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Archive for December, 2021

HallmarkHopeValleyChildren

Our second Pandemic School Holiday break finds us in familiar territory – at home and spending more time than ever together in the nest. For those not totally consumed by the World Junior Hockey Championship re-runs, it’s been hard to miss the annual “Countdown to Christmas” series of Hallmark Card-inspired. made-for-TV movies.

Tradition outlasts glitz, small town trumps big city, and cheesy sure beats sleazy when it comes to spending Christmas break with children of all ages. Those, like me, who still find classic fairy-tales enchanting, precocious children adorable, and ‘happy endings’ irresistible, are easy marks for the Hallmark Movie Channel and its imitators.

Family fare movies and wholesome romantic comedies are big business, peaking during festive periods and the annual cycle of greeting card seasons. The leading producer of such films, Hallmark Movie Channel and its production company, Crown Media, dominate this segment of the family entertainment field.

Founded in 1951, Hallmark Cards cut its teeth with the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology movie series, then entered the home video market from 1990 to 1996. Crown was formed in 1991 by Hallmark Cards to purchase cable television systems and to produce content.  In January 2004, the parent company split off Hallmark Movie Channel and by 2005 was on track to have 9 million subscribers within two years. Today, the Hallmark Channel regularly attracts 827,000 cable television viewers, second only to Fox News Channel.  Tens of millions more watch the patented ‘happy ending, sealed with a kiss’ movies.

Hundreds of family movies have been produced since 2006, capped-off by the annual “Countdown to Christmas” two-month-long extravaganza, starting on October 22 this year. Some 41 new movies were rolled out this season, aired in Canada on the W Network, Super Channel /Heart and Home, Global TV app., and Stack TV. Out of the 41 new flicks, 34 were filmed in Canada, with mostly Canadian actors and crew. Standing in for Chicago, Denver and Montana are Canadian locations such as Langley and Maple Ridge, BC, Ottawa and Almonte, Ontario. New Brunswick-born director Jason Bourque even brought his small-town sensibility to the 2020 film, A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado, filmed with man-made snow during a July 2020 heatwave in Hope, BC.

Morality plays and costume dramas have always drawn me in, especially if they involve teachers, children and schools. That may explain why, since 2014, over eight seasons, my television set has been regularly tuned-in to the most theatrical of all the Hallmark confections, When Calls the Heart, aired in Canada on CBC-TV.

Pioneering school teacher, Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), descended from a wealthy Hamilton family, moves to Coal Valley, falls in love with a Mountie, and transforms the little village into a picture-perfect frontier town renamed Hope Valley. It’s a thinly veiled update of the 1924 Broadway musical Rose Marie, set in the “Canadian wilderness” and immortalized in the 1936 American film starring Jeanette MacDonald as the girl and Nelson Eddy as the Mountie.  As a regular watcher, you come to know “Miss Thatcher’s” succession of beaus (two Mounties and a saloon owner), all of the children in Thatcher’s class, and look forward to “Christmas in Hope Valley.”

Even during Christmas break, some of us cannot get enough entertainment about teachers, schools, and kids.  One of the first Hallmark offerings to catch my attention was Beyond the Blackboard, a heart-warming 2011 TV movie, inspired by a true story about a 24-year-old beginning teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, played by Emily VanCamp, who makes a difference in the lives of the homeless children she teaches in a shelter’s classroom, called, literally, The School with No Name.

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Inspiring teacher stories always get me, even if they are produced by the studio for middle-American television audiences.  Hallmark’s first movie musical, The Music Teacher, which premiered in April 2011, fit that description. In it, a Kansas City school music teacher, Alyson Daley (Annie Potts) fights back when the local school board cuts funding to her after-school music program. Coming together to rehearse for a final production, –you guessed it – the ensemble forms “new bonds to repair old ones – just in time” and give their “beloved teacher renewed strength to heal her heart.”

Rallying to save a school or its programs is one of Hallmark’s favourite story lines.  One recent offering, A Christmas Break, first aired in 2020, was less successful. School principal Addison Tate (Cindy Sampson) attempts to save Mission City Middle School by reaching back-in-time to parachute-in a former high school boyfriend, scandal-plagued, ego-centric movie star Dylan Davidson, played by Canadian actor Steve Byers. Students and teachers rally with Dylan to “Save Our School” and naturally succeed. Rather implausibly, the sedate and responsible-looking principal loses her head and agrees to join the Hollywood star on his next shoot in Bulgaria.

