Thursday, 28 June 2012

Love in a Dangerous Time

Today, June 28, 2012, marks the last day Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School will operate as such – at least for the time being.

The coincidence of the natural conclusion of the school year with the judicial ruling in favour of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board has elevated the emotional intensity of both phenomena for students, parents, teachers, and the whole spectrum of PCVS supporters.

Two Fridays ago, Rick Mercer commented to one PCVS supporter during a chance meeting on a Toronto street his impression that the following Monday evening would bring the court’s decision. Sure enough, the ruling dismissing the suit brought by Peterborough Needs PCVS against KPR was made public late that Monday.

Though the coordinators of the legal action against the board had from the outset made clear their awareness that the odds of a court ruling against a public body nominally governed by elected officials were slim, many factors encouraged PCVS supporters to have hope that the case against the board was substantial enough to make it an exception.

Only when the ray of hope is extinguished does one realize just how bright that ray had begun to seem.

At least the court had the decency to wait until after the annual outdoor grad party to make their decision known. Unfortunately, exams began two days later.

Lawyers for both sides had requested of the court that its decision be made public as soon as possible, as everyone involved in the disputed proposal to close PCVS could see that only negative impacts on students, families, and teaching staff would ensue were September’s school configurations not settled by the end of June.

One price of the promptly-revealed decision is the absence of the complete ruling, and PCVS supporters won’t know the rationale behind the court’s thinking for a little while yet. Without the judges’ full written response, it’s difficult to speculate on the precedents that might be set by such a decision – or the precedents on which it might be based.

Students, teachers and parents responded to the news by gathering at the school that night to share in the powerful sense of community engendered by the collective reaction to the assault on Peterborough’s leading educational light by a myopic bureaucracy.

The “I Love PCVS” dance recital the week prior was an even bigger celebration of power of the magical institution to bring diverse backgrounds and interests together in collaborative artistic achievement, and to raise students far beyond what they may have perceived their abilities to be.

The great irony of the evening lay in the use of what is most valuable about PCVS – the spirit of collaborative creativity – to tell the story of the school’s battle with administrators who are emblematic of everything that is wrong with the way public education is managed in this province.

Dance teacher Suzie Clarke, herself a PCVS alumna, has been a dynamic force in the school during her brief tenure at her alma mater, and her energy and commitment inspired many students who had never studied dance before to open up new avenues of movement and expression for themselves – and to have the confidence to share that with the entire community.

The dances performed for the show were nothing short of stunning, from the beginning of the program to the end. Students tapped into their strong feelings for PCVS and their passion in defending it as they prepared the performances. Students themselves choreographed many of the dances, and their perspective on the battle with school board administrators and deaf trustees shone crystal clear throughout the night. Many of them have been posted on YouTube – you might start by watching this one. 

Some of the most inspiring moments of the night came from the English-as-a-Second-Language dance class, who instead of pre-printed “I Love PCVS” t-shirts wore ones with “I Love PCVS” hand-written in the students’ first languages. The ability of PCVS to turn diversity into unity was symbolized neatly when the dancers used cards marked with the name of their country of origin as props, then flipped them over to reveal letters spelling out “Raiders.” The love-in at the end of the second night saw many tears spilled for the joy of personal growth in the context of collective action.

A documentary made by grade 12 student Zan Bilz built from interviews with PCVS students demonstrates in no uncertain terms the way the culture of the school brings out the natural potential of young people by encouraging them to explore their unique qualities rather than forcing them to conform to a standard.

 Such is the process of education, in which abilities innate in the organism are “educed,” or drawn out, by sympathetic mentors and encouraging peers. Education really is a kind of magic, isn’t it? Perhaps this is one reason why PCVS is so readily compared with J.K.Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

One of the legacies of the Harris-era amalgamations that created KPR was the end of the use of the term “board of education.” The monstrosities birthed by Harris are known rather as “school boards.” This is a more accurate term for the new beasts, which are in both name and deed not interested in “educing” anything from young people, but only in managing their progress through the curriculum from one standardized test to the next.

