Thursday, 16 October 2014

Redefining Education

As school systems appear to drift away from an exclusive focus on the 3 Rs, we are left with the question, “what really are the basics of our contemporary education system?” It may seem a rather trite question, but the most recent survey published in our city suggests that, right at the top of voters’ priorities, is to “get back to basics.” That phrase never has had a precise and immutable definition. It has evolved as our education needs have evolved, and what one person defines as a basic may be irrelevant to another.
One consistent element of our education, whether we are adolescent, teenaged, young adult or aging adult, is that education is not confined to four walls and a clanging school bell. Yet, we sometimes turn to the traditional schoolroom as the panacea for all our youths’ learning needs, and point the finger when that institution fails to meet our demands and expectations.  Still, school divisions and the provincial education department should bear responsibility for a sizeable majority of the formal education of our young people, which, in turn, requires that our educators and all of our elected officials have a clear idea and solid plan to provide that structured learning platform.
Interestingly, while many voters still insist on a focus on the basics, those same people recognize a need to anticipate the future, respond to emerging needs and provide the proper environment for learning. It may be that, concealed in the obvious definition of basics is the belief that basics are far more than the 3 Rs, after all.
Recently, merging problems have included the issue of bullying, the need to adapt to changing demographics in our community and within our schools, the need for (or perceived lack thereof) expanded extra-curricular offerings, the catchment areas of schools, whether homework should be assigned to certain grades and the misperceptions surrounding “No fail” policies. All of these concerns are valid, and are dealt with as part of the regular business of school systems across the province, even though many of the items fall partially or fully within the jurisdiction of the provincial government. No education concern, however, is the exclusive domain of the province, the school division or even the parent. It is an issue important to the community at large, or, at least, it should be.
Seven Oaks, like many school divisions, has specific policies to address local issues, and more general policies to address generic concerns. Our anti-bullying policy states in part “that harassing, abusive or bullying behaviour, whether physical, sexual, psychological or electronic will not be tolerated.”  The policy is a blend of unique responses to unique situations and comprehensive responses to more universal aspects.   We recognize that bullying, and the very definition of bullying is not only a sensitive topic, but a complex one, with the behaviours in question having myriad origins. Bullying, as well as being addressed specifically, is dealt with as part of a strategy to encourage – no, demand – that each of us, from educator to student, behave in ways that are respectful, considerate and safe. To play up the topic of bullying as an election issue would be inappropriate, since all of us, regardless of the methodology we choose, desire to change such negative behaviours into positive ones. There is no one correct solution, but there definitely are appropriate solutions (many of which are correct) to each particular situation.  Similarly, foresight and progress toward meeting our education goals requires cooperative effort.
In Seven Oaks, we have invested heavily in professional development programs for all our educators and administrators, including our school board members. That is not a cost of education: it is a savings plan, and it has paid huge dividends over the past few decades, as we continue to improve the end result of our efforts (well educated, productive and responsible young adults) over many other divisions in Manitoba and across the country.
One of the most effective strategies that we have adopted in our planning is to recognize that our schools are more than bricks and mortar, and that our youth need more than “what was good enough for my great grandfather.” We need "what will be good enough for our great grandchildren," today! Basics never have been the core subjects. Whether it was the one-room schoolhouse administering to the needs of twelve grades and an enrolment of thirty students, or satellite classrooms and online learning for those without easy access to a bricks-and-mortar building, Manitoba’s education system is built on the understanding that  we need to deliver core subjects, but we need to deliver core values and core opportunities for every individual. Most often, those basics are not deliverable by one institution, but by a cooperative effort, from parents to community to school systems. It is the effective delivery of those opportunities that needs to be at the core of our planning, and effective use of the resources that we have available.
In other blogs, I have discussed extra-curricular programming, funding issues, responsibilities of our educators and administrators and unique challenges of Seven Oaks. But, at the heart of the election on October 22 is the question, “what do I, the voter, want from my trustees and school system?”
I agree that the basics are important. I disagree, however, that the 3 Rs are the only basics that we need to focus upon. We need to prepare our youth for the very rapidly changing job market, in a way that will benefit them and benefit our community the most. That is a basic demand. We need to prepare our youth to be moral, contributing respectful members of the family that is Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and the world at large. That is a basic criterion. We need to allow each individual to be just that: an individual, with unique talents that we help them to explore, and unique frailties that we help them to overcome. That is a basic. We need to allow our students – the future of our neighbourhoods – to fit into the world around them in the most positive manner. That is a basic.

