Jim Prentice is right about one thing; playing political games isn't going to get things advanced in Alberta.
But the way to solve it is not to play more political games.
He accuses the Alberta Liberals of pitting Albertans' beliefs against each other.
Then he turns around and does the same.
It's the one flaw Laurie Blakeman's private member's bill has; it talks about too much, and does pit one topic against another. If you believe GSAs should be supported, but also believe in parents rights, then Blakeman's Bill 202 isn't for you. The Wildrose ammendment is.
To be clear, Blakeman's bill is for me. I highly recommend you read my last blog to understand why, because it is also a good backgrounder for this blog. And as an Alberta Party supporter, I support good ideas, regardless of source.
Prentice wants to "show leadership and build consensus", but if his new bill, the Unwritten Bill, does all he suggests it will, he is not doing that.
Blakeman put her bill together based on principle, not based on political gamesmanship. She believes in safety for students at school in a world beyond discrimination. She believes in public education for every child, regardless of beliefs.
This is not a game for her. This is getting to the core of human rights for her.
Prentice hasn't stated what he believes, except that he thinks "the vast majority of Albertans" share the same beliefs. Well Mr. Prentice, if your party represents that vast majority, that must make me part of the minority. Can I get exempted in your new Unwritten Bill?
Prentice is putting the Unwritten Bill together for the purposes of usurping the conversation. The Unwritten Bill is touted to provide for safety for students at school in a world where discrimination is decided upon by school boards or the legal system. The Unwritten Bill is touted to give the opportunity for students to be exempted from learning certain knowledge, skills or attitudes.
Children should no have to fight for their rights. According to the Unwritten Bill, if kids are blocked from having a GSA or any other club that promotes a safe and caring learning environment, those kids must go to court. A government that sets up a system where children aren't guaranteed their rights to begin with is no representative of me.
There are two issues at play here that Prentice is ignoring and Blakeman is trying to respect.
Issue #1: MLAs bring forward motions and bills that represent the values of their constituents, most easily identified by the policies of the party they represent. This doesn't bode well for people like Kerry Towle or Ian Donovan, but it explains Blakeman's actions wonderfully.
Floor-crossing is a thorny issue, because a floor-crosser would, morally, need to provide evidence that their constituents did indeed want their MLA to cross the floor. The best evidence for such a decision would be to seek that mandate from their constituents again. Towle and Donovan, to my knowledge, have not done that.
But for Prentice to suggest that Blakeman is doing anything other than representing her constituents is ridiculous. It would be likened to a pot shouting "black kettle" while pointing at a red espresso machine.
Issue #2: It seems both the PCs and the Wildrose have no intention of offering any level of professionalism to teachers. You see, a professional teacher must adhere to a "duty ethic", much like doctors, which is roughly translated to "do no harm". Schools, by extension, must meet that same duty ethic.
Blocking knowledge amounts to harm done. This includes the differences similarities between evolution and divine creation, human sexuality, and what happens when you mix primary colours, among many other pieces of knowledge.
Blocking the development of skill amounts to harm done. This includes how to use logic to deduce, how to recognize bigotry and resolve conflict, and how to dribble a basketball, among many other skills.
Blocking the development of attitudes that will allow you to serve in your community amounts to harm done. This includes work ethic, how to respect the background of every individual (regardless of belief), and involvement in the democratic process.
So any legislation that permits the blocking of knowledge, skill or attitude development permits harm being done. Therefore teachers have no chance of remaining professional. What other aspects of teacher professionalism will the PC or Wildrose parties block?
If the Unwritten Bill is really going to give the opportunity for some kids to be exempted from certain knowledge, skills or attitudes, at what point do we bother with having a curriculum at all? Why don't we just ask the local parents what the curriculum should include? Who needs educational professionals at all?
If parents want to exclude kids from certain conversations at school, then don't use public school. Find a private school that will teach what you want it to teach. Public education must adhere to the duty ethic, and if you aren't willing to allow that to happen, find a private option.
Prentice's Unwritten Bill, if it does as it says, won't protect the rights of students. It will amount to harm being done. As I said before, every parent, teacher and student should but upset about that.
So I could talk about the floor crossing and the embattled Wildrose Party today, but I've got a better idea.
Let's talk policy.
