The Charter for Public Education held two public meetings on the islands this week, Wednesday in Skidegate, Thursday in Masset. The group is sponsored by the BC Teachers' Federation and is holding meetings in thirty communities around the province before preparing its report in the new year. The group is hoping to hear concerns from citizens about fundamental principles underlying the education system. In Skidegate about 14 people turned out, about the same number in Masset.
In Skidegate, panel chair Reverend Margaret Marquardt opened the discussion by introducing the panel and their purpose. She suggested they hold an informal discussion, which she opened by asking "what is an educated person"
Duncan White is a teacher. He responded first to the question by remembering Bill Ellis, whom he described as an educated and scholarly man who loved books and learning. "He wouldn't let you out of a conversation without defending your views. I admired the breadth of his thinking and his willingness to have a controversial opinion."
Mr. White said he looks for an education system that encourages people to go as far as they can go and whets the appetite of people who will continue to learn once they leave school. He expressed concern that in the present system something isn't valued unless it is economically relevant. "I believe in the old idea of a liberal educationÂ…it gave you a grounding so you could deal with essentially anything."
Ms George introduced herself as a long time resident of the islands with a background in primary education. She felt that an educated person is one who understands the interconnectedness of things. Students need to understand processes and come to believe that the world makes sense, and that things are interconnected. Practical and intellectual processes are similar. People learn to use their brains by doing practical things, she said.
Sandspit teacher Audrey Putterill began by citing Stephen Lewis, Canada's UN high representative, as an educated person, but quickly shifted her focus to the practical elements of creating educated people in our schools.
Ms Putterill began by emphasizing the importance of hands-on learning, especially for boy, and the value of outside experiences. "Every kid has a strength. The school and the community has a duty to find and foster those strengths," she said. "Education is too much of a fast roller coaster. Lets slow down and let kids find themselves."
Ms Putterill said schools need to have an open door policy that welcomes parents and community members. She felt that Sandspit school has this and that the students benefit from it.
Schools can contribute to the support of families, especially single parent families. She said small places don't have pre-schools, but if a rural school welcomes pre-schoolers then the whole family benefits from the structure and community of the school. "Young moms and young dads really need a place to start off with their kids by coming into the school and being part of the school and feeling really easy and comfortable in that setting."
"We know that students whose parents take an interest in their education generally speaking do way better in school and probably in their lives," she said.
Ms Putterill said that schools become community schools when teachers take the time to talk to students and parents, and when the school is used for activities where young children are included along with other community members.
Russ Fleming, a first year teacher at Queen Charlotte's independent Living and Learning school, said he felt having people from different backgrounds to teach or participate provides a more accurate view of the world and how it works.
Duncan White added there is value in diverse approaches to education. As available money decreases, there is pressure to streamline education and fit one mold. Fewer resources for public education mean people who can do so leave the system and the rest are left behind to struggle on as best they can.
The discussion then turned too the role of extra curricular activities. Rev. Marquardt asked how the beautiful natural environment and cross-cultural opportunities affect education on the islands.
Russ Fleming said that his students had access to the beach and to hiking trails within easy reach, but still the school is in a town and that imposes some limitations on accessing the wilderness. The school requires time and resources to take kids to wilderness locations. Audrey Putterill pointed out that the money and resources for off island travel mean that sports programs have been cut. "The kids here really, really rely on going to the mainland for their competitions and it scares me a lot that we might start losing kids on the islands if we don't have that. What keeps a lot of high school kids in school is the extra curricular stuff. People will go other places with their children to get that stuff if it's not offered here," she said.
Heather George said the Lepas Bay Rediscover Program is an example of a learning experience that incorporates practical, environmental and cross-cultural learning and was a very important experience for her own daughter.
Vonnie Hutchingson, the Haida Education Director said the education system is being challenged, but it is also an exciting time. It's time for people to think about what education is about, she said, adding that education needs to be inclusive and reflect the values of the community. The Haida are seeking to expand their school in Old Massett and are looking at the feasibility of creating one in Skidegate, but to make those schools inclusive so that students who are not of Haida ancestry will still feel comfortable attending.
What is education? What is it for? asked Ms Hutchingson. Different parents want different things for their children. Choices need to be available, and communities need to engage in discussion about what they want. She said she also thinks early intervention is important in education and that decisions need to be made at a local level.
Marnie Younger made a formal presentation. She is presently a stay at home mom, but has more than 10 years experience in primary education.
First, Ms Younger emphasized the importance of libraries in developing literacy. She would like to see increased funds for libraries, more teacher librarians in school and more money spent on books instead of computer labs which she argued are not used effectively in schools, especially for young children who too often wind up using them only to play games.
She said more funds for teacher development need to be available for teachers in remote locations, and money to support teacher networks for rural teachers.
She would also like to see teachers being more reflective in their teaching practice, setting goals for their professional development and trying new teaching methods. Ineffective teachers need to be weeded out of the system, either by being helped to improve their teaching through additional training or by being helped into different careers.
