Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An object of concern

Recently Elli's school announced that the Extended French program is ending.  They will no longer be devoting extra resources and space to the program and it will be moved to another school.  The reasoning behind this is that our school is beyond capacity and hopefully the added flexibility combined with some students leaving to follow the french program will help us get class sizes down.  It all makes sense to me.

But some people are very angry.  You see, they are very concerned that French classes stay because then the high achievers can get even more out of their time in school while the rest of the students cram themselves into ever less space.  These parents, so worried about the loss of extra French training (which they could go get by busing their kids to another school if they are truly desperate) are going to converge on a special meeting tonight to try to demand that the school board reverse their decision.

I am driven to the very edge of bonkers and beyond.  It wouldn't rankle so much if parent council weren't so chronically short of volunteers for events but knowing that parents are happy to devote time and energy to fighting a good change that is already set in stone but won't show up to help when we are doing things that really need doing sets me off.  Opportunities to help everyone, or even to help those who need it most, are left in the dust while people swarm to complain that those who have it the best already need more stuff.

The school is overfull.  New condo buildings are going up and this situation is not getting better any time soon.  Changes to try to alleviate this must be made.  It would be wonderful if every child could have a battery of teachers surrounding them at all times but we must make do with what we have.  Suddenly being up in arms about a change that has been a year in the making and which needs to happen won't help the children.  I do know of some things that would help the children though, if people have free time they want to spend on improving the school.

It strikes me as unlikely that this renewed interest in public education will actually result in anything other than timewasting.  Frown.


  1. What would Ms. Archer think?!? I need to know whether the pen is on or under the table!

  2. Are you sure you're looking at the big picture on this?

    How did we get to this situation? Did politicians approve developments without the infrastructure to support them? Did demographics somehow "surprise" the school board? Were opportunities missed to expand the school or solve this an easier way, opportunities that may have been sacrificed for political expediency or incompetence?

    A parent who has gone to great lengths to make sure their kids get the French opportunity (maybe they moved into the neighbourhood, or it was a deciding factor in their work/home location?) now suffer because of bad decisions. Sure, they could have fought it earlier, but people are busy - you can only fight so many battles before they are urgent.

    Have other options been considered? Is the school going to be renovated? Portables? Could they shrink the district so that kids at the edges get directed to other schools?

    Is the French program key to the school's success? Parents want to be in French schools because the parents tend to be more dedicated and the kids more interested in academics. What does this do to the flavour of the school?

    Are there other programs that can be sacrificed? You're obviously not a fan of the extended French program. Does that bias influence your rant here? What if they cut something you valued? "No Phys Ed, we're turning the gym into a classroom" or "no hot lunches/cafeteria, we've turned the kitchen into classes". I'm not suggesting that phys ed and food are your priorities, or that they rate equally with extended french, I'm just using quick examples. Maybe they cut clubs, or special needs education, who knows. You seem to feel that parent council events are important - should they be cut?

    Was the process transparent? Were parents clearly informed? Did the Board blindly push this forward without realizing there would be an outcry, or is this all expected and the Board is ready?

    I am not surprised that people are more energized to fight for something that matters to them specifically (their kids) vs. for the school in general. Sacrificing for the greater good is nice and all, but when it comes to your kids, I can see the equation being harder to make work. Ranting against people who want what is best for their kids seems futile. Perhaps the rant should be against a process that leads to this - bad communication, bad planning...a lazy electorate?

  3. I am excruciatingly aware of the big picture on this. I talk with other parents on parent council and those not on it at great length about ways to solve this issue. None of your suggestions are possible. The constraints are based on physical architecture which was put in place a long time ago and cannot be solved without literally bulldozing the school.

    The French program is not 'the key to the school's success'. What would that even mean? That all the kids who aren't taking it are failing? That they aren't important? I don't get it. Even if you accept that supposition it is hard to square it with the fact that the school has a massively higher than usual rate of ESL students and recent immigrants who typically aren't as interested in the French program since their children often know several languages already. If any school is a 'not French' school I think this one is it.

    I would happily cut other things to offer smaller class sizes but there isn't anything to cut. Except French, which is being cut. Cutting Phys Ed isn't legal, we don't have a cafeteria serving lunches. Parent council activities never use classrooms during class time, are you serious? Our activities are massively designed around trying to help with overcrowding in the schoolyard so they use spaces when they are not being otherwise used. We are *helping* not hindering.

