Friday, 4 November 2011

Making a Farce out of ARC, part two: Elementary standards for Secondary schools

This post and the next are going to present a detailed reading of the draft version of KPR’s policy document on accommodation reviews, which you can find here.You might want to print it out for easier reference.

As the committee itself noted, only “minor language changes” were made to the earlier document, which was originally written in 2000 and had previously been revised in 2005 and again in 2007. The new 2009 Ministry document is titled “Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline,” rather than “school closure guideline.” However, KPR’s policy writers decided to retain their earlier designation and simply add “consolidation” to the title, maintaining an emphasis on school closure which is not in the Ministry document, which repeatedly refers not to school closures but to school “futures.”

Let’s look closely at the changes which were made, reading through the document from beginning to end.

To begin with, instead of annual accommodation reviews by a superintendent, we are now going to have accommodation reports prepared by “senior staff.” Article 2.3.1 has been changed to include the possibility of reviewing a group of schools together, as per the Ministry directives for Boards to enlarge their perspectives around such decision-making.

Another line is added to the old document regarding the issue of “multi-grade” classes in secondary schools.

Previously, the policy had referred only to elementary schools, so new language was needed to provide for the review of secondary schools.

But surely split-grade classes are perfectly “viable” at the elementary level, as evident throughout Peterborough schools. Split classes are quite common, even more common now because of the emphasis on maximum class sizes at the elementary level, and they are pedagogically valid. Though teachers often find them to be extra work, there are undeniably benefits in the split class format, which gives teachers and principals flexibility in fine-tuning class-lists each year to create groups of students who will function well together. Older students often inspire younger to learn more and behave more maturely, and younger ones can add an innocent energy to group activities.

The fact of the matter is that the primary intent of the original school closure policy was not that split classes are a problem in and of themselves, but rather that any schools which do not have enough students to constitute at least one full class at each grade level should be reviewed.

To extend this concern to secondary schools simply by changing the name to “multi-level” or “multi-subject” classes is to misinterpret and misrepresent the purpose of the pre-existing policy.

As we have seen, it is evidently feasible to run a highly successful secondary school with a population of only 200 students, as in Chesley District High School, a top-ten Fraser Institute-ranked school which just a few weeks ago was allowed to remain open by a recently refreshed and reformed Bluewater District School Board following an accommodation review, as discussed here in a post from two weeks ago (Manufacturing a Crisis, part four) With only 200 students, Chesley maintains a high-skills program in agriculture. One can only imagine that along the way they have had to conduct multi-level classes, just as most KPR elementary schools do, with no apparent ill-effects.

Chesley District High, ranked #5 in Ontario by the Fraser, has 200 students

Yet another important idea is added in the final line of this article: the stipulation that schools which are “unable to provide a range” of learning opportunities should be identified has been changed to “unable to provide an equitable range.” It is unclear why this was added, as it does not stem from the new Ministry guidelines. The term “equitable” is extremely vague, and is open to a wide range of interpretation, adding nothing to the clarity of the policy and licencing administrators to read the clause as they like.

The changes discussed thus far, then, have transformed minimum basic thresholds for elementary school enrolment into a wide-ranging policy implying that the possibility of multi-grade classes and ranges of programming that might be perceived as “inequitable” as grounds upon which virtually any combination of secondary schools might be put under review.

This is a far cry from the intent of the earlier policy, and has nothing to do with the new Ministry guidelines for accommodation review. 

This is the only mention of education in the document.

The other factors listed as grounds for review are overcrowding, poor physical condition which would be cost-prohibitive to repair, overly-high operating expenses, health issues, fire, environmental hazards, and under-utilization.

No new wording specific to secondary schools has been applied in any of these. The factor “physical condition” has been removed from the new policy, as the designation “prohibitive to repair” is no longer used by the Ministry, being a leftover of the Harris days.

The original reason that under-utilization was a factor was again that elementary schools were originally the focus of the policy. The earlier language stated that a school whose enrolment fell below its “Minimum Facility Occupancy Level” could be considered for review. The term is dropped from the new policy, replaced with wording achieving a comparable effect in naming the 15% +/- window in both the “overcrowding” and “underutilization” items, which have in the new policy strangely been separated from one another in the list.

Given the small size of some elementary schools, such a degree of overcrowding or undercrowding could understandably be a concern. But at the secondary level, the situation is much more flexible. There may be part-time students, students with spare periods in different parts of the day, different lunch-hour options, co-op placements and other off-site activities; while the greater maturity level would mean that secondary students wouldn’t suffer as much from an overcrowding situation. The corollary is that a secondary school significantly below capacity is still likely to have a sizeable number of students, while a significantly under-capacity rural elementary school, for example, might simply have too few students to properly function.

Thus far all the changes have been to the part of the document which regards Capital Needs, and have focused on the physical plant of schools rather than to the new Ministry guidelines regarding accommodation reviews, with the exception of references to “groups of schools” rather than strictly to individual schools.

As a result of making this one nominal alteration without attention to the intent and scope of the new Ministry guidelines, almost any group of KPR schools can now be selected for a review with the intent of forcing one of them to close, based on the available criteria.

The policy re-writes appear to either have been done in great haste, without actual thought as to the situation at secondary schools, or to have been specifically crafted from a facilities management point of view. It does not appear that the important points could have been contributed by anyone involved in the supposed “consultation process” except for Board managers or Superintendents of Operations.

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