The Wildrose-proposed amendments to Bill 202 make absolutely no sense to me.
The first time I heard about Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) from a political perspective was from Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Party.
It was during a scheduled meeting with her immediately after the Wildrose voted against protecting their existence in schools. She sought out my opinion as a Catholic school teacher about them.
My response was that any initiative that promotes respect and dignity for every person is an initiative that any Christian should want to get behind. I also suggested that at no time could I fathom a faith-based school saying "no" to a group of kids who want to take that initiative on themselves.
A Christian school (Catholic or not) should want to encourage the teaching that every child is made in the image of God. A Christian school should also encourage the teaching that we are to love one another as we love God. A Christian school should also encourage the teaching that the only judgement that truly matters is the one by God, and even if someone makes a poor decision, they are still a child of God and eligible for His forgiveness. A Christian school should also encourage that we fight for the right of every individual to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of circumstance.
My school teaches that. I have been given stories of other faith-based schools that don't, but I'm convinced that most faith-based schools teach that.
So when the Wildrose presents amendments to Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202 suggesting that such initiatives should not be forced upon faith-based schools, I ask "why not?"
If a Christian school is really worried about the term "Gay-Straight Alliance", then it's likely they already have an issue with acceptance among students in their school. It's such a school that may need a GSA the most. And if students in the school are comfortable enough, or brave enough, with even suggesting its existence then the school needs to embrace it.
Nothing in a Christian school is unteachable. In fact, in order for faith to truly develop, it must be challenged. By questioning one's faith, that faith can become stronger. By that very point, in a Christian school everything must be taught, especially the tools students need to strengthen their own convictions and faith. In that way they can understand the facts as they exist, and cultivate a belief system around those facts. The one thing that is most destructive to faith is a lack of action in it. By not challenging your faith, you take no action in it.
So what the Wildrose is in effect asking Christian schools to do is not allow their kids to challenge their faith, and therefore not grow in their faith. That should upset the parents of those kids, as well as any faith leader they interact with.
I further don't understand why the Wildrose seems to be so adamant about making teachers inform parents of conversations about sexuality, sexual health and religion. If the spirit of this is to simply keep parents informed, that is an expectation of teachers anyway, so the legislation is redundant.
However, if the spirit of this is to give parents the opportunity to limit their kids education, why not force teachers to also send a note home if they are discussing gender inequality, race or evolution? If a parent is prejudiced against the First Nations, why not afford them the opportunity to exclude their kids from instruction about them? If a parent truly believes that the role of a female is to be a servant to their male partner, why not afford them the opportunity to exclude their kids from instruction that promotes the authority of women? If a parent is prejudiced against the First Nations, why not afford them the opportunity to exclude their kids from instruction about them, or even moreso simply force a school to put their kids in classes with no First Nations students? If a parent doesn't believe in the scientifically proven concept of evolution, why not afford them to exclude their kids from such instruction (which would basically take them out of every Science class ever).
Eventually we'll see notes being sent home before discussing with students appropriate attire, and kids being removed from school because parents don't believe in sparkly clothing.
At which point, why doesn't the Wildrose just suggest an amendment that befits "ALL" issues Alberta students might be subjected to. They seemed to be rather content with that definition at their most recent AGM.
Then teachers will be forced under the Alberta Human Rights Act to send a letter to parents before each and every class. What else would the Wildrose like to see micromanaged?
The issues the Wildrose have to face right now have absolutely nothing to do with who jumps ship when. It has everything to do with their actions. And as they recently touted, their actions speak louder than their words.
It is becoming obvious we have an Education Minister that is running amock. Parents should be freaking out right about now; any and all conversation about their child's education has come to a screeching halt.
Just over a week ago, Jeff Johnson, our self-righteous Education Minister, ordered all 62 school boards in our province to send him details about teachers whose discipline didn't make it to the Alberta Teachers' Association.
Parents should be freaking out right about now - May 28, 2014
In a nutshell, he's asked for any complaint registered against any teacher, and every action taken afterward, over the past 10 years.
And he gave school boards 2 weeks to get it done. Just as many staff members take an earned summer break, and all remaining are busy trying to compile final examination and enrolment data.
If I had to cook supper in 5 minutes, unless I have leftovers, I wouldn't do it. I'd go get fast food instead, regardless of its diminished nutritional value.
