Jennifer Dunville - 2008 Award Recipient
Back to school
I travelled to the Edmonton Public District with the attitude that I was going to learn all the things its schools are doing right that our schools in New Brunswick are doing wrong.
But I came back with a better understanding of how both education systems operate.
What I learned in Edmonton is forcing me to step back and refocus on what exactly is being done in New Brunswick for the next generation of students and how we can improve the system we have.
I've come to realize it's unfair to compare our districts with Edmonton Public simply because of the sheer size differences in population and resources.
Edmonton's district has more than 190 schools and 80,000 students. It operates with a budget of $751 million.
Districts 18 and 17, the ones I report on, have a combined student population of about 17,200 with only 52 schools.
The entire province of New Brunswick, which includes nine anglophone and five francophone districts, has an education budget of $946 million.
That means District 18 operates with about $86 million and District 17 operates with about $40 million.
Despite these obvious differences, I think New Brunswick's education department has a responsibility to examine what other jurisdictions are doing.
An all-girl's class Jennifer visited that's part of one of Edmonton Public District's alternative programs designed to give students options in their education.
Edmonton Public is one of the top districts in the country. It might not compare to New Brunswick in size, but there are many improvements needed in our province and we might benefit from some of the systems being used in Edmonton.
Its site-based decision-making model, for example, could apply in New Brunswick.
Schools are in charge of their own budgets in Edmonton and can decide, without government interference, how to use those resources to challenge gifted students and reach out to those who are struggling.
One school I visited met with parents in its community to talk about priorities for student education. It was decided that smaller class sizes would benefit students more than anything else the school could spend its money on.
The principal was able to allocate part of the school's budget to hiring more teachers in order to lower the student-teacher ratio. Student assessment scores rose significantly as a result.
Schools in New Brunswick cannot make these kinds of decisions. Money from the government is placed in the hands of district officials, but much of it is already earmarked leaving little flexibility for spending.
Edmonton also has an assessment model that New Brunswick might benefit from.
Report cards for schools include student and parent satisfaction results. The belief is test scores will not improve if students and parents are unhappy with the school system to begin with.
A student works on a mannequin in her cosmetology class. Edmonton Public schools offer a wide variety of program options to keep students passionate about school and interested in keeping their grades high.
I was impressed with the concern Edmonton Public's administration, educators and board members had for these school report cards. Slight changes in satisfaction results or test scores were highlighted as major problems and examined both at the district and school levels.
In Grade 9 literacy, for example, 75.5 per cent of students in Edmonton scored at the acceptable level. An additional 18.6 per cent scored at the superior level. The results were an improvement from the previous year, but the three-year average showed a 1.8 per cent decline overall. Instead of celebrating the positive, as our districts might, Edmonton Public officials flagged this as an issue immediately and began the process of determining with schools what went wrong and where additional resources were needed.
Some of our schools do satisfaction surveys, but not to the same extent and I'm not sure there is enough importance placed on assessment results in our province.
Our low test scores are just some of the challenges we face in New Brunswick, but Edmonton Public, with its award-winning programs and nationally-recognized schools, is not without challenges of its own.
It has a high drop-out rate because students sometimes have trouble focusing on obtaining an education when decent wages can be obtained immediately in the work force.
It deals with this problem in a number of ways, but focuses on offering students choices.
It attempts to keep students interested in school by giving them a variety of program options to keep them passionate about learning.
Edmonton Public offers an open school-boundary system so students can attend any school they'd like, not just one in their neighbourhood.
And there are more than 30 alternative programs for students to pick from, including a hockey school, a school for the arts and many language programs.
New Brunswick doesn't have a large drop-out problem, but it does struggle with how to keep students passionate about learning and interested in keeping their test scores high.
Perhaps our districts could benefit from a system of more choice.
With limited resources, our schools cannot offer as much as Edmonton, but our government may need to consider supporting more programs, such as the gender-separated classes in Harold Peterson Middle School.
My trip to Edmonton has given me much to think about; more questions to ask our government and educators; and more issues to delve into when I'm reporting on my education beat.
I can't thank the Canadian Journalism Foundation enough for allowing me this opportunity
Not only did I have a fantastic time, but I also made connections and gathered information that will be invaluable to my future work.