PCVS parent and civic activist Bill Templeman spoke for thousands of PCVS supporters when he told the Examiner that the battle isn’t over. All along, the Peterborough Needs PCVS organizing committee stated that a political solution was preferential to a legal one in every way.

The PCVS case has demonstrated conclusively that the current Ontario government has no interest in holding school boards accountable to their tax-paying constituents, but only to the corporate, political, and bureaucratic interests that dominate Queen’s Park.

Recent stories (here and here) by investigative journalist Kevin Donovan (who earlier this year helped expose the ORNGE scandal) show the tip of the iceberg of Liberal backroom interference at the Toronto District School Board, revealing that employees have been pressured to campaign on behalf of both trustees and provincial Liberal candidates, while supportive unions have had their coffers filled with Liberal “slush fund” money. The web seems to extend to Peterborough, as suggested not only by the PCVS case, but by the explicit promotion of the Liberal party in recent campaigns by local teachers’ unions, in spite of the fact that one of their own members, Dave Nickle, has been the NDP candidate.

The closure of PCVS is the most egregious indication of a system gone wrong from top to bottom. Yet over the past year the PCVS community has responded in most admirable fashion, turning the assault on our city’s cornerstone into an opportunity for further community development and promotion of “the PCVS way.”

Awareness of the way schools should be run has never been higher.

And the love for PCVS has never been greater.   

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, 
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Then, Now and Forever

The intensity of feeling among the PCVS community has perhaps never been stronger than over the past two weeks, as the 2011-12 school year draws to its conclusion.

The PCVS student film festival, awards ceremony, and dance performances have focused the emotional charge of the community through the prism of student achievement. The sentiments expressed in documentaries, speeches, music, dance, and animation have at times been overwhelming. Wondering whether this will be the last such series of June events celebrating the work of PCVS students has brought even more tears than usual in response to these artistic and rhetorical expressions of love for PCVS and respect for one another. You can watch one documentary, “PCVS Then, Now and Forever,” here, and an animated piece, "Ode to PCVS," here.

The shared pride in what has been accomplished at PCVS to date as a nurturing, stimulating environment in which to come of age has become dramatically intensified in the past year in response to attacks by a corporately-influenced school board. The possibility of losing our community cornerstone has made almost everyone appreciate it that much more, and the response of students to the attack has only added to their reputation for maturity, civic awareness, and collective creativity.

While students and parents have been sharing moments of overflowing joy, sorrow and pride in the venerable PCVS auditorium, judges and lawyers at Osgoode Hall in downtown Toronto have been mulling over reams of legal documentation in an effort to reach a decision whose implications outweigh the substance of the case a hundredfold.

Anxiety built rapidly among Peterborough Needs PCVS supporters as the case was taken up in the courtroom last Wednesday and Thursday. The suspense of not knowing what the outcome of the judicial review will be, when it will be released, or on what basis decisions will be made, has resulted in a unique, pervasive sense of sitting in limbo. 

The previous post outlined the terrible precedent a decision in favour of KPR would set for the expectations of publicly-funded bodies in adhering to public policy and responding to the needs of the public. If KPR is allowed to get away with their egregious conduct, the standards to which Ontario school boards are held will degenerate, and the accountability and responsiveness of administrators to the people they serve will continue to diminish.

Posts made this past spring regarding social and economic disasters in Welland and Sault Ste. Marie following the closure of historic, central public high schools offer a glimpse of what the impact of a judicial decision in favour of KPR might have on Peterborough. Those posts show the key role played by central, public schools as anchors of urban communities. The deterioration of central Peterborough following the loss of PCVS would take the form of a downward spiral of increasing residential vacancies, falling land values, empty storefronts, the closure of the Freshco grocery store on Brock Street, more residential vacancies, and so on.

Such a downward spiral would mean decreasing standard of living and community disintegration for citizens of central Peterborough. It would also mean headaches and expenses for city hall as municipal authorities are forced to combat the deterioration as best they can. It would also mean headaches for Queen’s Park, as the plan to make Peterborough a population growth node will be much less feasible if the center of the city becomes anything like Welland or Sault Ste. Marie.