So, Minister Johnson, if you're really wanting a decent amount of data to chew on, are you going to settle for leftovers, or be okay with fast food?
No? Then why are you giving your chefs such a short timeline to cook something up?
When it comes to fast food, I have no idea what goes into it. Does my hot dog include bone dust swept up off the factory floor? How much sugar is in my ketchup? How much of that seasoning is MSG and how much of it is salt? Did someone spit in my burger for making such a ridiculous request?
How much irrelevant yet personal and private employment data is going to get swept up off the factory floor and mixed into this hot dog of a report that Johnson is supposed to get? Oh, and he's supposed to eat, then digest, 62 hot dogs. Something's going to get regurgitated that shouldn't be.
This is a most valid concern, considering the Privacy Commissioner just laid the smack down on Johnson for doing exactly that; regurgitating something he was not even supposed to have access to; teachers' private emails. Johnson's complete lack of an apology, rationalized by saying "next time I'll get permission", shows to the ATA there is no intention of ever protecting their private information. So it makes sense that the ATA has again asked the Privacy Commissioner to get involved and tell Johnson to back down on this most recent order.
These concerns were echoed by the Alberta School Boards Association, so when you have multiple Educational partners expressing concern, shouldn't that give the Minister pause?
The other concern that the ATA has expressed is that none of the hot dog is Jeff Johnson's to demand, bone dust and all. School boards employ teachers, not the Minister. His response is somewhat troublesome;
"School boards serve at the pleasure of the minister and the minister can dissolve a school board."
So now the school boards, whether they agree with him or not, know what the expectation is in the future. Give Johnson your homework, or he'll smack you around.
By the way, did you know most schools have an anti-bullying policy of some sort?
Funny thing is, Johnson is suggesting the ATA told him to get this information, when in fact, the ATA said in effect "not you, anybody but you". What the ATA said was that stories Johnson has heard about teachers not getting disciplined were unsubstantiated, and that evidence was needed, but that Johnson should remain impartial and not be in charge of it himself.
He should have listened to them. What he has now done by ordering the boards to get this information for him is tacitly suggested that his baby, the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence, didn't do their research. If they had, he wouldn't need to ask for this information, he'd already have it.
So why laud the Taskforce so much when he was just going to debunk it by his own actions anyway? Because it's never actually been about Education, it's been about Jeff Johnson.
He has now ... tacitly suggested that his baby, the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence, didn't do their research.
Three episodes ago I was asked in comments what I thought the end game for Johnson was. Why would he do all this?
Firstly, it's very possible that the process for intervention in teacher conduct or practice could be tweaked to make the system even better. In my discussions recently with a school division leader, I would say there is an appetite for an improvement to the process.
But the end does not justify the means. You cannot justify making an adversary out of the ATA by saying "it's just to improve process". In discussions with ATA spokespeople, I'd say the ATA would have been open to improving process, had they just been included in it.
Besides that, the ATA aren't the only teachers in the province (despite their best efforts). So where is Johnson's efforts to measure process in charter or private schools?
No, this is not why Johnson is doing all this. Johnson is looking out for numero uno. And to be clear, the students have not been numero uno from the start.
It only makes sense that Johnson was, at one time, hoping his gall would land him a high-ranking spot under the next leadership. It's obvious that Johnson thinks that will be under Jim Prentice's leadership. That's why even after Prentice rebuked Johnson, Johnson stuck to flying the Prentice banner. He's hoping there's another portfolio of equal or greater importance waiting for his heavy-hand. And with current Premier David Hancock doing nothing to stop the bleeding, Johnson is getting tacit approval, if not encouragement.
And what if Prentice doesn't reward Johnson for his bull-headed approach? Well there is always another party flag to wave, instead. So what party would sympathize with such anti-union activities?
Danielle Smith and I crossed paths at Canada Day celebrations once again. She asked me the exact same question; why would Johnson do all this. After going through option 1 as I already have here, I suggested that he's prepping himself to cross the floor. "To who?" she asked.
My smirk was my response. She laughed, and her aide told me that my "outside view" was bizarre. I asked why it was so bizarre when their colleague Rob Anderson has already endorsed Johnson publicly. Smith was surprised, almost to the point of disbelief, until I told her I could forward her the link. She shrugged, and conceded the fact that Anderson and Johnson were "friends" at one point in time.