But there is one basic that governs and guides all the rest of the basics. That is the need to deal with learning, not as a job, a chore or a punishment, but as a never-ending source of pleasure, by instilling into the minds of our students more than the basic facts and figures. We need to instil in them the love of learning, and the opportunity to be the best each person can be. That is my most basic education requirement!  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Quality Education Demands Moral Conviction

Have we lost sight of the real meaning of education? A recent Winnipeg survey found that respondents felt that we needed to focus on basics in education. But what does that mean to each of us? There obviously is strong support for the “3Rs,” but the core subjects only are a part of the concept of education. Some of us are upset that the schools offer such a diversity of programs, and involve students in myriad extra-curricular activities. My position may be contrary to that of some readers and constituents of Seven Oaks. However, even though the most recent survey suggests that Manitoba students are last in the 3 Rs, that same survey also points out that our students have unique challenges, and, even with those challenges, 86% of students across the province perform at or above expectations. Each school division is different, and Seven Oaks’ approach to non-compulsory learning has placed our youth in a strong position relative to other areas. Our approach is working.
Our school division mission statement reads, “The Seven Oaks School Division is a community of learners, everyone of whom shares the responsibility to assist children in acquiring an education which will enable them to lead fulfilling lives within the world as moral people and contributing members of society.” Having been deeply involved in crafting this statement, part of it carries particular significance for me. I particularly focus on the phrase, “lead fulfilling lives within the world as moral people.”
In no way should this be construed as suggesting that I think that we, as educators, should determine what is moral. Morality, for me, is more abstract, yet more meaningful than the common, religious connotation associated with the word.  What is important is the type of person you become, and how you can be discerning enough not to be unduly influenced by propaganda or taken in by incorrect information.-If we teach our children to be independent thinkers and people who care about others who are different than themselves, if we instil in them the power to not be afraid to speak up and if we encourage our children to understand the value of differences, we will have educated them in being powerful, significant, unique and contributing members of the world around them.
We cannot delude ourselves into believing that Canada is immune to intolerance or unfairness. Indeed, the world is shrinking each day, as every part of the globe becomes interconnected with every other part of it. To pretend that problems do not exist, or to insulate our youth from the realities does them a great disservice, and the best way to protect them is to arm them with knowledge. From ISIS to aboriginal issues, from third world worker servitude to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments, both racial tension and human atrocities do exist, and need to be addressed, in our schools, at home, in the workplace and on the street. We need to be intolerant of intolerance.
Fifty years ago, the 3 Rs may have been enough for a student. Forty years ago, advanced education became a necessity. Thirty years ago, technological changes  all but eliminated a future built on factory work in Canada. Twenty years ago, IT became a critical part of learning. Ten years ago, geopolitical and worldwide human rights came to the fore. Now, we live in a world where potential is unlimited, but opportunity for all is not. When our youth are denied equality and fair treatment, resentment builds, and valuable skills that these people possess are lost. It is no surprise that the ones that are marginalized tend to lash back at the world around them. What is surprising is that many of us still resist the idea that we should spend a great deal of our time developing a complete student, and demand that we revert to the “basics” of “readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic.” – the 3 Rs.
The basics, today, include a focus on making the most of individual talents, supporting those who are disadvantaged in some way and need our assistance, embracing the uniqueness of every student and helping to develop children who believe in each other, who want to contribute meaningfully in all ways to the world around them and who may be ostracized or mistreated in other parts of the world but are valued in our school division, our province and our country.
I support high-quality core education and traditional programs, but I support them only as a part of a complete education. By teaching our children how to respect each other we also teach them to embrace each other, and a person who feels valued inevitably repays that support.  It is the ideal “pay it forward” scenario.
I believe that we need to teach the 4 Rs, not the three. That fourth “R?” Respect. It is integral to educating our youth.