A decision in favour of  KPR would also have negative impacts on the reputation and popularity of our MPP Jeff Leal, Premier Dalton McGuinty, and the Liberal party, among a great number of Peterborough citizens. While Progressive Conservative candidate Alan Wilson has demonstrated that he’s keen to capitalize on dwindling public confidence in Leal, the increasing appeal of NDP leader Andrea Horwath and the initiative her party has taken in the legislature regarding education issues this past year suggest that a good local NDP candidate would stand an equal chance of sending Leal into retirement.

NDP MPP Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) has introduced another bill in the legislature to include school boards among the public bodies falling under the purview of the Ontario Ombudsman’s office. The NDP is also responsible for amending the government’s anti-bullying bill, passed last week, to oblige Catholic schools to allow students to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. A decision in favour of KPR would undermine the government’s expressed commitment to reducing sexuality-based bullying in schools.

Given the evidence showing how integral central public high schools are to their communities across the province, the questions recently raised about Ontario’s full funding of Catholic school boards, and the fact that McGuinty, Horwath, PC leader Tim Hudak, and Education Minister Laurel Broten were all raised Catholic, it would seem a good political choice for almost any candidate or party in the next provincial election to come out strongly in favour of investing in those downtown public high schools, rather than encouraging school boards to attack them, as the Liberal government has done.

McGuinty created his “education premier” persona by appealing to young parents in capping elementary class sizes and expanding kindergarten. As the children of those parents grow and move into high school, will their families remain on the Liberal bandwagon if high school consolidation and community disintegration becomes the order of the day across Ontario?

For KPR’s current Director of Education and Chairperson of the Board, a decision in the board’s favour would vindicate their stubborn refusal to co-operate with the Peterborough public in any way at all. It would also make the recommendations for policy revisions made by Joan Green moot, since it will have been made plain that school boards are in effect free to manipulate policy however they like while ignoring the public and their municipal representatives. KPR bean-counters will be free to move quickly onto their next targets, likely to include Adam Scott, Armour Heights, Keith Wightman, the Cobourg high schools, and South Monaghan elementary.

As PCVS Foundation president Jay Amer remarked at the close of the Peterborough Needs PCVS event at Market Hall this past Sunday evening, however, the next school board election is less than two-and-a-half years away. Amer, who unsuccessfully sought a Peterborough seat on the board of trustees in the last election, would likely receive much more support if he chose to run for the position again. Given the terrible performance of the obviously inept current collection of trustees, their lack of credentials, and the deterioration of their reputations, one would hope there would be a concerted attempt to find a slate of potential replacements for them. As Amer observed, there’s nothing to stop a new board of trustees from making a motion to re-open PCVS a few years from now.

Event MC Dan Fewings managed to make a little magic by turning Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night” into a poignant song about PCVS without changing a word, capping a night where every piece of music was carefully chosen and powerfully presented to bring out its relevance to PCVS and the siege under which the school board has put it. Evangeline Gentle’s beautiful love to song to PCVS, "184," with its “coming out” suggestions, made a perfect complement to Tara Urabe’s reprise of the “Change in Me” number from the Beauty and the Beast musical recently performed by the Grade 11 musical theater class. Belle’s epiphany, the realization that good can come from bad, was never so richly and immediately evident as it was in the context of speeches by student leaders Matthew Finlan, Colin Chepeka and Kirsten Bruce (who seemed to have been channeling Harry, Ron and Hermione) as they reflected eloquently on the school year.

Peterborough Needs PCVS organizer, former principal Shirl Delarue, was the subject of a richly-deserved standing ovation and gifts. Her speech, focused on the amazing community effort over the course of the campaign, also for a moment expressed indignation at a statement from KPR’s court case which spoke volumes of the disconnection of Fisher Drive from both PCVS and central Peterborough.

KPR referred to PCVS as an “academic luxury” the board could “no longer afford.” That this claim could be made in spite of the countless testimonies of recent immigrants just learning English, students living in shelters or other low-income circumstances, students who’ve been bullied at other schools, and students who wouldn’t have finished school at all if PCVS hadn’t been an option, added insult to injury, and further diminished the reputation of school board officials, if such was possible.