It would be a significant surprise if Johnson hasn't at least looked up the Wildrose Party's Member Approved Policy. He has been posturing himself perfectly to support it's Education Policy (Section III, Subsection B, Clause 6). Interestingly, this clause shows just as much research into teacher accountability as the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence - you know, the one Johnson himself just debunked.
It's clear Johnson is setting himself up to go to wherever the winning party is. And right now, students aren't it.
What's worse, is that while we have 2 more months of waiting to find out what the new PC leader will do, that party has already had a chance to muzzle it's dog. Even if the PC party were to get someone more amicable and constructive in the Education Ministry, it'll take them at least 2 years to dig themselves out of this mess. And then we'll be into a provincial election. Students will have not been the focal point for this government's entire term.
Yup, parents should be freaking out right about now. Until there is a party with a strong Education Policy, supported by consultation with the public, backed by research, that will work with all stakeholders as opposed to against, with their primary focus on students, governing our province, parents should continue to be freaking out.
For those of you who don't know, "tatlo" is the number 3 in Tagalog.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Even though we’ve had issues including Jeff Johnson’s insertion into Alberta Education, and the calculated release of the grossly uninformed Task Force on Teacher Excellence, the reason parents should have first started freaking out was introduced to us even earlier. As one very prolific Edmonton Journal columnist calls it, this reason is/was the “Great Canadian Math Debate”.
Since Ralph Klein was Premier, every four years Education, and particularly Teachers, get attacked. Interestingly enough, it always happens to land at exactly the halfway point between elections. Two years after the 2008 election, teachers were in a battle to get the raise they were guaranteed in a province-wide agreement led by the Premier Ed Stelmach. Then as they approached election season, the government offered some concessions to Teachers in hopes that they have a short memory. Unfortunately, Teachers do. Two years after the 2012 election, again Teachers are in a battle against the government, and now the battle even includes the Official Opposition. What concessions should we expect from the government during the 2016 election that they won’t claw back in 2018? Is the Wildrose, widely viewed as the next government, any different when they have joined in the attack themselves?
The Great Math "Debate"
First, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies expressed a concern in a poorly-worded change.org petition (I originally dismissed it based on this very issue). It was rooted in the idea that Alberta students perform poorly on international tests in mathematics. It got a little attention. Then the Wildrose adopted it for talking points, Dr. Tran-Davies got an editor to correct (although not completely) the petition, and it developed into a “debate” pressed by the Official Opposition and a couple of very outspoken media personalities. The points of the "debate"; that the Alberta Government is trying to shift all of Education to an unproven “discovery” approach and is forcing instruction to ignore “basics” in math.
"Discovery" and "debate" are in quotation marks, because in actual fact both terms are misleading. The term "discovery" means to learn something for the first time. At which point, all learning is "discovery" learning. The term we should be using is "inquiry", which is more about investigating for understanding. The term "debate" connotes dialogue. There isn't much of that happening, mostly it's just a bunch of announcements of opinions. I should note that this blog does not constitute a dialogue, and therefore doesn't contribute much to the idea of "debate" either, but when in Rome...
The myths involved in this “debate” are plentiful. The problem is, nobody is debunking them completely (although some have approached it). So here is my attempt, finally, at doing just that.
The title of “Dr.” means that you are an expert in everything.
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is up-front about pointing out that she is no mathematician nor teacher. I give her kudos for that. However, other mathematics professors who have joined the “debate” seem to have forgotten that they profess (which largely means research) advanced math, and are not trained in Education. That unfortunately limits the value of their input (but to be clear, does not discount their concerns). Such individuals who can be considered experts of both math and education, such as Dr. Craig Loewen of the University of Lethbridge, have had constructive input into the curriculum.
Curriculum determines the approach used to instruct math concepts.
Teachers determine the approach used to instruct math concepts. Teachers are expected to use methods that are best for the students. There is no one-size-fits-all method to teaching math, but mastery is still expected nonetheless. Curriculum only informs what is to be taught.
Teachers are being forced to ignore "the basics".
