committee, appointed by the Superintendent, is, by all accounts, a totally staff-driven exercise, pitting parents from 10 schools against the two reps whose schools face reconfiguration or eventual closure. They have also discovered that this arbitrary, autocratic process has already claimed two earlier school victims, Cavalier Drive (P-9) and Bedford South (P-9), in the 2011-12 cycle of reviews.

A close-up look at HRSB Policy B.003- Creating School Populations (2013), demonstrates that it’s the Superintendent’s preferred process with decision-making criteria right out of a facilities planning manual. Nowhere is the Process really spelled out; instead the policy assigns total control to the Superintendent, who makes the recommendation to the board. Even the recently abandoned Nova Scotia School Review process provided more rights to parents and community representatives.

Serious concerns being raised about the fairness and legitimacy of the Boundary Review process are simply dismissed by the sitting HRSB Board Chair  as “board bashing.” The reality is quite different when you carefully consider the 11 different community complaints registered by Park West School parents, documenting a total lack of transparency, due process, and public legitimacy. The whole process is being tested and, like the provincial SChool Review Process, is slowly being exposed and discredited.

School Boundary Reviews are by their very nature often disputed  and potentially divisive. The Halifax Board model, however, is particularly so because it is so draconian and undemocratic compared to that of many other school boards. Back in 2011, former Lower Sackville trustee Donna Hubbard actually divulged that, in proposing grade configuration changes, she was only acting at the behest of the Superintendent and staff. More recently, Board member Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison publicly disclosed that she had been warned to stay out of the Park West dispute or she was liable to “lose her vote at the Board table.”

The Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy, No. I-29, School Boundary Review Process (2003) is far superior in terms of democratic principles and governance practices.  The Board, rather than the Superintendent, oversees the whole process and elected Board members (trustees) are “invited to attend committee and community consultation session meetings as observers.”  While such processes are not perfect, they are light years ahead of the HRSB School Boundary Review policy in terms of their respect for the rights of parents to full, fair and unfettered participation in any matter directly impacting upon the future of their school.

Why are School Boundary Reviews so potentially divisive and damaging to school communities?  What’s the real purpose of “zoning students” and “reconfiguring schools”?  Are there situations when school boundary realignments might make good sense?  Is it time for large urban boards to consider free attendance zones and authorizing more cross-boundary students?

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The latest Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) survey reveals that public education is in a sorry state and it’s impacting upon teacher effectiveness in the regular classroom.  Over 90 per cent of the 8, 096 teachers surveyed online in February and March 2014, identified “class composition” as a source of “work-related stress.” “In general, teachers feel they do not have adequate supports and services to address the broad range of special needs in their classrooms,” CTF President Dianne Woloschuk stated upon release of the ” Work-Life Balance” study.

TeacherStressCTF14Teachers certainly feel “stressed -out” even though public school enrollment, except in a few high growth school districts,  is mostly in decline and more educational tax dollars are being spent to educate fewer school children. Their biggest concern is the changing composition of the regular classroom and, in particular, the constant demands to provide “individualized support” in that classroom for every type of special needs.  Given those broad trends, making the case to spend more money to sustain the “all-inclusive” classroom model, especially after Grade 6, is difficult to fathom.

The CTF findings do point to a “stressed-out” teacher force and this is worrisome for those of us committed to improved education, sounder policies, and better schools. They also raise serious questions about the state of education and effectiveness of current policies. Here are the most glaring examples:

meeting the individual needs of all special needs kids in an inclusive classroom is next to impossible;
– three out of four educators cited interruptions to teaching by students;
– student absenteeism concerns 71 per cent of teachers;
-over six out of ten reported challenges in dealing with students’ personal or health-related issues.

Special Education services have turned regular classroom teaching into a virtual paperwork ordeal. Lack of time to plan assessments with colleagues was reported as a stressor by 86 per cent of teachers surveyed, while 85 per cent indicated marking and grading as a source of stress. Other stressors include increased administrative-related work and outdated technology.

The five policy changes proposed by the CTF all involve pouring more money into the ailing school system.  They appear, once again, in predictable fashion: lower class sizes, improve SE supports, expand prep time, reduce non-teaching tasks, and increase teaching resources.  None of them, except possibly creating smaller classes, really address the fundamental problem – “class composition” under the current inclusive education regime and the undercurrent of resistance to providing alternative special needs programs and expanding the range of specialized intensive support schools.

Given the daily classroom challenges and complex needs of today’s kids, it’s fair to ask “Is more money really the answer?”

The CTF is a national political action organization, representing teachers’ unions, and claiming to speak for nearly 200,000 elementary and secondary educators from 17 organizations (15 Members, one Affiliate Member and one Associate Member), from coast to coast to coast. Most of the constituent union groups produce “Teacher Stress” studies on a regular basis, usually in advance of province-wide bargaining sessions.

Among regular teachers, especially in junior and senior high schools, inclusive education is widely seen as desirable but next to impossible to implement.  It was invented and implemented over the past two decades, but never intended to accommodate the number of children now “coded” or “designated” for special education supports.  Even though class sizes have been declining in most provinces, managing let alone teaching those classes has rarely been more of a challenge.

A recent report produced by the Ontario funding lobby group, People for Education, is not helpful at all.  It’s founder Annie Kidder and core membership support the status quo in the all inclusive classroom, constantly pushing for more money and “more student supports” for every conceivable classroom problem. Appointing a Special Education Ombudsman, as conceived by P4E, would only solidify the existing student supports regime.

The odd teacher union leader breaks the faith and speaks out-of-school. That happened again this week when Shelley Morse, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, attempted to explain why more funding and supports were needed, once again. “Years ago, when the inclusion policy was introduced, it was a wonderful concept but it has never been fully funded and that’s where a lot of the issues arise from,” she said.”We don’t have the proper materials and the funding is not there for the human resources that we need.”

Teacher stress, real and perhaps embellished for effect, is a legitimate educational workplace issue. Yet the proposed policy changes advanced by Canadian teacher union advocates don’t really address the “elephant in the schoolhouse.”  If “class composition” is the heart of the problem why beat around the bush? What’s so sacrosanct about the current Special Education model based upon “inclusion for all” in a one-size-fits all classroom system?   It’s time to ask whether inclusive education, implemented as a whole system approach, is either affordable or effective in meeting student needs along the full continuum of service.

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