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Archive for the ‘Parent Engagement’ Category

School Advisory Councils (SACs) have been around since the mid-1990s in most Canadian provincial school systems. A 2012 Ontario People for Education review of their equivalent, Parent Advisory Councils (PACS) found that most lack clarity and show signs of confusion when it comes to fulfilling their role, particularly with respect to providing local input into school decision-making.  In the case of two provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, they exhibit the same glaring deficiency – they are given little to do and simply revert back to their natural inclinations, to run bake sales and support school fundraising.

ParentAdvocacyOshawaActive parents supportive of their local public school are drawn to serve on SACs, only to discover that they are ‘creatures’ of the principal and totally dependent upon his/her support. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for SAC positions. Created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, they normally end up doing nothing of the sort and hosting ice cream socials.

Far too many SACs provide cover for school principals, keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding them from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically inert of the two groups.

No survey has ever been published in Nova Scotia on the effectiveness of SACs, as presently constituted. In the case of Ontario, People for Education found that their PACs spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events, but only 10 per cent of their time on their assigned function – helping to shape School Improvement Plans.  That is also clearly the case here in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia has just abolished its eight elected English school boards and that has threatened to further erode democratic accountability in the school system. Replacing elected school boards with an appointed Provincial Council for Education (PACE) without any public transparency or accountability sent out that signal. “Enhanced School Advisory Councils” sounded fuzzy and now we know why. Any hope that SACs would fill the void left by the abolition of elected school boards has been dashed, for now.

NSedZachCurchillEducation Minister Zach Churchill and his officials recently confirmed that SAC’s will get more of a voice in advising on policy, but little or no substantial change in their powers. Genuine school-governing councils and expanded school-based management are not in the cards.

Planning for, and consultation to, strengthen “parent engagement” was carefully managed to steer participants in a pre-determined direction. It was all decided by education staff, working with small regional “focus groups” and vetted by principals through a Principal’s Forum held in early May of 2018.

The School Advisory Council consultation broke many of the accepted rules for genuine parent engagement. Embracing new ways calls for a complete “rethinking of the conventional approach” in what leading Canadian expert Debbie Pushor aptly describes as   a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities. “We need to do a better job,” Pushor recently said, “of talking with parents rather than for them or at them.”

Instead of truly engaging parents in rebuilding the whole N.S. model, the Department reverted to past practice in consulting with small, carefully selected “focus groups” and leaving it to the Principal’s Forum to settle unresolved issues.  Limit the consultation parameters, carefully select consultation group participants, and ensure that educators, in this case principals, settle the unresolved issues.

Contradictions abound in the Department’s summary of the focus group consultation. Invited participants identified two major problems with existing SACs: “low parent involvement and difficulty recruiting members,” especially independent community representatives. They also demonstrated how SACs are kept completely in the dark when it comes to province-wide issues, policy matters, or future policy directions.

Why will SAC powers continue to be limited and contained?  Several times we are assured that “participants did not want to see the responsibilities of SACs greatly increased” because they were “volunteers” and it was a lot to expect more from them.

The Department report paints a rather skewed picture of parent attitudes. ‘Participants expressed degrees of anxiety around the potential new role of SACs.” That sounds, to me, more like the voice of principals and parents surprisingly comfortable with the status quo.

The Nova Scotia report demonstrates that at least one of our eight regional school districts, Annapolis Valley RSB, merged the SACs with existing Home and School Associations contributing further to the confusion of roles.

“Supporting student learning” is a mandate fraught with potential confusion. Principals and teachers bear that primary responsibility, so SACs are reduced to junior partners in that enterprise. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Existing SACs provide a wobbly basis for true parent engagement. Run under the thumb of many principals, they serve, for the most part, to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.”

Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils are strictly advisory. Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 400 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.” Former HRSB board member Linda MacKay discovered that upon her election to office. Nor do they have a web presence and most remain all but invisible to community members.

Re-engineering School Advisory Councils will require more substantive changes. School-based budgeting would give SACs a significant role. Providing a base budget of $5,000 per council plus $1 per student is a pittance and far short of what is required to compensate SAC chairs for participating at local, regional, and provincial levels.

Today’s School Advisory Councils are, we have learned, totally in the dark when it comes to engagement in initial policy discussion, school improvement initiatives, and community accountability reporting. There is currently little or no two-way communication on most school-related issues.

Parent advocates get turned off when they discover that School Advisory Councils are weak and without any real influence. Defenders of SACs support the neutering of parent activism, then fret about why so few want to serve on such bodies.

Perhaps it’s all just a façade. While announcing enhanced roles for the SACs, Nova Scotia’s Education Department issued a new notice advising parents and the public with school concerns to raise them with the teacher, principal, and district administration. There’s no mention whatsoever of taking it up with your local school council.

Whatever happened to the critical policy advisory mandate of School Advisory Councils? Do active, informed, and policy-attuned parents shy away from joining today’s school councils?  Who rules the roost on most SACs — the school principal, a small clique of parents, or no one because it exists only on paper?  Are we missing out on an opportunity to engage parents in the challenge of school and system improvement? 

