Renewal: into the vortex of indecision?

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February 2, 2006 by realrenewal

by J. F. Conway, Trustee, Regina Public Schools Subdivision 5

Those among you expecting decisive leadership from the Board majority and the Senior Administration, which brought you the document, “Renewing Regina Public Schools,” are perhaps a bit disappointed. You recall that report, no doubt. It cited 11 schools for possible closure, 10 in September 2006 and 1 in September 2007. The Senior Administration recommended approval, and a majority of the Board passed the obliging resolution against my advice. The vision of the report was clear: an end to the small neighbourhood school and its replacement by larger super-elementary schools in converted high schools. All hell broke loose among the public, and the recommendations were subsequently rescinded by the Board, to the relief of most in the city.

But the report is still there, and its recommendations could be again introduced and approved. The next opportunity is prior to 30 November 2006 (a month after the next Board election), legally permitting school closures for cited schools by September 2007. So it is not over yet.

The fact is that the public has lost some confidence and trust in the current Board majority and the Senior Administration, given the recent debacle. That trust and confidence must be restored. I suggest that an external consultant, with demonstrated expertise in such matters, be hired to organize and oversee a public consultant on renewal and future vision. The consultation must be completely open and public, inviting input from everyone with a point of view to present. Everything must be on the table: small neighbourhood schools vs. super elementary schools; transportation costs; guarantees that savings will go into the class room, not to finance tax cuts or 0 tax increases; class size; renovation vs. closure; all revenue options, including the use of local tax powers; plans for high schools and French Centres – the full Monty. Further, the consultant must very publicly provide an unfiltered review and assessment of the research consensus on effective and successful schools. Finally, it is absolutely essential that the consultant report directly to the Board, with a clear set of recommendations and their rationale. And that report must be immediately released to the public for further and final consultations.

But whatever form the coming consultation process takes, it will involve an elaborate public dance between various stakeholders in the system and the Board and Senior Administration. There are a few dance steps the public should beware.

There’s the “definition shuffle,” whereby the public will be challenged to define “small schools.” During this encounter arguments will be made that a “small school” in Toronto or New York would be a “big school,” maybe even a super elementary school, in Regina. There will be gentle whispers in the ear that size is relative and when researchers speak of “small schools” they may in fact be talking about a very large school by Regina’s standards. The facts, however, are clear. In current research that confirms that small schools are more effective, with significantly more positive educational, psychological, social and community impacts, than large schools, the optimum average size cited is around 300. Given that, we might want to agree that size is somewhat relative to community standards and therefore, in Regina, we might want to select an optimum size of 200.

Then there’s the “small class size side step.” During this dance the public will be told that small classes are not the best predictor of academic achievement or teaching effectiveness. Other factors will be mentioned, all of which are correct, like excellent teachers, student motivation, parental involvement, extra-curricular options, etc. But small class size is centrally important to ensure a quality educational experience, involving more time for individual instructional attention, a view consistently reported by teachers and students. That is why teachers yearn for smaller classes, and why students very positively report the educational experience of small classes (even though the average class mark, or other standardized measures of achievement, may be the same in both large and small classes). Education is more than quantitative measures. Indeed, the most crucial educational outcomes are largely qualitative. And for quality education, small classes are the single most important variable.

Finally, there’s the “resources for the classroom not buildings boogie.” In this very rapid dance the public will be breathlessly told about the huge costs of the physical infrastructure, its maintenance, and required renovations – complete with disc jockeys flashing light shows of power point presentations. All these millions of dollars could go into the classroom leading to wonderful improvements in education quality. This dance often seduces many, and teachers, desperate for more front line resources, are particularly vulnerable to the boogie. Beware. The alleged savings from the last round of closures were supposed to end up in the classroom – they largely didn’t. The annual million dollar savings realized by energy retrofitting the schools were targeted for the classroom. Those annual savings largely didn’t end up there. The lion’s share of these savings went to finance 0 per cent tax increases, which meant money had to be found from existing budgets to cover off inflation, rising energy costs, salary increases, increased insurance premiums and so on. So beware this seductive boogie.

There are other dance steps to beware: “the wounded feelings waltz;” “the tough decisions two-step;” “the leap of faith lurch;” and the “so what’s your alterative? tango.” Future columns will report on such dance steps if they become part of the coming public consultation ball.

The fact remains that this whole issue would be best resolved in the coming October 2006 Board elections. Candidates should be compelled to elaborate on their vision for the future of Regina Public Schools, and asked to clearly state their position on the “Renewing Regina Public Schools” report. Then the public can have the final say of the future with some assurance that the vision they support will be the vision that is implemented by the newly elected Trustees.

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