Monday, April 02, 2007

Public Education Achievement & Adaptability Editorial by Susan Semonick

Judging by the content of the presentations from delegates to the school board at its March 27th meeting, it seems that there continues to be a misunderstanding by the public (perhaps denial) that this is an issue about the quality of any of the schools. The issue, as has been stated over and over again, is student achievement and how the district can continue to maintain and/or increase the levels of support for ALL students so they can succeed.

The situation is that enrollment is declining all over the world. Yes, there are pockets of growth, but these are anomalies in the overall picture. Many school districts last year underestimated their decrease in enrolment and ‘lost’ even more students than they had anticipated. Yes, houses are being built in Langley. But they are not generating the numbers of children that they would have several years ago. Since funding is directly tied to student enrolment, the district will be getting less funding even if funding rates increase slightly. Given the expected rise in health costs, the percentage of the provincial budget to be spent on education will likely decrease.

The district is not making the best use of its resources by maintaining empty seats in classrooms, or allowing programs that are not cost-effective to continue as they are.
There are students’ needs that are not currently being met that need to be met, and resources have to be used wisely to provide the best that you can. It takes money to provide services and somehow the district must find ways to be cost-effective, just as any business or household needs to do.

It is NOT about which schools are good. Mr. McAvoy has already stated parents believe that each of their schools is good.

Taking a look at overall enrolment of the district and at each school as was presented is not, while simple, a practical look at how to create efficiencies. It is more complicated than that, and the district has communicated this but it would seem not well enough.

It is about having fewer students in Kindergarten each year to replace the grade sevens leaving. It is also about how many students are at each school, at each grade in the school, and in each program. It is about having the ‘right number of students’, not ‘enough students’, to maintain a robust and sustainable program that does not unnecessarily put an economic drain on the combined resources of all schools. It matters less whether you have 300 students in a program. Rather, it is more important to have those 300 students properly distributed at each grade and to have class sizes that are economically viable. It gets more complicated when these programs are within schools that have multiple programs that need to be sustained as often classes cannot be combined. Program attrition rates, enrolment rates in elective academic courses and upper level courses, etc., to mention only a few, are all factors in having the ‘right number of students’ and being able to provide a range of courses while being fiscally responsible. Providing a teacher for a class of 15 students is far more expensive than providing one for a class of 30, and can’t be sustained for a long time without negatively affecting other areas in the school as well as the district. Program size, cohort size, and overall school population have an impact on being able to provide quality services. This is what I think the district is trying to manage and manipulate in order to do more for ALL students. If your child is in one of these small classes, of course you don’t want things to change; but that small class happens at the expense of other students in the district who are not getting the services that they need to succeed.

Looking at cost per pupil at each school is also more complicated and not fair. It is reasonable to expect that school funding take into account the number of special needs students and student populations that are disadvantaged or at-risk, etc. These factors skew the numbers. But, it is not reasonable to expect that the cost of running a program at one school to be significantly higher than running the exact same program at another – not when there is a solution, however much you may not like it. Nor is it reasonable to maintain more facilities than are required. In my mind, optimum utilization is 100% plus just a little more if you can squeeze it out – at home, business, and for school districts. The fact that district staff is looking at all options including maximizing utilization of facilities to 110% is not a bad thing. They would not be doing the job that they are supposed to be doing if they did not. Considering the closure of facilities that are expensive to maintain and are no longer useful at their present location in favour of establishing a facility at a new location where one might be required is good strategy and part of long term planning. Anyone who has played Monopoly, Risk or other strategy games can understand this.

Some of the arguments for keeping a school open were focused on the benefits of small schools. School size research finds evidence to support both small and large schools for a variety of reasons and contrary to a presentation given, an increase in social problems is not necessarily an expected outcome of large school size. The bottom line in all of the research is that school size is not the most significant factor to student success and is nowhere near the top of the list. Socio-economic situation and teacher quality are what counts and the district can direct resources to address one and ensure the other. This is what the money that the district is wasting on empty seats should be used for. Placing students in one school instead of two, if possible, can free up money to provide for a full time librarian, more learning resource time, special support programs, a full set of computers instead on half a set, etc. This is not a one-time savings but an annual one – over five years the savings are in the millions.

I am continually reminded that many people do not realize what we have gotten used to having and how much we do have for our students. In other districts, students have bussed or ferried more than two hours to school every day for a long time. We know one district that has closed more than 16 schools all at once and many others that have closed more than just a few. I read that the Ministry is actually helping teachers and districts adapt to the one-room schoolhouse again. They couldn’t even field a sports team let alone have games against other schools because of transportation issues. Oh, and we can’t forget school boards that have mismanaged funds to the point where they have a millions of dollars owing to the government with debt repayment that runs until 2010.

Fewer students means less funding – for most every district in the province. Yes, the bottom line is money. It’s what we use to ensure student achievement. If we do not use it wisely and are not able to pay for what students need, don’t expect student success.

Closing a school is not only change for one school community but for all the other school communities that will be receiving a large influx of students. Change can be an opportunity. The world is constantly changing faster than many can handle. Adaptability, the ability to cope with uncertainty and respond constructively to change, is listed on the Employability Skills 2000+ as one of the skills that people need in order to progress in the world of work and beyond, and it drives one’s potential for growth. I hope parents will embrace whatever change may come and model for students how to adapt positively to uncertainty.

Susan Semonick

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