To the contrary of KPR’s dismissive attitude, the events of the past week have shown that the spirit of the PCVS community has only been made stronger by KPR’s political power play. 

As Evangeline’s song says, it’s not time for this beauty to sleep.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Joan Green's Report and Osgoode Hall

Yesterday, legal representatives for Peterborough Needs PCVS made their case before the court in Osgoode Hall as part of the ongoing judicial review of KPR’s ill-conceived attempt to close PCVS.

Osgoode Hall, a designated heritage building
One bit of information made public in the session was the employment of educational consultant Joan Green by KPR five years ago. Green, whose leading role in the development of the EQAO standardized-testing office suggests a dedication to the remote-control, one-size-fits-all, corporate-style approach to educational management, was appointed last winter by the Minister to review the PCVS case.

According to provincial policy, the Minister is supposed to appoint an “Independent Facilitator” to review contentious school closing procedures. Indeed, Green refers to herself as “independent” on the first page of her report. Given that she is a former employee of both the Ministry-mandated EQAO office and KPR itself, it is obvious that Green was anything but an “independent facilitator.”

That report, dated February 17th, suggests that KPR’s drive to close PCVS – and thereby make Peterborough the only city in Ontario without any regular English-language school services available to an entire city ward – was done with the knowledge and backing of Queen’s Park. Green’s report stays so firmly “inside the box” that one would think it had been prepared by KPR administrators themselves. And given that Green was not long ago contracted by KPR, this isn’t far from the truth.

A community furor was raised when Green’s report was finally released to the public late in March – some five weeks after the February 17th date. The long delay suggests that neither the Ministry, Laurel Broten herself, nor the Liberal caucus had any interest in intervening in KPR’s plans to undermine the social and economic fabric of Peterborough while dismantling its most successful secondary school, which has been a model of inclusiveness, engagement and achievement that would be the envy of any school board in North America. This in spite of the fact that our own Liberal MPP, Jeff Leal, is well aware of the negative impacts closing PCVS would have on Peterborough.

On the contrary, the long delay, the appointment of Green, and the failure of her report to address the realities of KPR’s embarrassing abuse of the accommodation review process all suggest that the opposite was true. The powers at Queen’s Park seem to have felt the need to “circle the wagons” to protect the backroom decision-making privileges of both the Ministry and school board officials – at the expense of common-sense, the well-being of Peterborough citizens, and the prospects for Peterborough’s future development in accordance with the Places to Grow Act.

Delaying the report had the effect of delaying the launch of the judicial review by Peterborough Needs PCVS, as the legal action couldn’t justifiably begin before its release.

Had the report called for KPR to return to the negotiating table with the community, the judicial review would not have been warranted at present. Because the sanitized report Green did make refused the practical obligation to call out KPR for a consultation process which nearly everyone involved agreed was farcical and fruitless, and for the board's utter lack of regard for the community it supposedly serves, the report necessitated the privately-launched judicial review. The delay in releasing it directly resulted in the delay in bringing the case to court, and yesterday KPR’s lawyers used this consequent delay in their defense, arguing that it is now too late for the board to change course for next year.

According to the report, Green managed to “convince” herself of a wide range of questionable assertions during her review of KPR’s slipshod accommodation review process. Plainly disregarding what was evident to almost everyone involved, Green wrote, “I am convinced that most [teaching] staff felt free to participate in the ARC process and that they were not directed to refrain from comment” (p.23). Green also wrote that she “believe[s] that the Board considered the range of social and economic impacts that school closure has on communities” (p.18).

Green apparently accepted uncritically KPR’s incredible claim that no partnership opportunities exist for its facilities, writing “the fact is that there are no viable partnership possibilities with the exception of the potential use of some space in one of the Board’s facilities by Trent University” – a statement obviously without any merit whatsoever (p.24).

If Green really does believe these claims, there must be a line-up of people trying to sell her Florida swampland, used cars, and books about Nibiru’s impending collision with Earth.

