Wednesday, April 20, 2005

How to evaluate your child's school

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.04.20
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PNAME: City Editorial
PAGE: C4
BYLINE: Pam Fitzgerald
SOURCE: Citizen Special

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How to evaluate your child's school

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While the debate about what makes good schools is most welcome, let's hope it doesn't degenerate into a search for a quick fix. Prof. David Johnson's book, Signposts of Success, lists eight characteristics found at good schools. They are:

- The teachers work together as a team -- of particular importance in the primary division.

- They prepare their students thoroughly for tests.

- In the primary division, they make use of learning resources such as mathematics manipulatives and levelled books.

- They make good use of volunteers.

- Those with lower socio-economic characteristics rely on the principal's leadership on discipline and behaviour.

- They have strong extra-curricular programs.

- They communicate effectively with parents about expectations, homework and the role of parents.

- They generally do not sacrifice other important school activities to concentrate on improving assessment scores, although some teachers worry about reductions in activities related to the arts, music, drama, social studies and science.

David Johnson endeavours to use objective comparative data and analysis to better understand our schools. To date, parents have generally had little but anecdotes to go on in diagnosing the health of our schools. For years, we have requested comparative data such as dropout rates, suspension rates and the number of students needing assistance in English-as-a-second language. In response, often no answer is provided or the answer is given in the form of raw data, occasionally in bricks comprising hundreds of pages of printouts and in a format not amenable to analysis.

Without comparative data about our schools and students, how can we identify what is working well and strive to enhance it? How are we to know when a wrong turn has been taken, and seek to get a program or practice back on track? How can we know how to begin to fix our schools and then contribute to the solutions?

Some public school board policies clearly work against Johnson's recommendations. Two examples come readily to mind: one severely limits the use of outside professionals in our schools; the other curtails school activities based on exaggerated concerns about increased liability and higher insurance premiums.

In a memo issued in February 2003, parent- and school-council-supported programs or services were prohibited from taking place in schools during school hours. At one school, an innovative school-council-supported program to help all English-as-a-second-language students was ended. At other schools, parents were no longer able to bring in private speech therapists to help their children on site -- even though the school board itself was unable to continue to provide such services because of limited resources. At yet another school, a music program paid for by parents was prohibited from taking place during school hours. There are various studies suggesting exposure to music at a young age improves mathematical ability, yet few of our primary students receive music instruction other than private after-school lessons.

The other example of a policy that may be working against our students was a practice designed to minimize insurance premium costs. Towards that end, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board issued instructions to curtail what some felt to be higher-risk activities, based purely on cost-savings analysis instead of pedagogical vision. This led to the dismantling of climbing walls in some high schools and the closing of schoolyard play structures for the entire winter -- and not just when the conditions were icy.

David Johnson's recommendations tell us something many parents and teachers already know: children's' academic performances improve overall with exposure to music, arts, science and social sciences.

If David Johnson's research shows anything, it's how each of us can contribute to making every school a good school. Here are two meetings you may attend in the next week to find out more. The first is on Thursday, April 21, with public school board trustees. This meeting of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils will take place in the second-floor library of Fisher Park Public School, 250 Holland Avenue, at 7:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, April 27, you can come and hear two eminent experts in the field, Prof. David Johnson and Heather-jane Robertson, who will be part of a panel discussion on EQAO -- Can It Help Make Better Schools? This event will take place at Carleton University, Southam Hall Theatre B, at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by Parents' Voice in Education, a joint initiative of school councils in the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Please reserve seating in advance at www.ocasc.ca or by calling 599-1456.

Pam FitzGerald is chair of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils.

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