School fees and the basics

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on April 20, 2016.

Holy Spirit Catholic Schools has just set their strategic priorities for the next three year and it should come as no surprise that literacy and numeracy are front and centre. The statistics are overwhelming that children who do not read by the end of grade 3 are unlikely to complete high school. That fact in itself should be enough of a driver for all school systems to focus on literacy and numeracy. This may also be one of the reasons for the “back to the basics” movement that often dominates the press. I will not ever divert from my strong belief in developing those foundational skills in our learners. Strong literacy and numeracy skills are non-negotiable and are very much prerequisites for future competencies that students will require to be successful in their ever evolving world.

While these skills are essential, I would consider them the minimum standard for education. They are ground floor practices, meaning they should be seen in every classroom. What parents and students have come to expect, however, are ceiling level practices. Basics are just not enough. In a world filled with gaming technology, instant messaging, and global connections, engaging students is a must. They are coming into classrooms questioning why certain outcomes need to be learned and expecting an answer better than, “because it is in the curriculum.” They want their learning to be connected to their own life, not without rigour but certainly with relevance. To achieve this, teachers need to go beyond the basics.

Like many of my colleagues in the role of superintendent, I have pleasure of visiting schools and getting into classrooms. I’m always amazed at the high level of instruction occurring in our classrooms and the innovative practices that our teachers are engaging in. What I see in our schools is far from “basic,” but providing that rich learning experience also comes with a cost. School divisions and individual schools wrestle to lower fees for parents in these tough economic times without losing the engaging aspects we now call the norm. Systems also struggle with equity. The opportunities of an engaging education must be afforded to all and not just some.

When reviewing the charging of school fees the proposed definition of basic educational services is, “The services, supports and materials required for a student to meet the core curricular outcomes at a basic level as defined in the Guide to Education (Math, Science, Language Arts, Social Studies, Religion, Physical Education, Health, Art, Music).” The proposed definition of enhanced educational services is, “Services and materials that are not required to meet the core curricular outcomes at a basic level as defined in the Guide to Education but that are provided to enhance the student’s learning opportunities.” What I struggle with is the murky line that divides “basic” from “enhanced” and the question of our ability to offer the richness of educational experiences currently in our schools if held to these strict definitions.

Holy Spirit has eliminated the instructional resources fees parents pay for the 2016-17 school year. No longer will parents pay $45 for elementary students, $55 for junior high students and $65 for high school students. While that might not seem like much, it is a loss in revenue to the schools of almost $170,000. School and system leaders are also reviewing all fees collected by schools and trying to characterize them as either “basic” or “enhanced.” It is not an easy or cut and dry decision. The desire to lessen the financial burden for parents is certainly the will of the Board, but so is providing an all-encompassing, highly engaging learning environment. Striking that balance will be the ultimate goal.


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