In her “General Observations,” Green wrote that she was sure that most people involved with the accommodation review process would consider it “exhaustive and exhausting” (p.32). This statement is patently ridiculous even in its own context, as the report acknowledges the many deficiencies in the process, which was as simplistic as it could be possibly be, and certainly not remotely close to “exhaustive.” If a series of four public meetings over four months can be called “exhausting,” it is hard to imagine what adjective Green would apply to accommodation review processes around the province which typically include up to twenty meetings spanning a year or more.

In conclusion, Green summarized the many shortcomings of KPR’s policy and procedures, and suggested improvements. Given the importance of PCVS to Peterborough, the contentiousness of the plan, and the fact that both Peterborough trustees voted against closing the school (not mentioned in the report), one would think that the very existence of so many obvious shortcomings would suggest that KPR should be sent back to the drawing board.

Instead, Green’s report defended the rights of school boards to disregard provincial policy, put on a sham consultation process giving the impression of public accountability, and move ahead with predetermined decisions made behind the scenes with no regard to either the greater public interest or the input given by the people who actually use the schools.

The scope of the judicial review case now being heard at Osgoode Hall is wider than Green’s narrow report – but only slightly. In effect, the judges hearing the case will be making a decision on the highest-profile school closure in Ontario’s history with major ramifications for the public interest, based not on the substance of the place of PCVS in Peterborough, but on legislative technicalities.

If they decide in favour of KPR, the door will be wide open for school boards to entirely disregard provincial policy statements, community input, and the interest of municipalities. The sloppiness and arrogance of KPR administrators and trustees will be established as the benchmark for tolerable incompetence among public bodies. Any pretense to public accountability may then be confidently shed by every other school board, knowing that there is literally nothing citizens can do to contest any decision, no matter how absurd, or how many rules were bent or broken in making it.

KPR’s existing policy enables administrators to close any school without any rational justification or provocation, on one year’s notice, against the wishes of a community’s elected trustees. If the judges decide in KPR’s favour, the autocratic power to decide how to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars with no representation from the taxpayers themselves will be established as the norm across the province, and indeed across the country.

They will be setting a precedent as damaging to the public school system as a previous judicial review decision, on Trent’s downtown colleges, was to the governance of universities across Canada.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

WiFi: Another Legal Accident Waiting to Happen

Tomorrow, June 6, in a Toronto Divisional Court, lawyers for Peterborough Needs PCVS will make their arguments regarding KPR’s mishandling of the attempted PCVS closure. In the upcoming posts, we’ll put the Judicial Review into a broader perspective and look closely at some of the details.

While the lawyers prepare their cases, let’s wrap up our examination of another issue on which KPR may one day face legal action from the very people it supposedly serves – the ill-conceived plunge into the world of pervasive WiFi.

In the preceding two posts we’ve seen the way KPR’s repression of dissent around its WiFi plan resembles that around the attempt to close PCVS. We’ve also seen the direct link between astronomical technology expenses and the drive to close schools, and the obliviousness of KPR trustees and administrators of the Pandora’s Box they’re opening in allowing students unlimited internet access on their own hand-held devices.

The most important issue around WiFi for many, however, continues to be the safety hazard it poses.

Unless you’re a trained scientist, it’s not likely that you understand the nature of different kinds of radiation, or what role exposure to them can play in long-term health problems. Even among scientists themselves, there’s no unanimity, as demonstrated by the differences of opinion on the subject held by doctors and Trent University professors. Last year, KPR made the news by handpicking professors who supported their view of WiFi for a public information session, while excluding Environmental and Resource Studies professor Magda Havas, whose research concerns public health effects of industrial development, as you can see from her extensive website, which includes useful information on “electro-pollution.”

The fact is that Kawartha Safe Technology supporters are far from the only ones to suspect long-term negative effects will result from extensive, uncontrolled exposure of children to WiFi radiation. KSTI’s position – that school boards, as public bodies, should err on the side of caution – is a common-sense one, especially because schools are already hardwired and WiFi has little more to offer than convenience. As with other “conveniences” in our contemporary world, such as junk food, plastic bottles, and disposable consumer items, WiFi’s eventual cost will likely outweigh its benefits many times over.