Friday, 3 October 2014


It is a misnomer – a misnamed set of activities. Extra-curricular programs, in the 1960s to 1990s, were seen as those activities that happened as a consequence of school enrolment, but that had little to do with education. Perhaps, some of those programs were irrelevant to formal learning. Parents, after all, were seeking cookie-cutter education for their children, thinking that the path to success was to follow established patterns. If the “3 Rs” were good enough for the fifties, they should be adequate for the 60s, and so on. But the world evolved, and so did after- or out-of-school programs.
I was speaking to a 7 Oaks resident at his home last week and among other topics we discussed was the value of extra curricular activities in high school. This resident related to me that the highlight of his high school experience was playing on the school's football team. He recalled having some excellent teachers, but it was football that kept him in school. He graduated from high school in 1989 and to this day, his team gathers from places around the world once a year in Winnipeg for brunch where they reminisce about their football days and catch up on their lives.
Research has shown that high school students who participate in some kind of extra curricular activity, have an increased sense of engagement and attachment to their school. It is proven to be especially important for students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Participation in extra curricular activities is also shown to increase student attendance and academic success which will, in turn, increase the probability that these students will complete high school and go on to post secondary institutions. It is known that these students make stronger connections with their teachers, coaches and strike new friendships with other students.
All the schools in 7 Oaks School Division try to ensure full participation in the extra curricular activities that we offer. I counted 55 extra curricular activities available for students at Garden City Collegiate which include -a variety of Sports, Drama and Musical Productions, Leadership Opportunities, Social Activism, Weight Training, Multi-Media, Student Council, Volunteerism and Year Book. This would be a typical sampling from all our high schools."
Interestingly, after-school activity options have expanded, but most student remain focused on familiar standbys, such as sports, drama and specialty clubs. The most dramatic change has been the cross-over of traditional student groups into other, less mainstream events. There is less of a stigma for students to be involved in non-traditional (and restrictive) clubs or organizations, and more of a willingness to embrace a more eclectic approach, that addresses individual interests and aptitudes. Science clubs have evolved, for instance, with a large number of students who seemed to be lost in gaming now finding a home in IT and computer animation projects. Instead of restricting oneself to structured clubs, loosely knit collections of children participate in volunteer activities. In-school drama sometimes leads to Manitoba Theatre For Young People, and other groups take an interest in overseas projects and research.
The diversity of after- or extra-school activities does not mean increased costs to ratepayers, since most of the activities are self-funded. However, learning and the enthusiasm for learning about a topic of specific appeal and interest to the student has blossomed. Instead of expecting our children to fit into boilerplate standards of learning, we at Seven Oaks continue to explore ways to challenge each youth, and to help them grow to fit the world around them. And, from the student’s perspective, an unstructured opportunity seems less like schoolwork and more like a hobby. This stimulates a greater desire to learn. Yes, extra-curricular activities develop outside the curriculum, but the curriculum of these less formal, optional programs help to ensure greater enthusiasm for and participation in regular curriculum activities. It is, I suppose, an unanticipated “extra.”

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Challenge of Using Tax Revenues Effectively