Teachers are autonomous professionals. If a teacher feels as though they are not permitted to teach the basics, they should take their issue up with Member Services at the Alberta Teachers' Association. It is up to teachers how they feel it is best to deliver the curriculum to their unique and varied students, and oftentimes this requires a differentiated approach. To say that teachers are being force to ignore the "basics" is to say teachers are not autonomous professionals. If you fear that teachers are not given that autonomy, take your issue up with the Education Minister.
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), carried out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is a reliable measurement tool for the efficacy of a region’s math instruction.
Firstly, the OECD is for Economic, not Educational Cooperation and Development. This should be our first indicator that something is rotten in the state of ... well in this case, France.
Secondly, PISA is a measurement tool that uses data from different tests in different countries, and different countries report their results differently, almost in a self-selected manner. Certainly they’ll tell you it’s all the same test, but what they don’t advertise is that regions can also pick and choose various questions to be included in the test. If a country wants to improve their PISA scores, they simply need to make their math tests easier, or only have the best regions of their country participate. In Alberta’s case, our PISA score can drop simply because of the increase in our expectations of our math students, or because other countries pick only their best jurisdictions to report. Using PISA as a standardized test has the same problem as using Provincial Achievement Tests; a standardized test can't work if there are too many variables making each test subject different before you even test them. China reports only a few jurisdictions, Alberta reports the whole province. A student who grew up learning Isa, Dalawa, Tatlo writes the same Provincial Achievement Test as a student who grew up learning One, Two, Three. See the problem here?
Teachers have had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process.
Even though the world’s leading regions in education (such as Finland) ask the Alberta Teachers Association for advice, curriculum redesign has kept the ATA at arm’s length. It hasn’t been until just a few months ago (years after curriculum redevelopment started) that Minister Jeff Johnson has started listening to the ATA and considerably relaxed his deadlines and expectations for the completion of the curriculum redesign and its implementation. Had teachers had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process, you would have seen a much larger emphasis on professional development to prepare teachers for the new curriculum.
The Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) predetermines the direction education will take, so consultation with the public is merely a smoke screen.
The WCNP is simply an organization of collaboration, not of predetermination. For that matter, if the WNCP were in fact predetermining education, then we should also see scores from the Yukon, NWT, Saskatchewan and Manitoba plunge, and that is not the case. There is ample evidence showing that results from public consultations have been considered in the curriculum redesign process.
With the introduction of Student Learning Assessments (SLAs), grades will disappear, and so will accountability.
SLAs are completed at the beginning of the year. They are to be used by teachers to guide their instruction. Grading strategies for the remainder of the year are determined by the School Board, various curricular departments within the board, School Administration and finally teachers, in that order. If a school chooses not to use grades, it is not because it is mandated as such from the government. Furthermore, any assessment strategy employed by a teacher should show that each student matches the SLA at the beginning of the year, and show a trend for the student of either maintaining or improving their understanding of the curricular concepts. Any student who shows evidence of a reduction in performance should also have documentation to indicate what strategies were used to address that reduction, and should also show evidence of subsequent improvement following those strategies. All this documentation exists, teachers are required to do it. Accountability is not a concern here.
David Staples provides no useful feedback.
David Staples shows a bias because that is his job. He is very good at his job, somehow finding justification for writing 42 columns on this supposed “debate”. In fact, many people across Canada are now equating his name with this whole "debate". This is the time of stardom a columnist dreams of, so to maintain this high-profile status that sells his column, he must write prolifically. And write he does. His viewpoints are based on the idea that “basic math” is needed for every child.
Personal anecdote; when I was learning math, I didn’t not learn it because I could memorize things. My father, in fact, taught me math using a very “discovery”, or rather an "inquiry" approach. This was 20 years ago. So to go back to “the way we used to do it” might just mean going back to “discovery” ... *ahem* ... "inquiry".
Nonetheless, Mr. Staples does provide an insight that allows us to identify issues that require rectifying. Taken with a grain of salt, it can be very useful. But make sure you take it with a grain of salt, because much like the first myth debunked, a columnist does not a journalist make; see Joe Bower for more discussion on this thought.
The Wildrose are representing the concerns of all Albertans in this "debate".