Children in such family movies often look too good to be true and some are reminiscent of what is termed the “perfect child syndrome.” Next time you are watching one of those Hallmark kids, see if they fit this description: “Perfect children try hard to be good enough from the perspective of their parents.”  In short, they listen to their often-single parent or guardian and don’t cause any problems. Some play matchmaker for widowed parents, helping them to find new loves, to complete the bifurcated nuclear family.

One glimpse at the faces of the “Children of Hallmark Movies” page on Pinterest confirms such perceptions, presenting you with a full page of smiley faces, cuddling children, and picture-perfect parent-child scenes. Judging from the family life fan magazines, Christmas movies also generate ‘child stars,” including Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis, who shot to prominence in the 1989 comedy, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

One of the most memorable scenes, for me, was a small vignette involving a Middle School Student, Kelli Watson (Caitlin E.J. Meyer), caught “cheating” in class.  It appears well into the rather obscure modern fairy tale movie, Belle and the Beast (Wisen West Films, 2011), a Christian romance film shown periodically on Super Channel’s Heart and Home Network.

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Stepping in to help Kelli out of a jam, Eric Landry (The Beast/ Matthew Reese), finds himself mistaken for her father and covers for the teen by meeting alone with a stereotypical ‘by-the-book’ principal (Byron Critchfield).  “I’m so dead,” Kelli confides in him. “Dad will ground me [and sister Belle will lecture me]. Do you ever feel like your life is over? And it’s not fair, because I didn’t mean it to happen. It just looked wrong.” It turns out that Kelli never even got the answer she sought from her seat-mate and her older sister, the angelic and exquisitely beautiful Belle (Summer Naomi Smart) forgave her minor indiscretion.

Family movies certainly appeal to people who are, at heart, ‘goody-goodies’ in real life. That’s why most normal teens, including the real-life children of current Hallmark stars like Candice Cameron Bure wouldn’t be caught dead watching such ‘cheesy’ and ‘lame’ TV movies.

It’s been a rough year or two for all of us. Watching Hallmark movies is what ‘home-bodies’ do and it’s now considered ‘campy’ in COVID-19 times when we are essentially quarantined for days on end with the Omicron virus swirling around outside the sanctity of our personal dwellings. Staying home, keeping in our family bubbles, and logging television screen time makes you crave a warm cup of cocoa.

Do you watch Hallmark Family Movies and similar imitation family-friendly programs?  (Be honest). What explains the appeal of such family entertainment?  How realistic are the teachers and children depicted in such shows?   If you ‘swear-off’ watching Hallmark movies, how have you managed to kick that addiction?

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HalifaxRegionalSchoolBoardOffice

Today most major Canadian education policy pronouncements come packaged as the latest “investments” in our K-12 schools.  Investing more in introducing new programs, building new schools, and hiring more staff rarely, if ever, attracts close scrutiny. After all, who would ever question spending more on ensuring “the future success of our children.” Some 22 months into the Pandemic, provincial governments are spending like never before to reduce class cohort sizes, hire substitute teachers, health-proof schools, and provide staff with masks and personal protective equipment.

The growth and expansion of “Big Education” (aka “Big Ed”) escapes notice because everyone is totally absorbed in the Moral Panic fed by a persistent infectious disease. Today, and long before the Pandemic, the K-12 school system remains largely invisible and is rarely ever analyzed in terms of its role in sustaining regional economies, providing employment, or seeing the region through the COVID-19 economic downturn. Looking at K-12 education in Atlantic Canada through that lens can be full of surprises. What follows is an expanded version of my recent Insights Podcast with Don Mills produced for Huddle, based in Saint John, NB.

The former Nova Scotia Liberal government of Stephen McNeil and Andrew Rankin, widely regarded for being ‘tight-fisted,’ went to the polls in July 2021 taking pride in “increasing education spending by 30 per cent” to $1.7-billion from 2013 to 2020.   While student enrolments languished, they sought a fresh mandate claiming that they were responsible for hiring “more than 900 new teaching positions and approximately 400 non-teaching positions.” Neither of the opposition parties questioned the figures or asked for evidence that it was improving the quality of education for students.