Taxation, at any level, seems to be a quagmire for many people. How is revenue generated, what influences where money is spent, why does there always seem to be less revenue to pay for needed services when taxes always appear to be on the increase? Each level of government derives its income from unique sources. Ottawa relies primarily on corporate and individual taxes, as well as GST/HST. The province relies on sales tax, individual tax and transfers from Ottawa. Municipal authorities generate money through property tax and some licensing fees, as well as support from the province and, for specific projects, from Ottawa. School divisions levy a school tax tied to property taxation, and receive funding and support from the province.
Then there is the equally convoluted approach to who is responsible for what. Ottawa funds health care with the provinces, but the provinces are responsible for delivery. Yet, Ottawa exercises control over what is delivered. The municipalities are responsible for water management, roads and so on, yet the province exercises control in many of those areas, as well as through the Municipal Act. The school divisions are responsible for the delivery of programs and the running of the schools, but the province sets most of the curriculum and decides where schools will be built and funded. This intricately intertwined system of inputs and outputs leads to a great deal of confusion as to where responsibility (and blame) should be placed for high tax and poor service.
In the rural areas, there is a more uniform system of funding for school divisions, since school divisions cross over several municipalities, and each municipality may rely on varied levels of business versus residential property revenues. In Winnipeg, it is the reverse, with the city relying on business and residential property taxes across the entire area, with several school divisions being embedded within that boundary. Divisions like Seven Oaks have a much lower business tax base than others, resulting in a heavier burden on the homeowner. This is part of the inequitable funding that our school division faces.
The second component of this imbalanced funding approach for our ratepayers is the way the province determines how much money will be allocated to each school division. In the past decade, our division has pursued, aggressively, a more fair and equitable distribution of funds from the province. We still have a long way to go.
However, because we know that we are being confronted with two hurdles to overcome, as we struggle to make sure that our taxpayers are not overwhelmed by the cost of education, we have been quite successful at making our tax revenues work more effectively for you than have other divisions. In fact, Seven Oaks spends, on average, approximately $1,000 ($996.00) less per student than the average of other divisions in the province, yet is recognized as one of the leaders in innovative programming. That is something of which all of us in the region should be proud. Along with that point of pride is a second one: our graduation rates have been increasing, year after year, rising to 90% last year. To provide a comparison, some states in the USA have graduation rates below 65%.
In a prior blog, I discussed our innovative programming that addresses the individual skills, interests and weaknesses of each student.  These programs, and the support services that we offer to our youth allow individuals to excel. With the very diverse socio-economic and cultural milieu in our division, we face additional challenges that are not experienced by many other school divisions.  This eclectic mix, though, also is a great benefit to us and our young people, exposing us to a variety of points of view, backgrounds, abilities  and potential. Our diversity helps us to devise more creative and effective solutions to the issues we face, with a lower tax base with which to fund those solutions.
Yet, the real skill in delivering quality education programs for our children has less to do with the various levels of government than it does with the people who surround us. Seven Oaks would be justified in bragging about the high quality of educators and administrative staff who keep our system running smoothly. While it is true that the hiring of our teachers and school support staff is the ultimate responsibility of the school board, it is the dedication of those staff members that guarantees that the programs that the trustees approve are delivered in a professional manner. Our administrative and operations personnel, led by our division superintendent, largely should be given the credit for the ongoing value that each of us receive for the tax dollars spent.
Finally, one of the motivators that drives each of the elected public servants to  do the best job possible at investing tax dollars in good education is the fact that each trustee is also a ratepayer in the division, and any taxes imposed affect that trustee in precisely the same manner as every other ratepayer. Unlike upper levels of government, every trustee, therefore, is personally invested in making sure that his or her community is getting the best “bang for the buck” in use of tax money.
While we can make excuses or give legitimate reasons for why Seven Oaks is facing greater challenges than other school divisions, we, as trustees, have chosen to act more responsibly. Yes, budgeting is difficult.  However, those difficulties force us to work harder at finding better solutions, and, as a result, we ratepayers in Seven Oaks can be proud that we live in one of the most respected school divisions in the province, and deliver some of the best programming for our youth. Taxation is challenging. However, the rewards, for us, lay in being able to deliver value for each and every dollar spent.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Value of Co-operative Vocational Education( CVE) Programs