The Wildrose, rather than representing concerns, are telling Albertans what to be concerned about. In a telephone town hall that I can only describe as a “push poll”, the majority of individuals whose questions were aired were those that were speaking against teachers, math instruction, or curriculum redesign. Of 15 questioners that I noted, 1 educational aide got through long enough to praise teachers on their balanced instruction, 1 parent got through to do the same, and no teachers were aired. When I pressed them about how they chose which questions got through, it became evident that their town hall had not only self-selected data, but also inaccurate data. They couldn’t even find the question I had asked.
That question was “Danielle, when a parent comes to you expressing concern, do you ask first if they have approached their child’s teacher, and if they haven’t, do you direct them there?” I have never received a follow-up as they promised in the teletownpushpollhall.
You know what seems odd to me? Numbers that aren't divisible by two.
Being an Education Critic makes you an Education Expert.
The Wildrose are seemingly unware of the fact that they are arguing about one thing when the issue is something completely different; similar to arguing about how clouds are formed when the discussion is actually about acid rain. The Wildrose are caught in a problem in that they confuse the “what” of teaching with the “how” of teaching. For example, if you need to transport oil, there are many ways you can do it. You can pipe it, drive it, put it on a train, break it down into other products that are easier to consume like gasoline and ethanol, etc. So if you don’t want the oil on a train, what should you do?
By Wildrose logic, don’t use oil, use canola instead.
Certainly that would change the transport options, and moving to “greener” solutions is a noble goal, but we would lose all the value that exists in oil.
Curriculum defines “what” teachers are expected to impart to students, not “how”. Certainly “how” to teach something depends on what is being taught, but if parents are displeased with “how” teachers teach, asking them to try a different “how” makes far more sense than trying a different “what”.
In a meeting with Wildrose Education Critic Bruce McAllister and Leader Danielle Smith, I was told that they believe strongly in a “return to teaching the basics.” At first that sounds like a “what” item. But when they explain what they think the basics are, they suggest things like memorizing times tables, methods of long division, vertical addition and formula memorization. These are not the “what”, but rather the “how”. As I’ve learned, there are more than a few ways to skin a fish.
When I asked them how they know what the basics were, the response from Ms. Smith was “the easiest way for a student to learn.” Again, a “how”. My response and question was “what if the easiest way for a student to learn divisibility by 9 is by summing up the digits, not memorizing the times table?”
The two seconds of stunned silence was telling. So was the response from Mr. McAllister when it finally came; “we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this.”
So we did.
I’m not saying don’t change curriculum, because in many cases a good curriculum update and overhaul is well overdue. I’m saying if you want to change the “how”, go to the person who actually make those decisions; go to the teacher.
However, who would want to go to a teacher now to discuss their child’s successes in school? After all, we are self-serving people who care more about our own then your children. But don’t worry, government has your back. They will ensure, from their offices in downtown Edmonton, that your child’s classroom is perfectly managed, and that teachers have so much oversight as to not have to think for themselves, or for your child, anymore. The government knows best.
And just in case you thought that was only a PC government, allow me to correct that misconception. Jeff Johnson believes the ATA cannot manage their own, which is why he has claimed himself savior of our discipline process. However, the Wildrose’s Rob Anderson jumped on the Johnson bandwagon. So, if the political pundits are correct and the blue and orange banners are replaced with green and pink ones in 2016, don’t expect any change to how they approach Education.
The only way to avoid that is to have an alternative. Kent Hehr had a dream of being a teacher cut short, but his passion cannot be ignored. Deron Bilous has been a teacher, so understands the profession. The Alberta Party is currently working on its Education Policy among other policies, soliciting input from all stakeholders. Ask each of these people about the Great Math "Debate", you will find a hugely different response than the one in the media.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Regardless of which of the conservative parties take power in 2016, it won’t be professional educators making decisions about Education. It will be some elected official whose only adult experience in our schools was either delivering a Xerox machine, broadcasting a special interest segment on a morning news show, or spending 10 months bickering instead of running a school board.
This weekend will be bittersweet for me, and for many in High River.
Tomorrow we begin the celebration of Graduation for many students here. I am very proud of our students who have braved this past 12 months to get this far. However, to see our youth go away reminds me how lovely it would be to see them come back, and even more, to stay.
