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Archive for the ‘Child Poverty’ Category

The Putting Children First report, produced by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and released August 16, 2018, drew attention, once again, to the challenges facing children and youth caught up, province-to-province, in Canada’s crazy quilt child welfare system. Commissioned by professional social workers, it tended to focus on the mounting caseloads and shortage of resource supports. It, quite rightly, highlighted the growing needs and plight of children and youth in care and the ‘battle fatigue’ affecting those entrusted with their care. Where it fell short is in proposing a larger, more pro-active role for engaged parents and provincial child welfare advocates.

“We’re damaging children every single day, ” says Debbie Reimer, Director of the Kids Action Program and a CASW executive board member, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “The needs of families and children are more complex and becoming more complex every day, ” she told Star Metro Halifax, “and so there wasn’t any sort of thing that jumped out as particularly surprising.” What is surprising is that, in a Canadian province without a Child and Youth Advocate Office, the depth of these concerns has to be expressed in reports emanating from the Ottawa-based CASW.

Child welfare workers are under stress everywhere, and that is conformed in the recent CASW report.  Some 75 per cent of social workers surveyed nation-wide testify to the existence of “unmanageable workloads” and some 72 per cent claimed administrative responsibilities prevented them from spending adequate time with clients. The report also did a good job outlining how demanding caseloads, the complexity of issues, and the “unsupportive work environment” contributed to various trauma, burnout, and high turnover in the ranks.

The report demonstrates the tremendous value of a report giving voice to professional concerns about the everyday stresses faced by front-line professionals in the child welfare system. Some 3,195 Canadian social workers completed the survey, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce, so the results are reasonably reliable and to be taken seriously. It also reflects the direct feedback from some 19 members of an expert panel, representing recognized leaders in the field, but including no one from Nova Scotia. 

Surveying the 100-page CASW report, two discoveries jump out at you. First and foremost, the focus is almost exclusively on the crushing demands faced by professionals and the contention that they are “leaving in droves” because of the adverse working conditions. Second, and by no means least, the relative absence of input from Child and Youth Advocacy Offices across the country, with the exception of the former Manitoba Child Advocate, 2011-2017.

The almost total absence of comprehensive, reliable data on the needs of families and children is particularly striking in the report.  It is clearly acknowledged that practitioners have “limited knowledge about the needs of families, of youth and children living with their familiy, or of foster families and kinship caregivers.” More unsettling is the open admission that child welfare authorities have “little information about how youth and children in care are doing in their placements, how they are progressing in school, what are their health needs or their talents, aspirations and accomplishments.” The CASW also conceded that child welfare officials do not actually know “what services and programs are effective and for whom those programs are effective and what conditions are optimal to achieve effectiveness,” (CASW 2018, 78).

The CASW report, Putting Students First, is very effective in voicing the concerns of social workers on the frontlines and strongly suggests that professionals, overburdened with heavy caseloads are too often reduced to policing and enforcing family protection orders. Nowhere in the report is this state of affairs analyzed in terms of its direct impact upon families and children and youth under care. Nova Scotia social worker Reimer provided a more satisfying explanation of the actual impact. If scocial workers are “leaving in droves, ” she claimed, it’s because “their jobs feel less like supporting families and more like disinterested policing. ” What are practitioners actually concerned about, at least in Nova Scotia? In Reimer’s words,  “They are saying that right now the system is reactionary, punitive and under resourced.”

Social work professionals have raised the alarm bells, but the voice of parents and the public is strangely absent from the whole public discussion. It is clearly a big part of the problem in Nova Scotia and perhaps elsewhere in Canada. In the case of Nova Scotia, it is likely compounded by the fact that no one in the provincial government has a clear mandate to oversee the protection and support of children and youth.

The province of Nova Scotia is finally, after five years of lobbying efforts, finally considering the creation of a self-standing Child and Youth Advocacy Office. The current Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell, is beginning to see the light and told a N.S. Assembly Legislative Committee in January 2018 that something was in the works. While the provincial Ombudsman’s Office currently has responsibility for youth in care, Hartwell sees the need for a more active presence.

Hartwell remains exceedingly cautious and sounds reluctant to open the purse strings:  “That level of interaction has given us some comfort that there’s been a child advocacy-type role, but what I’ve learned and what I’m understanding is that role of child advocate in other jurisdictions goes beyond sort of an ombudsman-type role,” she said. “Someone who’s really advocating for public policy that is child-focused, child-friendly and so on.”

“So we absolutely are looking at it. People will know here that with everything else going on, we’re trying to determine, ” Hartwell told the Committee, “is this the best place for limited resources or is it somewhere else? So I think the onus is on us to finalize that review and then bring it forward.”

The recent CASW report may be just what is needed to light a fire under provincial officials in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.  If “children’s lives are being damaged every day, ” surely one would expect more of a sense of urgency. Perhaps the passive resistance has more to do with the general aversion of governments everywhere to independent bodies mandated to secure the needed supports for children and youth, to oversee the effective use of resources, and to ensure proper public accountability in child welfare services. 