What upset the provincial PCs and NDP, back in December 2020, was underspending by Education Minister Zach Churchill and his department. With COVID-19 disrupting in-person schooling and interrupting special needs programs, they expressed considerable outrage over the province only spending $11.5-million of the forecasted $15-million earmarked for inclusive education during 2020-21. Even though a thoroughly researched September 2020 academic article, written by University of Ottawa researchers, Jess Whitley and Trista Holloweck, had identified inclusive education implementation confusion and obstacles, no one, again, questioned the cost-effectiveness of the $35-million spent, to date, on the initiative.

Newly-arrived Nova Scotia Auditor General, Kim Adair-MacPherson, learned her first lesson in N.S. education spending practices while investigating the planning and implementation (from April 2017 onward) of the Pre-Primary Program estimated to cost $50-million at the outset. She found the Pre-Primary planning “inadequate” and the roll-out “rushed” to meet an election promise. What was more surprising, to her, was the total lack of financial controls and the department’s inability to provide total costs for the program, estimated to exceed the initial estimates.

Provincial K-12 education is now big business in Canada and especially so in all of the Atlantic provinces. That becomes abundantly clear when you take the time to assess more carefully the total financial impact of education spending, province-to-province, the proportion of the workforce employed in the sector, and its de-facto role in regional economic development.

Total spending on K-12 education in Atlantic Canada has now reached more than $4.3-billion each year, significantly higher than a decade ago. It represents about 64 per cent of all expenditures overall on education (Statistics Canada, 2019) The provincial education budgets, as of 2017-18, were $1.7-billion in Nova Scotia, $1.5-billion in New Brunswick, $878-million in Newfoundland/Labrador, and $278-million in Prince Edward Island.

Spending per student has risen everywhere in the region, except for Newfoundland/Labrador. Biggest spender is New Brunswick at $15,486 per pupil (2018-19), up 16.4 per cent since 2013. Two years ago, Nova Scotia’s per pupil spending stood at $14,910, a five-year increase of 22.5 per cent. The corresponding figures for P.E.I. stood at $14,008, up 14.5 per cent since 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador comes in at $12,878, down 2.7 per cent over the period.

Student enrolment in the Maritimes has risen since 2010-11, totaling 240,371, up some 5.4 per cent. Over that same period, the number of educators has grown faster, up from 19,285 to 21,462 (2019) or 11.3 per cent. It’s quite clear that the totals for “educators” does not include all employees employed in the K-12 education sector. Calculating accurate grand totals for the K-12 sector, in the case of N.S., would involve counting the number of employees represented by five different unions: the NSTU, CUPE, NSGEU, NSUPE, and PEG.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRSB up until 2018) with a budget of $617-million is a case in point. Back in 2016, the school district employed 9,600 personnel, of which 4,255 (or 44.3 per cent) were deployed in schools as teachers, administrators, and support staff.  Today that district employs 11,500 personnel, the majority of whom are not counted as educators.

LargestEmployersProvinces

Education also operates on a large scale, judging from the relative size of the workforce employed in the K-12 sector in each of the Atlantic provinces. Nova Scotia’s largest employer is the Nova Scotia Health Authority with 23,400 employees in 2021. Second in size is the Department of Education, employing an estimated 17,000, of whom roughly 9,674 are educators. Next in number of employees are Jazz Aviation (4,700), Dalhousie University (3,700), and Emera (2,300).

Education rivals or exceeds health care in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland/Labrador.   In N.B., the Education Department employs some 7,788 educators, second only to Horizon Health and more than the francophone equivalent, Vitalite. The school system is king on the Island, where the Public Schools employ an estimated 4,000, more than Health PEI.  On the Rock, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District employs over 11,000 staff, second only to the Health and Community Services department.

Big education is here to stay and it’s now a major factor influencing public policy decisions well beyond the sector. The sheer size of the educational workforce goes largely unrecognized, even by provincial auditor-generals, and is rarely factored into regional economic development conversations. Provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, it is now clear, see K-12 education as an integral piece in job creation and protection, especially in COVID-19 times.

Why might public education be considered “big business,” particularly in Atlantic Canada? How dominant is the K-12 system in terms of capital investment, employment, and regional economic development?  Does the system escape public scrutiny because of its largely unacknowledged role in job creation and protection, particularly in challenging economic times? 

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SnowDayBuses

Snowstorms and icy roads signal the return of a hardy perennial — the public education debate over “snow days” and their impact upon students, families and communities. After almost two years of on-and-off COVID-19 school closures, the pandemic may have engineered an online evolution that spells the end of system-wide shutdowns at the first sign of inclement weather. Most, if not all, of the rationalizations for declaring “snow days” have disappeared.