Notre Dame Collegiate Grads in particular have my respect. They put up with far more than most other graduating classes in Alberta. They started their year late. When they did finally start, there were only two classrooms available to them in a borrowed building. Unfortunately for them, they were not joined by their friends in the younger grades for another week, and in some cases, more. Students didn't have lockers, and so for Grads they would carry their 35 pounds of textbooks throughout the day on their backs. No cafeteria. No gathering space to hang out with friends. After school programs like sports and music were either cancelled or put on hold in hopes of a quick return to the original Notre Dame Collegiate. Some programs didn't come back. Yet the students still hit the books and made the best of it, because after all, they were alive. A Me To We celebration at the end of September reminded the students of just how strong we are together.
When the rest of the grades finally joined them, classroom space was at a premium for both our host school and our own, so Notre Dame Collegiate had to run eight classes at a time in the gymnasium, while other classes crowded into every nook and cranny possible in that structure. The band program hoofed it two blocks away to the nearby Masonic Lodge, which was also experiencing a space crunch accommodating as many as 12 groups at one time with only three useable spaces. With the only gymnasium taken up, a school bus sat on standby at all times to take kids to the community RecPlex, but then again every other community group was fighting for space, and having three schools vying along with those community groups for time, that made things all the more challenging. So when the RecPlex wasn't available, students would be bussed to Blackie, 25 minutes away.
All the while, each and every High River family was having their own battles at home, if they had a home. Some were trying to finish the cleanup. Some were trying to start the cleanup. Some were trying to get insurance, Disaster Recovery Program, or anybody they could to help them recover. Some were just happy to have a roof over their heads, even if it was an ATCO trailer in Saddlebrook. Some were losing their jobs or clients because they were flooded away. Some were fighting to keep their businesses open. Some were simply battling on their neighbours behalf, hoping to keep the community together.
Glimmers of light shone on the students from time to time. If families couldn't afford school materials, they could get a backpack from the Parent Link Centre in town. Various donations trickled in from various locations. Opportunities like bringing a huge group of kids to the set of Heartland were welcomed. The most brilliant light in the fog was the host we had, for Ecole Senator Riley School very quickly became not only a neighbour and host, but friends who were there when they were needed. Friends we will never forget.
After a few weeks, camera crews, people in suits and ties, and photo opportunities started to grate on students' nerves. Politicians, many of whom had never set foot in the original Notre Dame Collegiate, came out in droves. Occasionally a student got their 15 minutes of fame, but even then some students would turn down the opportunity because they were just tired of it all, and wanted to get back to normal. Normal would never come.
All the while, Grads counted down to the projected arrival of the portable classrooms, only to have their hopes and deadlines dashed not once, not twice, but thrice. It's hard to concentrate on your classwork when you're not even certain of what your classroom space is going to look like from one day to the next. In October some of the portables finally opened up. Some classes moved in. Some stayed in the gymnasium and Masonic Lodge. The shuttles to the RecPlex and Blackie continued. In late October, the gymnasium and the Masonic Lodge were no longer used, and the shuttles to the RecPlex or Blackie became less constant.
Our community seemed to suffer blow after blow. In November our Filipino community was struck by another disaster, a typhoon that hit their families back in their home country. With a huge cohort of Filipinos in the school, for many it brought back the tragedy we recently experienced, and our community gathered around our Tagalog- and Visayan-speaking friends, including many of our Grads. Our elementary school remained in an untenable position running an over-capacity school in an even smaller Memorial Centre, where classrooms had to be torn down nightly for other community events. All we wanted to do was help, but when we are in need of help ourselves, feelings of helplessness can set in. For some, they had to leave, and in a community such as ours, any loss gets mourned.
Christmas was a much needed break. When we returned, our elementary friends all were in their portable school, and the end was in sight. Preparations for Grad celebrations were well underway, and the first sighs of relief came as the Grads completed their first sets of diploma exams. They had made it through the toughest part of the year. The school bid adieu to our hosts at Senator Riley, who said goodbye to us in a grand procession out our temporary front doors, and although they were likely happy to have the full capacity of their building back, hugs, tears and cheers for each other were still exchanged.
After the teacher professional development break, students came back to another press field day, but it would also be the last. However, the school they came back to was still far from finished. Grads found themselves in borrowed class spaces again, as small gathering areas became classrooms for displaced teachers. Busses continued to travel, but mostly only to the RecPlex. The Public Address system in the school didn't work, phones weren't connected, there was no place to eat lunch, and many classrooms didn't even have whiteboards yet. Nonetheless, they were in a building, it smelled new, it had a few upgrades already completed and a few more on the way, and most importantly, it was home.