This past February, Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Rosana Pellizzari, wrote to KPR’s Director of Education in response to concerns about WiFi in schools raised at the Peterborough City-County Health Unit by parents and teachers. Pellizzari asked for clarification as to why KPR had done nothing to accommodate concerned parents, and for a comment on the radiation measurements made in KPR schools as reported by the KSTI.

Embarrassingly, the dynamic duo of Rusty Hick and Diane Lloyd took Pellizzari’s query as an invitation to promote KPR’s “vision” of “why the use of wireless technology is a crucial component of 21st century learning.” Predictably, their response, which you can read here, failed to answer the question as to why KPR hasn’t bothered to accommodate concerned parents by offering some kind of WiFi-free environment – unless you count the elimination of the problem of having “cables strewn across the floor” as a justifiable rationale.

Hick and Lloyd state unequivocally that they “know the technology is safe.” They also state that one of the main reasons for installing WiFi is to allow students to use their own hand-held devices in class. The defense they offer regarding the safety of WiFi is threefold: a) a lot other institutions are using it; b) the measurements made in classrooms are lower than the Health Canada threshold for radiation exposure; and c) many health authorities have concluded that “wireless technology does not pose a public health risk.” KPR’s attitude toward WiFi is perhaps best summed up in the blunt characterization of it as “a fact of modern life.”

A more sophisticated view is offered by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. This past March they issued a position paper (included in the correspondence at the above link) which quite rationally compares this potential workplace hazard to cigarettes and asbestos, and observes that “the health effects of unprecedented long-term exposure to this radiation may not be known for some time.” The paper points out that school boards like KPR are engaging in an uncontrolled experiment with its students by exposing them to WiFi signals for unprecedented durations throughout their growth from young children to adults.

The paper notes that Health Canada’s “safety code 6” threshold of 1000 microwatts per square centimeter – a threshold repeatedly referred to by KPR and others as their primary benchmark – is based on a six-minute exposure by an adult male, and was never intended to be applied to schools. The paper also observes that many countries in Europe have much more stringent guidelines than Health Canada’s, and unlike Health Canada, also consider deeper potential long-term biological effects.

The OECTA paper also points out that “at least three percent of the population has an environmental sensitivity to the radiation emitted” by wireless devices – often to levels far below the Health Canada guideline. The paper notes that “employers have a duty to accommodate persons with environmental sensitivities under the Canadian Human Rights Code as well as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.” KPR and other school boards, backed by the Ministry of Education, have chosen to ignore these facts, at their own legal peril.

Remember when it was perfectly fine to wear strong perfumes in schools? Who could have conceived a generation ago that people with chemical sensitivities would complain, and have their rights to a healthy environment upheld? Who would have wagered that schools would become “nut-free” in deference to those with allergies? My grade 12 math teacher routinely went to the staff room to smoke a pipe, and held the view that both he and his students should be allowed to smoke in class. Now we don’t even tolerate smoking in the school yard.

And then there’s asbestos. KPR is now on the hook for a million-dollar asbestos removal-and-containment bill as they refurbish TASSS. Apparently this deadly carcinogen, responsible for the early deaths of many thousands of unsuspecting people, was thought perfectly acceptable to install in schools when TASSS was built forty years ago.

The first legal action against public schools for forcibly subjecting their students to wireless radiation was filed in Portland, Oregon last year. You can read some wildly contrasting views on the suit in this online news article and the comments posted by readers. In those comments, you’ll see the great discrepancy between attitudes in Europe and attitudes in North America.

The contact list on the website for Citizens for Safe Technology, a North American umbrella group, confirms another notable discrepancy – far more women are on top of the issue than men. It seems that the basic social norms that say that males should be comfortable with any technology no matter how dangerous continue to have a great deal of power.