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The raging Ontario controversy over Sex Education has, once again, raised the whole issue of what constitutes meaningful parent engagement.  Vocal supporters of the 2015 Ontario Health Education Curriculum maintain that the public consultation process was extensive, broadly representative, and ticked off the boxes in terms of  recognized “stakeholder groups.” Following the traditional, well-practiced model, a “group consensus” was forged and, in that respect, it might be considered exemplary.

 

On a critical matter like sexual health affecting family life, it may simply not be good enough. Far too many Ontario parents were marginalized and it’s hard to find evidence of anyone embracing what Dr. Debbie Pushor has termed a “family-centric school” philosophy or “meaningful parent engagement.” Instead of defending the results of the consultation, it may be time to look at how the next round can be conducted to answer those deficiencies.

The 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum changes may well have been timely, professionally-validated, and reasonably neutral in terms of language. That’s not really what’s in question — it is the process and the means used to forge that document touching on issues central to healthy adolescent development and family life. Given the nature of the curriculum, it would seem to be a situation tailor-made for “family-centric” consultation. 

Critics of the 2015 sex education curriculum continue to maintain that the public consultation was structured to marginalize the vast majority of parents as well as certain parent advocacy groups, rural and small town communities, and urban immigrant families.  Four thousand parents were consulted, but the vast majority were parents serving in official capacities on local school councils. Indeed, the consultations were, for the most part, conducted on school grounds. Public input was weighed, but it came mostly from “friendlies” vetted by principals who served on their school councils.

The Ontario health education model of consultation appears to violate the criteria set out by Dr, Peshor in her proposed “family-centric school” framework demonstrating “meaningful parent engagement.” Her recent keynote address to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (June 2018), part of a three-day, “Walk Along with Parents” forum, drives that point home. In it, she called upon educators to rethink their conventional approach and to embrace a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities.

We need that voice at the table, and it’s important to understand that expertise is a critical piece. We need to do a better job of talking with parents rather than for them or at them. That’s what I’m hoping we can achieve,” Pushor said in an interview prior to her keynote, which elicited a standing ovation.

As a mother of three sons, as well as a teacher and principal in Pre-K – 12 education, Pushor sees the school-parent relationship through both lenses. Since embarking on her PhD. in Education, it has been the focus of much of her research.

Walking into her son’s school on his first day had a profound effect upon her, even though she was herself an experienced teacher and principal. It struck immediately “how schools were not necessarily inviting places for parents” and sent powerful signals that they “did not encourage their participation.”  She describes this as the “colonialism” of schools in their dealings with parents.

Her key message: “We need to move from school centric to family centric. Teachers need to remember it is not your classroom; it is a public building. Most parents place their trust in the teacher and they aren’t looking to push the boundaries that exist, but we need to make some fundamental changes and unpack the story. Teachers claim the space at school and then we tell families how it is going to work.”

“By having authentic family involvement,” Pushor told the Saskatchewan teachers,”we can have the best of both worlds. As teachers, we don’t have to give one up to get the other.” 

Most provincial education authorities, school districts and schools fall far short of genuine parent engagement. “We just keep doing the same thing and we don’t see that as problematic, but our world has changed and in education we’re not changing at the same pace,” she said in calling for that “gentle revolution.”

Two important building blocks, as Pushor sees it, involve doing a better job of preparing teachers at education faculties and then later incorporating home visits into a teachers’ regular routine. “This comes right back to what we do in this building [Saskatchewan College of Education]. We are sending teachers out there without the required background in terms of this type of engagement.” Then she added: “I’m a big proponent of home visits because too often in the current model, we–teachers and family members–sit around and are scared of each other. We need to build trust, and we need to do this in a different, more meaningful way.”

What Pushor has done to demystify engaging regular parents, Hong Kong born Calgary professors  Shibao and Yan Guo are doing for Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian parents sidelined in most education consultations. Respecting parent knowledge, seeking to understand differing religious values, and respecting stricter codes of morality would go a long way to engaging the Thorncliffe Park schools scattered throughout contemporary urban Canada.

High sounding speeches are commonplace in education, but Peshor’s vision now comes with plenty of evidence-based research conducted over the past decade. It’s all neatly summarized in her splendid article in the Winter 2017 issue of Education Canada.  Instead of managing parent consultation, she proposes the kind of engagement that breaks down barriers, particularly in marginalized communities: When schools and school bodies work in culturally responsive ways, parents do not have to have the words of the school or of unfamiliar governance structures to participate. They are able to join the circle, to speak from their own knowing, to share their own wisdom and insights, and to positively influence outcomes for their children and their families.”

Do conventional education public consultations measure up as legitimate parent community engagement exercises? With the prevailing model of working with recognized interest groups and selected parents ever bring us closer to “family-centric schools”? Does the much celebrated 2014-15 Ontario consultation on sex education bear close scrutiny? What lessons can be learned about getting it right, the next time? 

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