    The process was announced a long time ago. I am sure the Board knew that people would object. So what? You cannot have a decision making process that is "Well, no matter how necessary something is, if a few people complain we won't do it." Sometimes you look at a thing and you have to make a decision even when you know it is unpopular. They said they were considering it half a year ago, they made a decision. It has nothing to do with lazy electorate - we know their opinion. They just aren't getting what they want.

  4. Some schools are notorious for certain programs. Lawrence Park was notorious for Music and French, though I barely participated in either.

    I see that you're driven to the edge - such vitriol! :-)

    Half a year seems like a short period of time in a school system. If, in Apr 2013 they'd started to have consultation meetings, and then made the announcement in August 2013 so people had 1 year to get used to it, and then implemented in Sep 2014 (I can't actually tell the schedule based on your post - they're announcing it now? To take effect in January? Next September?), then that seems like sufficient lead time. And if at the consultations they actually listened - honestly presented the issue, showed the reasoning/facts for different options, and no one could come up with a better idea, then it sounds like a good process.

    If that's what happened, and these are the people who just couldn't be convinced no matter what who are digging in, then I understand your frustration.

    I just know bureaucracy, and suspect the process might have flaws. But I have no actual knowledge of the situation.

    I do know that the problem could probably be solved by money. Or re-jigging school districts. Or building more schools. All are politically unpalatable because the electorate won't allow it. This problem should never have happened - school crowding is predictable. But Boards are either too foolish to pay attention, or the OMB/City Planners messed up, or there isn't a cohesive plan to handle population growth even though it's *a designated area of the city for said growth*. Someone, or some group, made a mistake, possibly quite a while ago (I believe the school is only 20 years old, built when the first Eglinton subway was being dug, so why wasn't an extra floor added?), and these parents are paying the price. That's is likely what's pissing them off.

    I'm not saying you're not absolutely correct that today's problem can only be solved this way, so get out of the way. But that attitude encourages people to not solve the problem yesterday.

  5. You are definitely correct that better long term planning a long time ago would solve this problem. If the school was built much bigger or even just more expandable it would be fine. People can be bitter about that, I don't mind... hell, *I* am bitter about that. But fussing about the French program isn't helping.

    The first announcement that I know of happened earlier this year. The announcement takes place for new people starting French next September and does not affect current French students. People had a minimum of 18 months lead time. Asking for more than that is ridiculous, particularly since everyone criticizes the school system for not responding quickly enough.

  6. But if the school was built much bigger then it might have been closed a few years back when it was very underutilized. If someone could correctly predict population patterns in a major city like Toronto then I expect they would be sipping drinks on their private tropical island rather than doing planning for a school board.

  7. It's really easy to predict population patterns - I believe the use and density for nearly every building, and planned building, is reviewed and approved by the City. Demographic information is available by ward. Even better, the Board knows exactly how many Grade 1s there are, so it's really, really easy to know roughly how many Grade 13s there will be. People move, but the child density doesn't drastically change everywhere. You might miss the odd gentrification or neighbourhood flight, but the broad trends are clear.

    The challenge is that no one wants their school to close. Money doesn't exist to build schools where they are needed. People want to be in specific school boards and push back against border changes. Parents lie to get kids into the schools they want them in. The politics is the challenge, not the predictive modelling.

  8. I've worked in every public high school in Thunder Bay (as well as doing placements in 4 schools in Kingston and working at a school in Colombia) and the lesson that I've come away with is that schools are all as good as one another. I hear students talking about how "'insert name' school sucks" and I find it hilarious because the students at that other school say the same things about them. Kids are pretty much the same diverse, interesting, fun group of young people at whatever schools you are at. The quality of teaching is pretty much uniform. Some schools might focus on particular programs but I think that even that is overblown.

    I suppose that there is the issue in bigger population centres with private schools where parents might say "I want my kid going to the best school (read: I don't want my kid to spend too much time with the poor kids... I hear that they are little monsters)". As a new parent, you might suspect that my thinking would change and I would start agonizing over what school to put my child on track to go to.... he will be going to the CLOSE school (= convenience).

    Further I've noticed a trend with people assuming that Catholic schools are better and more moral environments. I guess that the assumption is that kids that come from households that care about religious principles will be upright, moral, caring kids and kids in public schools will be drug-using, teacher-cussing jerks who come from household that don't care about helping your neighbour and not killing people. This is completely crazy and wrong but seems to have seeped into the public conciousness.

