How to make small high schools work?

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Small high schools require thinking outside the box (and perhaps removing some boxes altogether)

by Maureen Dagg

Canada has an aging population, which means that there are proportionally fewer of us who have kids in schools.  Public education, however, must be of primary concern to each and every one of us … and I hope I don’t need to go into a lot of detail to explain why.

I am a former high tech worker and high school teacher, and I have continued to tutor high school students in mathematics in my home since I left ADHS over twenty years ago.  Tutoring math is one of my favourite things:  I enjoy the 1-on-1 work with students, and I am delighted to help them to achieve success.  My own two kids have completed high school.

ADHS students show tablets and laptops purchased through innovative cost saving program

The students that I tutor come from four different boards of education,  both public and Catholic boards, in our area and Ottawa.  I get concerned when I see certain things that appear to be happening in schools, because I want kids to get the help and support they need.There are definitely differences between urban schools and rural schools, and I worry that rural schools are being left behind in many ways.

We are blessed in our community with some of the most amazing teachers, administrators, and support staff – which goes a long way to ensuring our students’ successes.

But Ministry models for high schools are based on an “ideal” school size of about 1,000 students.  NO high schools in our rural areas have this many kids enrolled.  And enrollment is declining steadily.  Our public board (Upper Canada District School Board) is now going through another ARC (Accommodation Review Committee) process, and it seems that UCDSB may close as many as 29 schools!  This is alarming.

For those of you who are curious, the capacity of ADHS is 669 students.  We currently have 359 (grades 9-12) and 182 (grades 7-8), for a total of 541.  This school was, years ago, nearly at its capacity of 669 students of high school age (grades 9-12).  To now house just 359 means we are just over half filled.  The total (grades 7-12) projected for next school ‘s year will be 408.

Several  years ago, the UCDSB participated in The Small High School Summit, which worked to ensure that our Ministry was well informed on the particular issues that small high schools face.  I believe that the Small High School Summit no longer exists.  We’ve had two changes in Ministers for Education since the White Paper on small schools that I read, and it’s hard to believe on the evidence I see that small high schools are getting the attention they need.

The Ministry has gradually taken over control of all of the education money, doling it out on a “per pupil” basis, and even now does the Collective Bargaining with teachers’ unions on a province-wide scale.  Our local boards are more strapped for cash, having expenses that urban centres don’t have.  The last three years have seen our board’s budget slashed by $7 million, $5 million and $1 million – and since they must budget a year in advance, it was a mad scramble to make it all work without directly affecting our kids.  They did this with some measure of success….

We should all be alarmed at this.  The more centralized is the control of our kids’ education, the less we can engage our local educators to see the best solutions for our kids.

In the fall, I chatted with our local UCDSB Trustee, as well as our local Principal about some issues.  The frustration for me – and I would imagine for all parents – is that the local educators are extremely limited in what options they can offer our kids and what they can do with the limited resources they have.  When there’s an issue the problem needs to go all the way to the Ministry – and you can be pretty sure that they won’t be as responsive as our local school would be, if given the power it needs to make change.

Perhaps I should explain a couple of ways that small high schools suffer.  First of all, the Ministry hands out money (and it is strictly centrally controlled now) to school boards on a “per pupil” basis.  Simply put, this means that a larger school gets more money.  Now, anyone who comes from a large family understands very well the concept of “economies of scale”:  one more child does not cause the same incremental cost.  This introduces unfairness right off the bat.  Also, the number of teachers we get depends directly on the number of students.  Again, we suffer from the lack of consideration of economies of scale.

This means that the small school cannot offer the full suite of excellent courses that a large school can offer – we simply don’t have the teachers to teach the courses.   So, at a small school, we end up having to stick quite closely to the CORE (i.e. compulsory) curriculum, with few frills attached.  Okay, so this isn’t all that bad, you might say, and in fact, our local schools have always produced some amazing graduates, many of whom have gone on to make big contributions in the world.  I agree.

Now, we have to schedule the students into classes, using the more limited staff we have – a source of some scheduling difficulties.  Obviously, the more staff you have, the easier your scheduling issues will be.  BUT we also have another snag:  class size limitations.

For this, let me give an example.  For simplicity, suppose classes are limited in size to 20.    We have 30 students for a particular subject.  We have to create TWO sections of that class (using two teachers, who are a limited resource).  And so now, we cannot offer some other class that, say, 15 kids want to take.  Do you think this is a rare problem?  NO!  It’s very common in UCDSB, and in our local Catholic schools.  Choices are always necessary that limit our kids’ options for their future.  We’ve seen core subjects cancelled because there weren’t enough kids signed up.

Parents and students that this has happened to are not impressed.  As a community, we should be appalled.