What deeper problems are raised by the recent Canadian Association of Social Workers report on the state of child welfare services? Are the tremendous pressures and stresses experienced by frontline practitioners a symptom of bigger problems? Where is the voice of parents and families in this whole debate?  How can a province, in this day and age, continue to function without a particular office or agency entrusted with the welfare and protection of children? 

 

 

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A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation into school fundraising stirred up a little controversy.  The CBC story, which aired on May 16, 2018, focused on inequities in school fundraising, highlighting some rather predictable findings. One South End Halifax elementary school in an affluent residential district raised $70,000 per year in 2016 and 2017, while another in a lower income North End area averaged $15,000 a year. A retired Halifax principal featured prominently in the story saying she found it “disturbing” that some schools can raise so much more than others.

The decision to fixate on parent fundraising was peculiar, when more telling data is readily available bearing more directly on educational inequities in the classroom.  It also begged the question — does parent fundraising really matter or is it just an issue for those who exhibit an education system version of the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’

Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods, the CBC story line ran, secured further advantages raising tens of thousands of dollars for those ‘extras’, such as smart boards, team jerseys, and choir risers. Fundraising capacity, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) researcher Erika Shaker claimed on a subsequent Maritime Connections phone-in show, was directly related to “the economic status of the community” and that gives “those kids an unfair advantage.”

While the seven-school sample showed quite a discrepancy, school fundraising tends to go to extras and frills that do not really make a fundamental difference in teaching and learning. Not only that, but the proposed solutions completely missed the mark.

The former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board, Gin Yee, responded to the CBC revelations in a sound, sensible and informed fashion. Some schools will always be better at fundraising, he pointed out, and, besides, the monies raised not only go to extras rather than essentials, but matter far less than the quality of teaching, class sizes, and in-class supports.

Tampering with fundraising will do little to address the fundamental inequities demonstrated on recent provincial student assessments. The published School Community Reports for 2015-16 support Yee’s contentions.

The top fundraising schools, Sir Charles Tupper and LeMarchant-St. Thomas, finished first or second among the seven sample schools on Grade 3 and 6 reading and Grade 4 and 6 mathematics, with between 86 and 98 per cent of their students meeting the provincial standards. In the case of the identified disadvantaged school, Joseph Howe Elementary, student results were terribly alarming, ranging from 18 per cent to 45 per cent meeting standards.

Leaving aside these three schools, the fundraising totals for St. Catherine’s Elementary, Westmount Elementary, East St. Margaret’s Consolidated, and Dutch Settlement do not even support the overall argument. Two of the lower fundraising schools produce student results at or above the provincial standard, contrary to the story line.

“Pooling the funds” raised and “sharing them collectively,” suggested in the CBC story, is a bad idea, and it went over with CBC listeners like a lead balloon, judging from the 137 comments generated by the accompanying news report.

While the CBC journalists floated it as a serious proposition, Shaker told the radio audience that she favours the “pooling of resources” through redistributive taxation rather than through the sharing of parent fundraising proceeds.  “I’m a big fan of pooling our collective resources to ensure that all kids and schools have access to the resources they need … but really the most effective way is to do it at the provincial scale … we even have a mechanism in place: it’s taxation.”

Parent engagement is critical to student success in every school and any proposal to “cap fundraising” or slap down parent initiatives would prove to be detrimental.  Sharing the proceeds raised at one so-called “advantaged school” with a “disadvantaged school” only provides a temporary fix and may actually lead to long-term dependency on revenue sharing.

Reallocating funds raised at Sir Charles Tupper or LeMarchant- St. Thomas, the two top fundraisers, also ignores the stark reality that those schools compete with pricey private independent schools to retain students. Clamping down on those parents and denying their students those extras may well drive them right out of the public school system.

The real solution to addressing the inequities lies elsewhere. Differential bloc funding of schools has been telegraphed by the new Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil and, more recently, by Minister Zach Churchill.

If and when Minister Churchill announces the change on school funding formula, he would be wise to leave parent fundraising alone and to focus on what really matters – supporting teachers and greatly enhancing learning supports, particularly in disadvantaged school communities.

The Halifax Regional School Board’s “priority schools” funding supports initiative pointed us in a more productive direction. Designating struggling schools as “education reconstruction zones’ would go one step further, focusing educational policy and resources on “turnaround projects.” It would open the door to intensive reading and math supports, wraparound student support services, and our own provincial version of the highly successful “Pathways to Education” after-school tutoring and homework program.

Engaging in empty ideological disputes over tangential issues such as parent fundraising should not be distracting us from getting to the root of the problem. No one, it seems, is now prepared to publicly defend sharing school fundraising proceeds.

What does fusing over school fundraising have to do with addressing educational inequities? Should we be concerned about school fundraising totals or addressing more fundamental problems?  Why did the proposal to adopt school-based budgeting attract so little attention in the ensuing public discussion? What’s standing in the way of school districts zeroing-in on “education reconstruction zones” with targeted “turnaround” programs? 

