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Thoughts on the election and education, French immersion spaces, a little yellow school house, and bans

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In the case of the Gordon school house, the heritage advocates will be pleased to see the building saved after many of them were deeply disappointed when the VSB voted (myself included) to demolish the main school and replace it with a new building.

That decision followed years of debate about the fate of General Gordon and it was the right one to make. The students and staff now have a beautiful, new seismically safe school and the heritage advocates at least have the little yellow schoolhouse. It’s a nice compromise.

It also is a good example of the tension over who should have influence over decisions. Should parents of students currently at a school have the most say? Or should members of the community who also pay taxes to fund the schools, and may have attended the school themselves, along with their kids, have the same say? What about the staff who work in the buildings?

Ideally trustees weigh all input — whether it’s from students, parents, school staff, community members and professional consultants — before making decisions. That’s the beauty — and challenge — of a democratically run public school system. We all have a stake in it and we should all have some kind of a say. It’s the job of elected trustees to carefully consider and weigh all of that when they consider recommendations from their professional staff.

French immersion

A less-happy impact of the BCTF win is the impact on the French immersion programs.

The popular, in-demand program is facing cuts to incoming kindergarten classes as school districts struggle to re-organize elementary schools into smaller class sizes. That requires more classrooms and teachers, and French immersion teachers were already in short supply before the court ruling, and will be even more so now.

That’s raised the ire of the B.C. and Yukon chapter of Canadian Parents for French, which issued a news release warning the VSB alone could lose up to $160,000 a year in federal funding for French programs by cutting five kindergarten classes.

There could be an upside

Eight years of sitting at the table as an elected trustee taught me a big lesson — there’s nothing simple about governing a large, complex school district. I’ve heard year after year that increases in elementary “choice” programs — be they French immersion, Mandarin bilingual, Montesorri, International Baccalaureate or Fine Arts — have a negative impact on neighbourhood schools, particularly in lower-income communities.

That’s because as more “typical” students opt for choice programs, the proportion of students with special needs or who are English language learners increases in regular programs, making it more difficult to organize classrooms with a balanced composition of students to provide optimal learning environments. That can exacerbate enrolment challenges for schools in low-income communities, who may also lose students to schools in more affluent neighbourhoods.

Declining enrolment leads to even more challenges. Schools that are under capacity are less likely to meet the provincial government’s criteria for a “business case” for seismic upgrading and are disproportionately at risk of being targeted for closure.

So while cuts to French immersion spots are bad news for parents who want their kids in the program, they may actually strengthen neighbourhood schools — especially those in lower-income communities. See? Nothing is simple.

Cellphone ban

I remember the outrage when my elementary school banned marbles. What seemed like a harmless pastime to my grade-five crew was apparently gambling and had to be stopped. Then there were “clackers” — two hard plastic balls on strings that you could annoyingly clack together. In that case it was a safety thing — turned out if you clacked hard enough chips of plastic could fly off and take someone's eye out, or something. So they were banned.

When my kids were at school there was a Pokemon card ban. I can’t remember the reason but hey, good call.

Now a Vancouver Island middle school is planning to ban cellphones in schools and is getting predictable pushback.

I have immense empathy for teachers trying to manage so many issues in classrooms these days — cellphones included. I also confess to being an, ahem, cellphone enthusiast who breaks into a sweat when I can’t access my phone, so I empathize with students too.

Schools have always had to struggle to find the right balance in setting rules that limit students’ personal freedoms — heck I still remember that euphoric day in grade four when a student went from class to class to announce girls no longer had to wear dresses or skirts to school.

Cellphones are ubiquitous and in an ideal world, schools would help students learn to manage their use responsibly and use these powerful tools to enhance learning instead of distracting from it. Most are trying to do that but this world is also far from ideal.

I don’t know whether the ban will work or not. Students are creative about finding ways around these things and where there’s a will there’s a way, and there’s nothing more willful than a determined teenager. I do know educators, school administrators, parents and students will be watching to see how the ban goes. I hope they find a solution that works. 

























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