In the back field of our refurbished home sat our elementary school in 26 portable classrooms. Very quickly our two schools got a chance to work together, which was a novelty as the original location (which sat underwater for 2 months after the flood) was too far away to really develop any sort of connection with. Grads were often found working with elementary students, and the two schools became closer than they have ever been since the elementary school was built. While challenges still continue, which should be expected when 750 students have to share a single gymnasium, the comraderie in the Catholic community coagulated, and new opportunities were born.
Though the Grads have moved through trial into opportunity within the school context, some still continue to battle issues at home. Many are still rebuilding homes. Some have just moved back home from the temporary housing, and thankfully only a few remain in Saddlebrook. Some businesses have recovered, some remain in temporary structures, some are going further and further into debt hoping that critical point where they have to close their doors forever never comes. For some, it has already come and gone.
This is why I believe there are few graduating classes that deserve a celebration as much as Notre Dame Collegiate's Grads this year. They fought through it all. They faced challenge at home, at school, in their minds, their bodies and in their souls. And they stood tall and strong. They are some of the best examples of what it means to be a High Riverite.
This is also what makes me somewhat sad. It is likely that many of them are leaving, be it for post-secondary or simply to find work where it's available and stable. High River's loss will be the rest of the world's gain. But I hope that High River recovers in such a way that these beacon's of our future choose to return home, live, grow families here, build a community here, and remain.
To these amazing human beings who, as the youngest of adults, have faced some of the most incredible challenges imaginable, I hope these remain the most incredible challenges you will ever face for the rest of your life. I hope that you are aware just how powerful you are, and that you never falter in the steps you take forward. You have no need for a lack of confidence; if you could manage this year, you've got an amazing potential ahead of you. I pray that as you move forward, wherever you go, you take the lessons you have learned here and share your power, strength, resolve and potential to make everything you touch better. But most importantly, I pray you come back to High River, because you indeed are our future, and you are needed.
And even if you don't come back to High River to stay, you had better visit!
This message appeared in the program of the High River and District Lions Music Festival in 2013.
Dear Arts Advocates,
We are pleased you have joined us for this year’s High River and District Lions Music Festival. We are so pleased to be surrounded by so many passionate musicians, parents, teachers and advocates. Through an event such as this, it becomes quite obvious the value music has in our society and in our lives.
Thank you to the parents and teachers who advocate for their students so vehemently. Thank you to the students, for refining your craft and sharing it with us, and for inspiring not only those who follow you, but also those who lead you. Thank you to the solid foundation of volunteers who organized this festival and made it happen. Thank you to the Sponsors who put their money where their heart is and by doing so make our Arts community stronger for it. Perhaps most especially, thank you to the members of our audience, the receptors of our musical communication, for being the most basic and necessary form of Arts Advocates.
True profit in Arts and Culture is not measured in dollars, euros or yen. It in fact is immeasurable, although its effects can easily be seen in the eyes of every student, teacher or parent who has been exposed to it. Those who cannot package that experience and sell it have a difficult time understanding what electrifies us. Yet we press on, knowing that intrinsic value is not always meant to be understood, just experienced.
Music itself is temporal. Truly emotive music must be performed and experienced; no digital device can emote and express the way a living and breathing musician and audience member can. With our High River and District Lions Music Festival, we see how that happens in each performance. It is for this reason we work so hard to produce this festival, to continue to see that every year, and be inspired by it.
It should be noted that we are in desperate need of Arts Advocates, who are willing to put their time where their values already reside. Our Board is in need of extra support, as in its current state, our Festival organization is not sustainable, and we so desperately want it to be so to the benefit of our young musicians. As John F. Kennedy said over 50 years ago, “to further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art – this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days”. We ask that you seriously consider helping us take this challenge on. We need teachers, parents and supporters, young or old, to take this challenge on. We need you.
Please consider joining us as we seek to provide venue for the inspiration our young musicians offer. Your life, and ours, will be enriched by your efforts, and you will make a real and lasting impact on the lives of our young musicians as well.
Thank you once again for supporting young musicians simply with your presence, and please continue to share with all those around you how rich you truly are because you have music.