Not many years ago, the prevailing wisdom, shared by parents and educators alike, was that the ideal was to have as many high school students as possible proceed to university. “Without a degree,” many said, “a student has no future.” Today, good educators realize that many students are better suited for trades, and that the demand for skilled workers in those fields is as strong as for university graduates. However, the education system still tends to leave preparation for rapid entry into trades until after high school, when the best time to assist those students suited for such careers is the same as for routing others into university: high school.
In Manitoba and the western provinces, demand for tradesmen and skilled labour is extremely high. Our neighbour to the south – North Dakota – has an increasingly difficult time recruiting tradesmen to the region for its burgeoning oil industry and contingent construction boom. In rural Manitoba, homeowners often must wait months for carpenters, plumbers and electricians to undertake projects, while computer technicians, machinists and steel workers in the city are treasured.
I see great value in offering Cooperative Vocational Education programs in our division, as well as throughout the city. These courses offer opportunities for students to explore or pursue viable, well-paying careers in their field of interest, while benefiting the employers in the area.
In Seven Oaks, I have been a strong advocate for quality programs in this area, and we have seen great success with the students who have been enrolled in our programs. One of the great advantages of the CVE program is that students who achieve their proper level in the trades courses may go directly into apprenticeships or jobs, while  others go directly into post secondary institutions such as RRCC, where they are able to “jump the queue” for enrolment.
We presently have seven CVE program in the division: Aviation Trades and Technology, Automotive Trades and Technology, Culinary Services, Early Childhood Educator, Health Care Aide, and Hospitality Services. Plumbing and Pipe Trades recently was added to the curriculum (2013).  These courses generally start in Grade 12 but some start at the end of Grade 11.  Students earn their high school credits, as well, for graduation.  They have a four or 5 week introductory course in the schools they attend and then have one day at school and 4 days in on the job training. Students suited for this approach to education generally are far more satisfied with the education program, and are much more likely to continue in school. This increased graduation rate benefits the student, student’s family, employers and community at large.
On September 12, 2014,  in the Woods Shop at Garden City Collegiate (largely due to the Seven Oaks board and superintendent’s lobbying efforts with MLA Dave Chomiak), the provincial government announced a  $4.6 million state of the art 7000 sq. ft. addition  and renovation to the  existing shop facilities at the school to be completed in the fall of 2016.  The new addition will house three new CVE programs: Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), Introduction to Building Trades and Electrical. Premier Greg Selinger, our Superintendent, Brian O’Leary, Education Minister James Allum, The Woods teacher, Michael Bilyk, the Principal of the School, Steve Medwick and 2 graduating students all spoke.
The two students who spoke are recent graduates from Garden City Collegiate.  Both took “Woods” from instructor, Michael Bilyk.  One graduate said that because of the course he took, he is now pursuing a career in Carpentry at Red River Community College.  The other indicated that he is registered at the University of Manitoba.  He said that, of all the courses he took in high school, he liked “Woods” the best because it was hands on and he could see the results of his efforts.  He also felt that, even if you do not pursue a career in the field, you learn life long skills that will put you in good stead.
Those comments echo the intent behind offering these courses. The CVE programs expand the choices for our high school students, optimizing their interests, passions and abilities. While the majority of enrolees do proceed into trades or such vocations, the hands-on experience allows them to make the choice to do so in a more informed manner. These courses are also available to graduate students, since many of our youth are not ready to choose a career path until after completing high school, and the option to explore a “soft” career plan suits those students.
CVE Programming recognizes that each student has unique skills and interests and that the marketplace has diverse demands on our graduates, which can best be met by a well-rounded, comprehensive education strategy. Fortunately for Seven Oaks students, our school division has been one of the leaders in offering such programs and I am eager to continue working to further enrich our course offerings in a fiscally responsible manner.


Monday, 15 September 2014

When I first became a school board member, I was fortunate to listen to a speaker that, paraphrased, said “ In a good school, if child is absent, he or she should be missed”. To me, the meaning is clear. We should not process youth in school  like products on an assembly line, losing contact with the individuality of that student. We should not push, cookie-cutter style, our young people through the education system as if they are all the same, and do not allow for the unique character strengths, interests and frailties of the person. We do not want a collage of graduates that are all oriented in the same direction, as if we are trying to teach snakes to fly, birds to burrow and rabbits to crawl. We should be recognizing the value in each child, finding innovative and effective ways to draw out that student’s enthusiasm for learning, and helping him or her shape his or her life in a creative and productive fashion, using the best resources that are available to us to accomplish that task. In a good school, the individual will never be lost, and immediately missed if he or she strays.
Those initial words that I heard many years ago continue to guide the decisions I make today. We need to ensure that every child is an important child with unique abilities and talents. I want to continue to find the best possible solutions for our community’s educational needs. This blog will feature my ideas and your ideas. I encourage your input.

 Email me directly at or provide your feedback, ideas and comments directly in the comments section of this blog.