August 2014: Boundary Review Comments Grosvenor-Wentworth and Park West

Delivered at the June 24, 2014 regular board meeting during the discussion of whether or not to change the boundaries for Grosvenor-Wentworth and Park West schools.

It may seem odd to preface my remarks with saying it’s a tremendous honour to be able to take part in this debate, but it is. Hard though the work, each of us got involved with the board in order to serve children and public education and this is one of the places and ways that happens. And it is an honour and a privilege to do so.

Diametrically opposed community views of the effects of overcrowding. Each unintentionally causing us to question the other. Not that either is saying, Our argument applies to the other, quite the opposite, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the cases made. As I listen to GW’s remarks about how program delivery is compromised by overcrowding, I think of PW’s steadfast refutation of same. And as I listen to PW’s remarks about how program delivery is not compromised by overcrowding, I think of GW’s refutation of same. It’s where my listening takes me. It’s not by design. And it is alternatively both fascinating and confusing and I mention that in order to remind you of the difficulty of this task.

This view of mine, of two groups each arguing the opposite, is premised on my acceptance of the suggestion that Park West is overcrowded and that the usage for which it was designed appears to have been exceeded. That’s not to say I will oppose its continued functioning in an overcrowded state necessarily. But I do accept that it is too small to both accommodate the student body and deliver the program for which and in the way it was intended. This is where the conversation starts for me. And I do prefer the use of the more accurate “overcrowding” as opposed to the more ambiguous “status quo.” I would like to call it what it is. The question for me is whether that being the case there are still sufficient advantages to outweigh the disadvantages. That is what I’ll be listening for tonight.

My acceptance of the suggestion of overcrowding is based on fact and experience and public perception. In the case of the latter, long held public perception that the school is overcrowded. It’s the stuff of hearsay and anecdote but it has long legs. How many people have left the catchment to avoid the overcrowding? How many have avoided moving there because of it? And how many from withing the catchment are being silenced? The characterization of PW as overcrowded is widely and commonly held and, in that respect, beyond dispute. I emphasize this for the benefit of those holding the opposing view because it would seem they are not aware of the existence of this perception and to explain the part it plays in forming my view. But the perception does exist and in an unfavourable light as being unfair to students. Unfair to teachers. And in need of redress.

Fast forward to January of this year and the striking of the Boundary Review Committee, our idea. The process meant to remedy the overcrowding at each of the schools was now officially underway.

As the Committee’s work proceeded we heard directly from the Park West community. What overcrowding?, people asked. An unfortunate place to start this particular conversation. The experience of overcrowding was negated. Evidence of overcrowding would need to be prevailed upon. And so it should. But then the evidentiary data was refuted, and then the process, and finally the Boundary Review Committee’s work itself. By now perception, experience, evidence, and process had been overruled and Recommendation #1, Scenario 6, defeated.

The Grosvenor-Wentworth situation, very different in tone, started with the premise that there was overcrowding and that it needed to be addressed. It proceeded from there to the Boundary Review Committee to which that community’s input was directed and resulted, after considering a vast array of scenarios, in Recommendation #2, Scenario 8A. It too, however, was defeated.

What did not, however, disappear was the overcrowding.

Several months ago I met a boy at an event in my district. I asked what grade he was in. Five, he said, but I don’t go to this school. Where do you go?, I asked. Bedford South was his response. And how’s that going now that the junior highs are at Rocky Lake?, I asked. There’s so much more room, he said. His words have echoed in my ears ever since. Room. Space. Such an important yet seemingly disposable element in a person’s day, their comfort and their growth. I took much from the simplicity of his response. Acceptance. Contentment. Relief. Resilience.

I would never intentionally put my child in a too-small pair of shoes. Maybe until I could get to the store but never long term. It would be unkind. Uncaring. What is the difference, I keep asking myself, between a too-small pair of shoes and a too-small school? What is the difference whether it’s feet or an entire child being placed in too limiting a space? Where is the attendance to comfort? Where to optimal growth? Why need growth and achievement be forced to occur despite the conditions? How much might there be otherwise? Given the care and support that is so evident in the outpourings of opinion we’ve been hearing for months, how much more growth and achievement might we see if given simple, physical space?

I have been to PW and GWP. I have heard that 600 of the 800 PW students remain at school each day for triple-shifted lunchtimes, the young ones eating last. I have seen and visited the portables, freely exiting and entering unsecured school doors. I have stood among the kids in the halls at GW and been swept up in the exodus at recess and I have had a small but revealing taste of the parking situation in an SUV, never mind a bus. Why would any of us want any of this to continue for so much as a moment more? Why would we want to wait or do with less when there are options? Here. Now. Their comfort and growth are clearly important to you. They may not say, My school is too small. For most it is the only school they have ever known. They have nothing to which to compare it. As with shoes, they may experience discomfort without complaint. You may become aware only when you see signs of excessive wear. And what form does that take?  Think of yourselves in tight spaces. Think of yourselves in a crowded place. To what feelings does it give rise? Do you think you’d do your best work in a portable? They contain but do they inspire or fire the imagination? Would you want to put on your coat and hat to go to the bathroom? We may not be able to quantify or describe exactly how growth is compromised by being in too-small shoes but we know it’s not ideal and so we act to remedy it.  My question at the end of all this: Can we say for sure that comfort and growth are not better served in more spacious surrounds? Are we be able to say and feel with confidence that to turn away from space is a good thing?

What I’ll be listening for as this debate proceeds is how the PW situation is different from Bedford South, a school whose overcrowding led us to the conclusion that it needed addressing. And when I hear the phrase “status quo” I will, for my own purposes, be replacing it with the word “overcrowding” because at no point do I want to fool myself into thinking that sticking with the current state of affairs means anything less than sticking with overcrowding.

You provide them with the necessities of life because you know they are essential to comfort and optimal growth. It is your care and support that keeps them in the shoes that are the right size and it is your care and support that would continue to assure their academic growth, their emotional well-being, their safety, and their sense of pride in a school that fit because you, like us, are interested in “Creating the best possible learning environment for all students.”

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