The bottom line is that the ubiquity of wireless radiation in our built environment today is no defense for its presence in schools. In fact, the opposite is true – we all get enough radiation exposure as it is without soaking our biggest public institutions with it, day in and day out, year after year. Like other “facts of modern life,” such as junk food, cigarette smoke, bullying, and images of violence, we should be trying to minimize radiation exposure in schools, not maximize it.

If history is any indication, pervasive WiFi in schools will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas by a court upholding Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By that time, Hick and Lloyd may be long gone from KPR, leaving taxpayers with the bill to reconfigure our schools’ internet connections. But tomorrow’s court proceedings offer ample evidence that taxpayers’ rights rarely cross their radar screen.

Friday, 1 June 2012

What’s Wrong With WiFi? Dollars and Sense

Ubiquitous internet access has transformed the way humans think and interact in unprecedented ways. As a global population, we are becoming a part of a worldwide cybernetic intelligence as the digital technology industry catalyzes the fastest leap in planetary evolution ever witnessed by humanity. In effect, we all now live inside a giant virtual library, in which almost any bit of information may be accessed by almost anyone, almost anytime, providing a potential for human learning never experienced before.

So what’s wrong with KPR’s pervasive WiFi plan? Isn’t wireless computer access already saturating our environment? Shouldn’t our schools be among the places where such access is easiest to come by?

As is the case with most KPR plans, this one leaves much to be desired when it comes to both dollars and sense.

KPR’s budgets show that the province of Ontario provides about half a million dollars per year for classroom technology. In the past four years, KPR has spent about $7 million on this line item, including a whopping $2.2 million for the purchase and installation of commercial-grade Meru routers, which go for more $1000 each, up to twenty of which might be in a single school. 

KPR also bought class sets of “netbook” computers complete with carts to move them from room to room. Installing a point-source, low-power, household-style router on each cart would have cost $100 a shot – and done the same job sending signals to the netbooks as do the pervasive, high-power routers currently hidden behind ceiling tiles at every KPR school.

This judicious system of turning WiFi signals on only at the time and place of immediate use would have cost a total of $20,000 if every KPR school had two of them – the same price paid by the board for setting up a single school with high-power routers! Indeed, the annual $80,000 maintenance cost of the Meru routers is far higher than the total purchase cost of point-source routers would have been.

Yes, you read that right. KPR could have spent $20,000 making point-source WiFi available in every school. Instead they spent $2 million to flood schools with WiFi radiation from top to bottom, all day long, all year long, need it or not.

Let’s compare the availability of WiFi with hot water in your home. For decades every household had a large hot water tank, a reservoir of heated water at the ready. Eventually somebody figured out it would be ten times more energy-efficient if we just heated the water up when and where we needed it with a tankless, “on-demand” heater – now the first choice of economically-minded homeowners and builders.

While this same “on demand” principle is being used to save energy and money in industrial design across the board, KPR trustees and administrators continues to operate with out-of-date thinking even as they tell us (and themselves) that they’re leaping ahead into the future.

The total technology plan KPR is currently pursuing is expected to cost $13 million, though the board has been especially shy about revealing the details. It doesn’t take a genius to see that KPR can’t actually afford the plan. Indeed, KPR’s long-term debt has been ballooning since Rusty Hick was hired as Director – from $67 million in 2009 to $73 million in 2010 to a whopping $93 million last year – with technology expenses playing a significant part.

Abraham: making magic with $$$
In April 2010, Clarington trustee Cathy Abraham showed the poor judgment for which KPR trustees are rapidly becoming known in participating in a publicly available interview with Robert Martellacci, the head of a private digital technology company. The interview, available here, demonstrates how closely KPR is linked to the behind-the-scenes push to stimulate the corporate economy by shipping as much public money as possible into it. In the podcast, Abraham made her now-famous admission that trustees would have to “make some magic happen during the budget process” to facilitate the massive technology expenditures.