When COVID-19 hit twenty-one months ago, schools closed and school systems pivoted to remote learning, combining traditional homework assignments and online classroom activities. Schools were closed in Canada from 8 weeks (British Columbia)  to 20 weeks (Ontario)  between March 2020 and mid-May 2021, and the gradual adoption of technology allowed students to learn from home.

“Continuous learning” enabled through technology and the internet survived the initial bumps, breakdowns and dislocations, mostly ironed out during the 2020-21 school year.  Successful use and broader public acceptance of e-learning has now prompted many and perhaps a majority of North American school districts to do away with unscheduled days off for a range of natural calamities, including snow storms, hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and epidemic diseases.

Southwestern Ontario’s largest school district, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), responded by announcing the end of snow days. All 160 public schools in the London region, a mixed urban and rural district, are now required to provide online activities for their snowbound students.  That board averaged about 5 to 7 snow day cancellations before the pandemic, roughly half the number claimed each year in rural Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.

The TVDSB’s associate director, Riley Culhane, says students, teachers and parents are ready to provide bridging education in “virtual classrooms.”  Teachers have some discretion in deciding whether to offer “synchronous learning” or simply assign work to be completed at home.  The continued use of e-learning days that were required during the pandemic, Culhane told the London Free Press, “just makes sense.”

The Ontario government pointed the way by encouraging school boards to prepare for shifts to remote learning, including during closures caused by adverse weather. That province’s back-to-school plan in August 2021 included a provision to enable districts to move smoothly to remote learning in the event of inclement weather.  School boards are directed to develop inclement weather plans with local public health units, encompassing both heat days and storm days.

School districts in the United States have in recent years been gradually abandoning system-wide snow days, particularly since Ohio introduced e-learning days, enabled through “calamity day” plans, back in 2010. The proliferation of remote learning during COVID-19 accelerated the trend, particularly in states with severe weather rivalling that in the Maritimes.

A clear majority of American states are now on board in making the shift. An Education Week research survey, conducted in October 2020, reported that some 39 per cent of American school districts had converted snow days to remote learning days and 32 per cent were considering that change.

Public claims that snow days do not adversely affect student achievement hinge on the number and cumulative effect of days lost. While a January 2014 study covering 2003 to 2010 and undertaken for the National Bureau of Educational Research found minimal negative impact on achievement, that state averaged only 3 to 4 snow days per year and has amongst the lowest rates of student absenteeism.

Cancelling school as often as happens in Nova Scotia and the rest of Maritime Canada does have a detrimental effect on student learning.  One relevant 2008 study, in Maryland public schools, found that as snow days piled-up that did have a cumulative effect, particularly at the elementary level, they did adversely affect student performance on state reading and math assessments.

Long before the pandemic, Nova Scotia students were paying an academic price for system-wide snow days. In the Maryland study, a high level of unscheduled closures – about 10 days (the Nova Scotia average), translated into 5 per cent fewer students meeting Grade 3 standards in reading and mathematics.

SnowDaysComparison

School authorities in the Maritimes have always defended calling snow days and giving everyone a ‘free day’ with no specific academic expectations. We now know that teacher contracts excusing teachers from reporting-in when schools are closed are a big and often unacknowledged factor. That was made abundantly clear when, in late November 2021, New Brunswick Education reversed its position on eliminating snow days.

When pressed by local media for an explanation, Education Department official Flavio Nienow came clean. Schools will continue to be closed on bad weather days, he said, because “in line with collective agreements, teachers are not required to report to work when schools are closed due to inclement weather.”

After all that’s happened and weeks of practice with remote learning, school districts are still clinging to past practice. While cancelling the odd day is understandable in larger cities where snow day cancellations number from 3 to 5 a year, it’s harder to justify cancelling school repeatedly when the lost teaching days accumulate and claims from one week to three weeks of instructional time.

Time will tell whether the pandemic will have achieved what educational policy-makers failed to accomplish – putting an end to the discharging of students and staff on inclement weather days.

What is the common and popular rationale for calling “snow days” without providing alternative learning programs? Why are school snow days still being called after two years of practice transitioning back and forth from in-person to online learning?  Is it a matter of ingrained attitudes or impediments in the form of teacher contracts? What is the most viable solution to minimize the erosion of valuable instructional time?

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