July 2013: Sackville Family of Schools Comments

The following comments were made at the June meeting that contemplated Sackville’s 15 schools, grade configuration, and boundary review.

This is big change. When you think about it, change of the variety proposed here with Sackville and Millwood probably doesn’t get any bigger. Not for a school board. I’ve wondered to myself when the last time was that the board contemplated change of the type that affected every school in a family? Or two families simultaneously? Possibly never. Change on this scale isn’t something we see much and for that reason it’s both daunting and momentous.

That said, it has not been careless. Great care has been taken in arriving at this point. The process has been thorough and inclusive and received the benefit of everything that was available in the way of energy, thought, and time. No one can say, when all’s said and done, that the decision made tonight was in haste. This issue has been on the minds and in the thoughts of every member of this board in one way or another since we came together last fall and everything that could be provided to us to produce an informed decision has been provided.

The Stantec Report, Millwood/Sackville Families of Schools Boundary Study, was one of the first reports I read as a new board member if not the first report. It made my brain hurt. Tables, maps, boundaries, exchanges, details, details, and more details. I questioned staff’s intelligence in biting off such a large chunk of a task: school closure, grade configuration, catchments, the moving of FI. I questioned the last governing board’s intelligence in pursuing it. And I questioned my own intelligence for ever having gotten involved. Was everything always going to be this complex? Was it really possible to have this many balls in the air and have things turn out well?

Since then I’ve done a lot of reading: emails from community, reports specific to Nova Scotia and beyond, iterations of the Boundary Review Committee’s report, the Grade Configuration report and its sequel, the Grade Configuration Consultation Report, and done all manner of web-surfing. In this day and age we all have it in our power to be experts.

On the operations front the message has been clear. Deal with the overcrowding in Millwood and the undercrowding in Sackville. It has been clear to the point of seeming to some to dominate the conversation. Enrollment numbers, capacity, money. All relatively easy to assemble and understand, all so tidy and neat: rows and columns and tables. People feared that students and their well-being were being overlooked in the face of all that certainty. Whether or not that was the case it was time to study grade configuration and its effects in earnest.

But when it comes to educational implications nothing’s as black and white as on the operational side. Things are immediately fuzzy and ambiguous. There’s nothing to grab onto and say “Here are the facts.” The advantages of P to 9, of 6s and 9s being together, are likewise the disadvantages of P to 9, 6s and 9s being together. It depends on who you talk to or who’s writing about it. There is not an objective, definitive, qualified voice for what the single best model is. So when you get to the educational implications of this boundary review you encounter a whole lot of grey. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s opinion-based, anecdotal, suggestive. The ideal grade configuration is a moving target at best. What’s ideal for this child, in this grouping, in this year, at this school is different from what is best for that child, in that group, in that year, at that other school. My own frustration peaked when realizing it could not be pinned down and seeing that for every argument saying that grade 9 was best located in junior high there was another counter-argument saying why it was not. It doesn’t seem to matter how much is written about this topic, it’s not going to produce as definitive a picture as the numbers case. As a result, because there’s so much more clarity in numbers, it seems that the human element in all this, the student, gets paid short shrift.

But it is not. What we learned as a result of all the work that’s been done the last eight months is that, yes, transition for all involved has to be handled with the utmost of mindfulness and sensitivity. The social, emotional, developmental needs of students are paramount. But when it comes to educational programme and best interests their needs will be attended to no matter where they are. They will be delivered of the education programme to which they’re entitled and their right to an education will be served. That is the one constant and it is a good one and an inalienable one.

I started out by saying that we rarely see change on the scale being recommended tonight. It might have seemed that I was suggesting it was questionable. Maybe even lunatic. But now when I look back at where we started and the ground we’ve covered since then and what we’ve learned I can’t help but see a certain amount of wisdom. It was a big undertaking but a thoughtful and thorough one. We have all taken the time we needed. We know the operations argument thoroughly, one factor though it is. We have heard and explored educational arguments, elusive though the answers are.

Tremendous effort has gone into wrangling information and opinion and preparing the recommendations and for that I am grateful to the Boundary Review Committee.

When doing my reading I was especially struck by the fact that in the 40 years since the 1970’s, my school years, we’ll have gone from 200,000 plus students in this province to fewer more than 110,000. A nearly 50% drop. Beyond a certain point I don’t need to be told what that means on the ground. It means change. Back then infrastructure was at its peak and growth was all the talk. Now we’re on the other side of that growth and everyone has to consider how we accommodate that. Analysis of the variety that Sackville and Millwood have now completed is admirable.

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