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Guided parent engagement has become, like apple pie and motherhood, almost sacrosanct in publicly-funded education. School systems across North America now have an established apparatus to sanction ‘approved’ parent organizations and many employ senior staff to guide and mentor school-level parent advisory councils. Promoting “parent involvement” to overcome administrative roadblocks and systemic problems has become a business in and of itself, especially in more affluent provinces like Ontario and British Columbia.

EdWeekLogo2015Surveying Canadian provincial systems, you will discover that official parent organizations promoting increased “investment” in public education are themselves beneficiaries of provincial education funding. A few groups, like Ontario-based People for Education enjoy exalted status, called upon to provide “parent opinion” on every issue from student testing to child poverty and sex education to First Nations schooling. Groups seeking significant reform or challenging the status quo like the Society for Quality Education or WISE Math get nothing but crumbs as a reward for their independence. In public education, it’s all too often about rewarding the “friendlies” and marginalizing groups that are seeking deeper and more systemic changes.

Leading parent voices like Annie Kidder and a host of provincial Parent Teacher Federation presidents claim to have moved “Beyond the Bake Sale,” but their organizations spend most of their time lobbying for funding and promoting the latest provincial education panacea for what ails the system. In Ontario since 2006, the Ministry of Education has awarded more that $24 million to fund 15,000 Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants to local school councils and 568 regional grants — all aimed at increasing “parent involvement” in schools. What’s been the impact? At the school level, the vast majority of parent councils still busy themselves raising money for class supplies, sponsoring multicultural festivals, and even running “cupcake” parties for the kids.

Ontario’s PRO grants were initially tied to the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government’s “Poverty Reduction Initiative” and presented as a way of addressing social inequalities facing identified “priority” school neighbourhoods. By the Fall of 2014, the Ministry’s Ottawa Field Services Branch  was putting a positive spin on the increased participation of school councils in socially-disadvantaged communities. Since 2006, after awarding thousands of grants across the province, the Ministry reported that applications from priority schools were up 300 % and approvals up 450%. That bears further investigation.

Poverty reduction has all but disappeared from the public announcements about PRO grants.  In early March 2015, Education Minister Liz Sandals was singing a different tune: “When parents are active in their children’s education, student well-being and achievement are improved — especially in challenging areas like math. This helps students reach their full potential and better prepares them for a bright future.”

A Ministry media release (March 3, 2015), announcing the Parents Reaching Out grants for 2015-16 claimed that they were now designed to fund  “a wide range of initiatives that help parents become more involved in their child’s education.” The posted “success stories” reported on grants to reduce language barriers, celebrate diversity, conduct parenting sessions, alert parents to cyberbullying, foster community connections, and assist parents with homework. None of the cited examples related directly to reducing educational inequalities or child and family poverty.

From its inception, the Ontario PRO grant program was also presented as a provincial initiative lauded in a 2010 McKinsey & Company report analyzing high achieving school systems around the world. The Ministry spin on that report is far more positive than the actual report.  That global school system review,  introduced, incidently, with a Forward by Ontario’s own Dr. Michael Fullan, makes only a fleeting reference (p. 101) to Ontario’s PRO-grant driven “parent involvement” program. The American Aspire charter school model earns far more praise.

The McKinsey global school system reports issued in 2007 and 2010 considered holy grail in Ontario are now mostly repudiated elsewhere.  Most of that “independent report” anoints Ontario schools as “among the best in the world”and actually attributes it to the “tenure of strategic leaders,” specifically Fullan and his former OISE colleague Ben Levin  as well as Premier McGuinty and then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. Most of the authoritative critiques, summarized in January 2012 by University of London professor Frank Coffield, dispute such success claims based upon “implausible” declaratory statements with a “thin evidence base.”

Spending $24 million spread out over thousands of school councils is unlikely to make much of a difference in closing the social inequality gap between school communities. In a TV Ontario program, aired in September 22, 2014 and hosted by Steve Paikin of The Agenda, four leading Ontario anti-poverty activists reviewed the progress made in eradicating poverty since 2000. Coordinator of Freedom 90, Yvonne Kelly, showed her impatience with the “broad-based prevention framework” which “doesn’t help those already marginalized.” That’s a neat summary of what went wrong with the PRO grants as an “anti-poverty” initiative.

Promoting parent engagement, it turns out, is not really about addressing inequality in Ontario’s schools. The Toronto District School Board’s Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) for 2014 reveals that the “gap” is as wide as ever.  Funding parent groups is simply not properly aligned with the overall strategy.  Giving parent councils PRO grants to expand their diversity of membership and activities has clearly taken precedence over reducing educational inequality. Indeed, the one program that might have made a difference, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was substantially cut in 2006 when PRO grants were introduced by the McGuinty Government.

Who’s promoting Parent Engagement — and for what purpose?  What does Ontario have to show for spending $24 million since 2006 on shoring-up friendly parent advisory councils? Whatever happened to that initial rationale for the PRO grants — closing the gap for schools in the 133 “priority neighbourhoods”?

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