It all gets back to the teacher in the classroom. You need teachers who can create a community in the classroom, she said.
Jenny White has taught on the islands for many years, and is now the district literacy coordinator. The 1/2 million dollars in cuts the school district faces next year concern here. Most of the cuts will be to electives and extracurricular activities. These are the things that motivate students, and give balance to their education.
"Schools are special, spirited places and libraries are the heart of schools. We need more books - beautiful books - for kids to read" says Ms White.
Islands school need to reflect Haida culture, she said, and more Haida people need to be involved in the education system.
Finally, Ms White said teachers need to feel secure in the system in order to concentrate on effective, joyful teaching. There are problems in the system that need to be addressed, but teachers who have a joyful approach to teaching make learning fun for students. She said it is important to find solutions to the challenges the education system has without blaming any one group in the system.
Keith Moore has two children in elementary school, and says he is satisfied with the education they are receiving.
He says he came to the meeting because he saw a poster advertising it and was interested in hearing the discussion.
He says there must be many visions of education. We have many school districts in the province and many community visions. The vision of one community is not the same as that of others.
Mr. Moore said he's concerned that the system on the islands cannot create the educational foundation to allow kids to make choices for themselves in the future.
On the islands between grades 5 and 8, parents start to talk about what they are going to do for their children's education and basically there are three choices: stay on islands with the kids, leave the islands with the kids or send the kids away to attend school elsewhere. But the islands are small and don't have the resources to offer everything. Parents have to decide if the system suits them or not.
Masset Thursday evening
Cody Hillier is a grade 12 student at GM Dawson.
"We feel our school is in need of upgrading. It is old and breaking down and has been for the last four or four and a half years. The atmosphere is not (cooperative) to learning."
"We need to get more discipline in the school. Kids can walk our of class and the teachers really won't say anything"
"We need new computers here. The whole world is going to be run by technology in say five years and there are a lot of kids here who don't know how to type."
Ms Hillier was asked about the most important thing in her education, and she answered "Mr. Woods. He was our grade 8 and grade 9 socials teacher. I know that he has always made sure I knew I could do it, that I could do anything I wanted to. He is always asking all of us, 'ho are the applications for college going."
She also noted there were other good things, including the multi-cultural nature of the school, the fact that it is small means all know each other better, there are good relations with teachers and staff, there is freedom of expression, lots of local support, and the shop, home ec. room and art room are well-equipped.
Lorrie Joron is a teacher, and a newly elected village councillor. She spoke first on behalf of her son Hart, who was present but suffering from the flu and not up to speaking. He spent last year at a high school in Denmark.
"It is interesting some of the things they did, no bells or whistles to tell the time, (it was) the responsibility of the kids."
"The students were separated into a humanities and a science stream, in humanities they learned four languages."
There was more flexibility, flex weeks, flex days, lots of electives. There was "a whole different attitude to education, the purpose is to have a well-rounded citizen"
Ms Joron then spoke on her own behalf
"It is no different that it was in the 1950's, the way we teach. The whole form itself is so antiquated."
"When I first moved here thirteen years ago I had a parent tell me they will never set foot in this school again."
"This school has the reputation of being the worst in the province and has for years. But we have things happening that you cannot measure with FSA (Foundations Skills Assessment tests)."
"The best things in education and learning are not measurable. The best things are not measurable but they are observable."
"The fact that there is nobody here from Old Massett, that really bothers me."
"We don't teach democracy. We mouth it. The kids aren't involved. There are dictates that come down from the school board, from the ministry (of education)."
"It's not fluid enough for some of our kids. Where is the flexibility"
"Creativity needs to play a bigger role in public education."
"Decentralization of power in the hands of the people, it is most important .. The school boards don't have any power anymoreÂ…"
"We live in a community where people are just trying to survive t the most basic level, it is very difficult to think of bigger things."
"I'd like to see the entire islands secede, but that is a different story."
Charlotte Smith is a teacher at GM Dawson. "The school is depressing. (It's) difficult to expect the kids to act with respect in our school when to quote my class this morning 'it's a ghetto'".
The home ec room hasn't been painted in 25 years. Things are broken and there is no budget to replace it."
"People in town are very friendly, but to find out the lack of parental involvement was shocking and disappointing."
It is a struggle, it is frustratingÂ….that's one teacher's point of view."
Stephanie Tarr teaches at Tahayghen "Part of what is missing is conversation between people. We all could come up with a collective vision. "You don't always need to have a lot of resources to do things. There is so much potential if only we had some passion. That's what bothers me the most."
Craig Kestle is also a teacher at Tahayghen. "Each day, some of these children are not prepared to be at school we haven't found a solution to helping these children without raising a negative tone"
Mr. Kestle says he sees a need for an opportunity or safe or quiet room, which would allow students to find a safe haven when needed.
Donna Bouchard teaches at Tahayghen and spoke of the importance of having a safe room.
"Several times I felt that the safety of my students was compromised" because there was no quite room."
The panel wraps up its meetings in mid-February and will have a draft report available March 1. It will circulate to all interested parties in the province.