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Posts Tagged ‘Halifax Regional Centre for Education’

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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.

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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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Where you live can greatly influence on the educational outcomes of your children. Some education observers go so far as to say: “The quality of education is determined by your postal code.” In school systems with strict student attendance zones, it is, for all intents and purposes, the iron law of public education.

Students, whatever their background, can overcome significant disadvantages. ““Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama said famously in July 2009. “That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

ClosingtheGapCHClassPhotoThere is a fine line between identifying struggling schools and ‘labeling’ them.  “We identify schools and where they are on the improvement journey,” says Elwin LeRoux,, Regional Director of Education in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Yet we are careful not to ‘label’ some schools in ways that may carry negative connotations and influence student attitudes.”

How a school district identifies struggling schools and how it responds is what matters. Accepting the socio-economic dictates or ignoring the stark realities is not good enough. It only serves to reinforce the ingrained assumption, contribute to lowered academic expectations, and possibly adversely affect school leadership, student behaviour standards, teacher attitudes, and parent-school relations.

While there are risks involved is comparing school performance, parents and the public are entitled to know more about how students in our public schools are actually performing. The Halifax Chronicle Herald broke the taboo in November 2018 and followed the path blazed by other daily papers, including The Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator, in providing a school-by-school analysis of school performance in relation to socio-economic factors influencing student success. The series was based upon extensive research conducted for the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS). 

A Case Study – the Halifax Public School System

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (formerly the Halifax Regional School Board) enrolls 47,770 students in 135 schools, employs 4,000 school-based teachers,and provides a perfect lens through which to tackle the whole question. Student achievement and attainment results over the past decade, from 2008-09 to 2015-16, have been published in school-by school community reports and, when aggregated, provide clear evidence of how schools are actually performing in Halifax Region.

Unlike many Canadian boards, the HRCE is organized in an asymmetrical fashion with a mixed variety of organizational units: elementary schools (84), junior high/middle schools (27), senior elementary (7), P-12 academy (1), junior-senior high schools (6), and senior high schools (10).   Current student enrolment figures, by school division, stand at 25,837 for Primary to Grade 6, 11,245 for Grades 7 to 9, and 10,688 for Grades 10 to 12.

Student Achievement and School Improvement

Since November of 2009, the Halifax system has been more open and transparent in reporting on student assessment results as a component of its system-wide improvement plan. Former Superintendent Carole Olsen introduced the existing accountability system along with a new mission that set a far more specific goal: “Every Student will Learn, every School will Improve.”

HRSBGoodtoGreatCollageThe Superintendent’s 2008-09 report was introduced with great fanfare with an aspirational goal of transforming “Good Schools to Great Schools” and a firm system-wide commitment that “every school, by 2013, will demonstrate improvement in student learning.” Following the release of aggregated board-wide data, the HRSB produced school-by-school accountability reports, made freely available to not only the School Advisory Councils (SACs), but to all parents in each school.

Superintendent Olsen set out what she described as “a bold vision” to create “a network of great schools” in “thriving communities” that “bring out the best in us.” School-by-school reporting was critical to that whole project. “Knowing how each school is doing is the first important step in making sure resources and support reach the schools – and the students—that need them the most,” Olsen declared.

The Established Benchmark – School Year 2008-09

The school year 2008-09, the first year in the HRSB’s system-wide improvement initiative, provided the benchmark, not only for the board, but for the AIMS research report taking stock of student achievement and school-by-school performance over the past decade.

In 2008-09, the first set of student results in the two core competencies, reading and math, demonstrated that HRSB student scores were comparable to other Canadian school systems, but there was room for improvement. In Grade 2 reading, the system-wide target was that 77 per cent of all students would meet established board standards. Only 25 out of some 91 schools (27.5 %) met or exceeded the established target.

While Grade 2 and Grade 5 Mathematics students performed better, problems surfaced at the Grade 8 level, where two out of three schools (67.5 %) failed to meet the HRSB standard. High numbers of Grade 8 students were struggling with measurement, whole number operations (multiplication, division), problem-solving, and communication.

System Leadership Change and Policy Shifts

Schools in the Halifax school system may have exceeded the initial public expectations, but the vast majority of those schools fell far short of moving from “Good Schools to Great Schools.” Some gains were made in student success rates in the two core competencies, reading and mathematics, by the 2013 target year, but not enough to match the aspirational goals set by Superintendent Olsen and the elected school board.

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With Olsen’s appointment in September 2012 as Deputy Minister of Education for Nova Scotia, the robust HRSB commitment to school-by-school improvement and demonstrably improved standards in reading and mathematics faltered. Her successor, LeRoux, a 24-year board veteran, espoused more modest goals and demonstrated a more collegial, low-key leadership style. Without comprehensive school system performance reports, the school community reports, appended routinely as PDFs to school websites, attracted little attention.

The “Good Schools to Great Schools” initiative had failed to work miracles. That became apparent in May 2014, following the release of the latest round of provincial literacy assessments.  The formal report to the Board put it bluntly: “A large achievement gap exists between overall board results and those students who live in poverty.”

School administration, based upon research conducted in-house by psychologist Karen Lemmon, identified schools in need of assistance when more than one-third of the family population in a school catchment could be classified as “low income” households. Twenty of its 84 elementary schools were identified and designated as “Priority Schools” requiring more attention, enhanced resources, and extra support programs to close the student achievement gap.

The focus changed, once again, following the release of the 2017-18 provincial results in Grade 6 Math and Literacy. Confronted with those disappointing results, the HRSB began to acknowledge that students living in poverty came disproportionately from marginalized communities.

Instead of focusing broadly on students in poverty, the Board turned its attention to the under-performance of Grade 6 students from African/black and Mi’kmaq/Indigenous communities. For students of African ancestry, for example, the Grade 6 Mathematics scores declined by 6 per cent, leaving less than half (49 per cent) meting provincial standards. What started out as a school improvement project focused on lower socioeconomic schools had evolved into one addressing differences along ethno-racial lines.

Summaries of the AIMS Research Report Findings

Stark Inequalities – High Performing and Struggling Schools

Hopeful Signs – Most Improved Schools

Summation and Recommendations – What More Can Be Done?

Putting the Findings in Context

School-by-school comparative studies run smack up against the hard realities of the socio-economic context affecting children’s lives and their school experiences.  All public schools from Pre-Primary to Grade 12 are not created equal and some enjoy advantages that far exceed others, while others, in disadvantaged communities, struggle to retain students and are unable, given the conditions, to move the needle in school improvement. So, what can be done to break the cycle?

Questions for Discussion

Comparing school-by-school performance over the past decade yields some startling results and raises a few critical questions:  Is the quality of your education largely determined by your postal code in Canadian public school systems? What are the dangers inherent in accepting the dictates of socio-economic factors with respect to student performance?  What overall strategies work best in breaking the cycle of stagnating improvement and chronic under-performance? Should school systems be investing less in internal “learning supports” and more in rebuilding school communities themselves? 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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