    Ok, let's review our learning goal for the day:
    Today we learned that all schools are pretty much the same despite everyone making a big deal about "best" and "worst" schools. Did you meet the learning goal? (Or do you value your own personal experience over my experience... if so please comment... I'd be interested to hear:)

  9. A further comment about "best" and "worst" schools. I desperately hope that no-one out there is choosing schools for their kids (or MOVING!!!!) based on a particular school's scores on a standardized test (EQAO tests for math and literacy in grades 3, 6, 9 (math only), and 10 (literacy test required for graduation)). School test results are posted publicly and (horrifyingly) some groups have taken it upon themselves to rank schools from "best" to "worst" based on these results. Personally, given the choice to enrol my child in a school with high and low EQAO scores I would choose the low scores every time as high scores are probably an indicator that the school is spending significant time away from rich, exciting, real-world learning tasks and is instead preparing the kids to be successful writing a standardized test.

    But maybe I'm wrong.... After all, any time that I've read about what skills the 21st century student will need when they graduate from school it's the ability to be successful on a standardized pen and paper test. After all, if our students don't know how to write a newspaper article how will they survive in the 21st century?!!? (I hope that you're catching my giant amounts of sarcasm here....)

  10. I completely agree Matt. Locating your home based on targetting a specific school seems completely bonkers to me. We really like Elli's school because it has a way more diverse cultural background than most of the others nearby - she gets to learn about a much greater variety of holidays, languages, and norms than she would at a school that was a lot more Christian and white.

    But as for standardized test scores, they can go die in a fire.

  11. Isn't there an argument that wealthier neighbourhoods have more money from parent groups and thus can afford nicer optional things (and have more knowledge of how to fight for more stuff in general)? Schools with more ESL students have to proceed slower or divert resources to assist? Schools where kids are worried about enough to eat and violence tend to have students who are more distracted / teachers who have bigger concerns than maximizing the lesson plan?

    That's the theory, I believe. And a lot of people believe it. Living where I do, I don't see it because it's a wealthy neighbourhood and all the schools are pretty good. I don't know if TBay has the sort of diversity of schools that Toronto would have?

    Or perhaps the general perception of schools is based on the American stories? I know in the States, house prices correlate with school quality in the neighbourhood.

    There is definitely a theory that French Immersion schools are better because that requires an extra level of dedication from parents and kids, and thus you expect to have more academically inclined kids. Parents I talk to speak of this theory as common knowledge. And I suspect it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if it wasn't true originally.

    There also were (when I attended, but perhaps no longer) high schools offering "Advanced" vs. "General" versions of courses. So in my 'hood the people who didn't feel school was for them went to Northern where the General courses were, otherwise they went to North Toronto or Lawrence Park. I don't know if this has changed.

    I agree that kids are kids and teachers are teachers - not a huge difference on average. Perhaps the key indicator is which schools the best teachers want to work at? If you have a school with a reputation for having the best music teachers, then the best ones want to work there? The teachers who can pick and choose where to go want the schools with keen students? (of course, union seniority rules may warp that)

    Private schools are a different story - they have lots of advantages, but you pay for them. Incredible facilities, solid networking opportunities, very few strikes, better teacher/student ratios, etc. I'm paying $500 extra a month for private kindergarten, mostly for convenience, but I'm very happy with the better facilities and 5:1 vs. 15:1 ratio offered vs. public school. The teachers and kids in both are enthusiastic and great, but one place just has more resources.

  12. Regarding predicting population patterns: Toronto has plenty of half empty schools two blocks from overcrowded schools with lawns covered in portables. Keeping schools filled/not overfilled in Toronto would require predicting the population of children on a block-by-block basis decades in advance. If it's easy then I guess everyone who has tried to do it has just been a moron.

    I do think there are differences between schools and I do think a lot of it based on self-fulfilled prophecy. I'm going to be trying to get my daughter into an alternative school because it is a three minute walk from my house instead of a 20 minutes walk. It has mandatory volunteering from parents, and based on Sky's comments about parent groups, it's hard for me not to think that this would make the school better in some way.

    But if I my daughter ends up going to the further school, I'm not going to lament the fact that she will be in one of the city's "bad" schools. I'm far from convinced it makes much of a difference at all.