By Jamie Rieger
Alberta Newspaper Group
In a late addition to the agenda, representatives from the Public School Board Association of Alberta (PSBAA) attended the Nov. 6 Prairie Rose School Division meeting in Dunmore to discuss a recently launched campaign geared towards making a major overhaul to Alberta’s education system.
The campaign, Together for Students, was officially launched in October and since then, PSBAA members have been traveling the province to encourage school board members to start the conversation about having an all-inclusive school system, rather than public, Catholic, Francophone, charter, and home-schooling systems.
Carol Picard, PSBAA director led the Nov. 6 discussion in Dunmore.
“We want to get the conversation going. We have children with diverse needs and when we talk about principles and values, this is one system that can offer choice and choice is the buzz word,” said Picard.
Picard told trustees that Alberta’s education system is still based on one that was formed more than a century ago and it’s time to get it up-to-date with current needs.
“Alberta has changed since 1905. Women can now vote and in 1905, our system recognized only two religions -Catholic and Protestant. If you wanted religion taught, you sent your kids to Catholic schools, but all others went to the public schools. We’re still hanging onto 1905,” she said. “We could sit here all day if we were to identify all of the inefficiencies in the current system.”
Pat Cochrane, chair of the Together for Students campaign added that an inclusive school system would provide better opportunities for students as there would be less duplication and better allocation of resources.
“The education history in Alberta has always been Catholic/Protestant. Then, it was Charter and Francophone schools. Then home-schooling, kids being taught in a building that looks an awful lot like a school being taught by a person who looks an awful lot like a teacher,” said Cochrane. “The conversation is all about the possibilities. Alberta is one of the last three provinces where the current system still exists. We need to get rid of the separate and public school systems altogether. This is not an anti-Catholic campaign. Our public schools welcome all.”
The campaign points to a fragmented system where decisions are not necessarily made with the students best interests in the forefront.
“I believe that sharing of resources will allow jurisdictions to free up money and provide greater opportunities for the students. Fragmenting takes away opportunities for the students,” said Picard. “Right now, we have boundary driven decision-making, not student driven decision-making. We need cooperation between jurisdictions. We need to work together to be stronger.”
Both Picard and Cochrane used busing issues as a concern that could be corrected under an inclusive education system.
“We’ve been running into a brick wall for the last 20 years over busing. We have three buses all going to the same area, but struggle to find money for other things,” said Picard.
Cochrane talked about parents who put their kids on the bus 15 minutes earlier than they could for another bus, or drive them to school so they have more time in the morning to put on their make-up.
“They choose the earlier bus so they have that extra 15 minutes to do their make-up. It’s a convenience thing for many people,” said Cochrane. “People don’t understand the complexities of how schools work.”
Under a single system, students who attend a school that doesn’t have a sports team would be able to join a team at another school, for instance or schools could share musical instruments amongst each other.
“Integration provides opportunities and it’s time to focus on student needs, not jurisdiction needs,” said Picard. “Eliminate duplication and direct the dollars to the classroom. We need to create one inclusive system that maximizes our resources, and let’s build a better model together.”
The PSBAA representatives have been traveling to school boards across the province to start the conversation about changing to an inclusive school system in the province.
“The conversation begins with us,” said Picard.
Brian Callaghan, executive director of PSBAA was also in attendance at the meeting, noting that the campaign is in its infancy.
“Until we talk about things legislatively, we don’t know what the model will look like, but if we were inclusive, faith wouldn’t matter,” he said.
PRSD superintendent Roger Clarke asked what the next step would be.
“If you envision this campaign being successful, what’s the next step?” asked Clarke.
“We want everybody to sign up and register as a supporter of the campaign,” Picard responded.
Callaghan said part of that conversation would be raising awareness on social media.
“We need to get the information out on social media, but we won’t engage with people who swim at the bottom of the pool,” he said. “This is an opportunity to say to fellow Albertans, ‘it’s the 21st century. What kind of document would you craft?”
Callaghan presented trustees with information packages that included a copy of the project charter that will not be made public at this time.
“This is not for the public. Parents will get a one-pager of information,” he said.
Cochrane noted that in conversation she has met people who are not wanting to change the current system.
“We have a lot of adults saying, ‘nope, we’re not changing a thing’. The thing is, if we go to an all-inclusive system, something will change for everybody,” she said.
The next step for school boards is to raise awareness and spread the word.
“We would like school boards to put forth a motion to get the conversation going. Hold public meetings, engage your teachers and other staff. Then, go to our website and register your support,”
“Tell us what are your objectives and objections in your area,” said Cochrane. “Integrate our campaign into your life. Talk to your community leaders. We drop the rock in the pond and watch it ripple.”
While the campaign is still early in the conversation stage, trustees are also encouraged to talk to their political leaders.
“We aren’t asking for legislative changes or amendments. That’s a provincial conversation, but talk to your MLAs. There is an election coming up,” said Picard.