Abraham stated in no uncertain terms that one of the primary motivations for installing pervasive wireless systems is to “allow students to use the technology they already have.” Martellacci responded by mentioning that Research in Motion was planning to double their Blackberry sales to the educational market. Abraham remarked how wonderful it would be if students could simply bring their laptops to school and look up websites during lessons – an opinion strongly suggesting that she has never actually tried to manage a classroom herself. She expressed her confidence that “this is the way of teaching for the future,” and concluded the interview by claiming that in pushing WiFi, trustees are really just responding to students who want to use their hand-held devices in the classroom.

Although Abraham claimed in the interview that KPR’s brave leap into the world of WiFi was independent of Queen’s Park, Premier McGuinty’s comments just a few months later suggest otherwise. McGuinty managed to anger parents by suggesting that cell phones be allowed in classrooms, as reported by the Toronto Star. A poll on the Star’s website the day after McGuinty’s remarks revealed that 93% of respondents thought it a bad idea – for all the obvious reasons. “There’s nothing positive about cell phones or any distractions in the classroom environment,” observed one citizen. A parent working in the technology field wrote that “these devices disconnect us from the spontaneity of human existence.” 

A more recent poll, taken by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association less than a year after Abraham’s comments, showed that 72% of students in fact didn’t think cell phones should be part of the classroom environment, as reported here.

Kawartha Safe Technology Initiative members believe that the “hidden agenda” behind pervasive WiFi is simply to let school boards off the hook of providing computers at all, eventually obliging all parents to buy their kids laptops and iPhones to take to school. Not only does such a plan exacerbate the differences between upper-class and lower-class children (which public schools were designed to minimize), but also creates new security issues as kids with expensive new devices become targets of theft and violence. Last month, Toronto police chief Bill Blair discussed the problem of cellphone theft at schools, as reported in the Star.

Making matters worse, it’s obvious that pervasive WiFi and hand-held devices will present an impossible management problem for teachers. KSTI rightly argues that this scenario would create “limitless opportunities for cyberbullying, misuse of cell phone cameras, and viewing of pornography.” A CBC documentary on the negative psychological effects of such activities was aired this past winter, hosted by Canadian theatre, literary and media icon Ann-Marie MacDonald. You can watch it here.

Cooke: WiFi is more important than PCVS
Abraham’s fellow Clarington-area trustee and techno-cheerleader Steven Cooke in a frightfully amateurish campaign video posted to YouTube during the last election managed to demonstrate exactly why he shouldn’t have been elected. Luckily for him (and painfully for us), only one other person besides he and Abraham sought the positions, and only one-third of the electorate showed up to vote (as discussed in the post "Why Peterborough Gets Shafted by KPR"). 

Cooke, barely able to enunciate his own “teleprompter” speech, claims that digital technology is “one of the key elements to improving student engagement and success.” He boasts about the $13 million plan, expressing the naive belief that because of its technology investment, KPR will soon be producing the best students and teachers in Ontario. Cooke, who was later removed from the Board for failing to file his campaign finances (but unfortunately was reinstated), appears, like Abraham, to have zero experience in the classroom.

As a post-secondary teacher myself, I noticed more and more students bringing laptops to class after WiFi was installed on my campus. I also noticed that the more students used laptops, the worse their grades got, and the more difficult it became to engender productive classroom discussion.

So I tried an experiment. I banned all electronic devices from my classroom. Contradicting Cooke’s groundless claims, struggling students who had been particularly dependent on laptops instantly improved their grades and level of engagement. Last year I wrote the electronic device ban right into the syllabus. The result? We had the best educational outcomes and most energetic classroom discussions in the six years I’ve been teaching the course.

I’m talking about literature here – one of the areas for which one might think instant classroom access to the internet would be most beneficial. I can only imagine how KPR’s Phys. Ed. teachers feel about being given laptops and WiFi instead of sports equipment – not to mention those teaching woodshop, dance, visual arts, music, drama, French, or any other subject in which accessing information is a low priority compared with actually practicing the tasks at hand while interacting with fellow students or hands-on tools.

Can you imagine what our schools would be like if KPR’s Board of Trustees were staffed by accomplished, retired teachers instead of untrained corporate cheerleaders going on online spending sprees with public money, convinced of their own pedagogical genius?