One creative way around scheduling issues is to combine classes.  Now, depending on the subject matter, this can work quite well.  With mathematics, I’ve seen them combine Academic and Applied levels of a particular grade in one class. The curricula are not that disparate – and sometimes, a student at one level might make a switch to the other.   Also, some subjects involve more hands on work and less instruction, so enable the teacher more freedom to work in small groups.

This semester, I encountered a class combination that caused me great consternation:  A combined class of Grade 11 and Grade 12 Academic Mathematics!  Tutoring has shown me that it is not exactly possible for a teacher to teach TWO Academic maths at the same time – at least without certain tools in place (more on that later).

In small schools, online learning (ELearning) should be a good resource for expanding options for students, but it has many limitations.  My experience with the Math, for example, is that it has been poorly implemented.  I might add that I have taught at the Alternative School here in Almonte, where the Math (“correspondence”) courses offered were also severely lacking.

These are just a couple of examples of problems faced in our small high schools.

ADHS has come up with many creative ways around some of these limitations, and we need to applaud them for what they’ve been able to achieve to date.  However, our schools are shrinking, and it is time to look more carefully at creative ways to deal with limited resources.

How did we get to this?  And what can be done?

The provincial government has gradually been taking over more and more control of the Education system – to the point where our local school boards have little say in anything.  Even collective bargaining is happening at a provincial level now. Recent articles in the Ottawa Citizen have shown me that even a city like Ottawa is suffering the effects of the centralization of education in Ontario.

Apparently, our local municipality can no longer set a “mill rate” in our taxes to get monies for our local schools.  The provincial government now controls ALL money going to school boards.  According to our local Trustee, the UCDSB took a $7Million cut for the school year 2014/15, a $5Million cut for the school year 2015/16, and a $1Million cut for 2016/17.  Because they must plan their budget a year in advance, these sudden cuts hit them very hard.  And they had to do a lot of creative thinking to try not to limit programming to students even more than they already do.  We can be pretty sure that the Province is not taking “economies of scale” into consideration when it hands out funds to school boards.

The teacher’s union has also created a large chunk of the problem that small high schools face.  Because of collective bargaining, the teaching contract is extremely detailed and complex – and it actually stops teachers from being able to come up with creative solutions that might, in the long run, save our schools and also save teachers’ jobs.

A great example of this is the combined Grade 11/12 Academic math class.   ADHS had one full grade 12 class, and one split grade 11/12 class taught by the same teacher last semester.   If I’d been the teacher in that situation, I would have preferred an extra large grade 12 class, and then a slightly smaller grade 11 class.  I would have had NO extra marking or prep work, and the EXACT same number of students in my day.  But, you see, the teachers’ contract  limits the size of the class, NOT the total number of students the teacher has in their three classes.  This simple change to the contract would allow a small high school to make life easier for the teacher AND provide better service to kids.  As the situation currently stands, this was not even an OPTION to be considered.  And in my view, this type of thing prevents teachers from serving kids to the best of their abilities, causing everyone undue stress.

Ideas/Solutions – What can be done?

Parents need to get more involved in their kids’ education.   It is a fact that schools can easily discourage and intimidate parents from engagement.  I spent years on the Parent Involvement Committee of UCDSB.   But, if after talking at the local school about an issue and feeling that the problem is way further up the chain of command, parents need to write letters!  Our communities must take back our schools in order to help our kids to get the best education they can.  School Councils can organize and direct parents to get the kinds of answers that our community needs.

Teachers need to carefully look at things in their Collective Bargaining Agreement that limit their ability to provide creative solutions to kids.  One example of this is the class size limitation. Rather than limiting class size, high school teachers should have a limit on the total number of students that they teach. This enables flexibility in class sizes, which reduces scheduling problems, reduces the need for split classes, and enables teachers to do what they do best – serve kids.  I’m sure that there are countless other examples of strict limitations that do not actually help teachers.   Teachers need to ensure that their Union is working for them, not against them.  They need to get creative about solutions that help kids – and their profession.

The Ministry needs to back off on their funding restrictions, allowing municipalities more flexibility when it comes to finding resources for local schools

The Ministry needs to put better  tools and resources  in place to assist teachers!   Online video tutorials and the like can be provided as supplementary help for kids.  They could begin by supplying these for their online and correspondence courses.

We TRULY need to look long and hard at abolishing a special education system for Catholic students, instead offering optional religious studies courses to all students in all schools.  The United Nations has recognized the unfairness of this system, and even our most Catholic province, Quebec, removed this special system many years ago.  Many studies have indicated significant financial savings can be had just by doing this one thing.

Problems in education are everybody’s business, folks.  You may think my opinion here is overly simplistic, and maybe it is.  But I care enough to speak out about these concerns, with no actual “skin in the game”, so I stand to personally gain or lose nothing.  Those of you whose kids are in this system need to take notice of how it’s working.  Or NOT working.  And get active for kids.