From the Desk of the Superintendent- April 2016

Happy Easter! I hope everyone had a blessed Easter and enjoyed some well deserved time away from the busyness that seems to consume all of our lives.

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This Easter was especially special as it was the first for me as a grandpa! Our beautiful grandson Carter, wishes you a very happy Easter too!

 

 

 

April…already… which means we are less than three months away from the end of the school year. And while we are thinking about the work we need to complete by the end of June, we are already in the planning mode for next year. The Board of Trustees began this process at their March meeting by setting their priorities for the next three years.  I’m hopeful that these priorities can remain consistent over the next three years rather than changing on a yearly basis. In other words, it would be nice to develop a three-year education plan (knowing tweaks and adjustments are required) rather than a completing a three-year education plan every year! While I understand the need for compliance, I’ve been assured that our planning documents have the ability to look much different and therefore should be more user-friendly.

Strong and vibrant organizations understand that setting priorities must always precede budget. You need to be very clear first about what your “big rocks” are, and then allocate to them. There will never be enough money, no matter what party is in power, so you had best decide what your key priorities are before you begin the budget process. The provincial budget is slated to be released on April 14th. Moving forward, our Learning Leadership Team will be assisting in setting some division-wide three-year targets for our plan. Some of the targets will come directly from our common assessments. I am so very proud of the work done by our own teachers in the development of our common math assessment. What a wonderful example of a highly collaborative and professional culture! These common assessments align with the Alberta Assessment Consortium Key Visual: Assessing Student Learning in the Classroom which prompts teachers in confirming standards with their colleagues. It is essential that standards are consistent across the division without standardizing excellent practice. The recognition of the fine line that exists between standards and standardization has allowed our schools to continue to be innovative in their approaches to student learning, adaptable, flexible and current. As I’ve often said, “It is not either/or, it is both/and.”

The last topic I wish to address in my monthly communique is Inclusive Communities. The Division has been very strategic in its quiet approach since this topic continues to be highly political and community polarizing. It is very sad that keeping parents as the first and primary educators of their children and ensuring ALL students are safe, cared for and compassionately treated with dignity has caused so much division. Those of you who heard me speak at our Spiritual Development Day and others who know my story, know that this topic in very personal to me, as both a Catholic father and a Catholic superintendent. We’ve always served a spectrum of students and will continue to do so with love and compassion. Our procedure as been submitted to the Minister of Education and we will await the department’s feedback. However, if you’ve felt your child has been in a safe and caring environment in our schools before, that will continue, as nothing has changed. The approach we’ve always taken under my leadership speaks to our vision, “Holy Spirit Catholic Schools, A Christ-centered learning community where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” It is not for some students, it is for ALL STUDENTS!

Have a wonderful April and God Bless!

 

Let’s begin with content!

Last evening I had the pleasure of moderating the film, “Most Likely to Succeed” at the Fort Macleod Film Festival. The American documentary challenges our thoughts on where education needs to go in order to “perhaps” better prepare our students for an ever-changing future. The main focus of the film is High Tech High, a charter school with extremely progressive and innovative methods. Unfortunately, the audience may get lost in the enormous leap from where many schools are today compared to High Tech High, instead of looking at where we might begin to make the necessary changes in our system of education.

I began my comments with the acknowledgement that we live in a vastly different society compared to how most of us grew up. Yet, while we’d not accept using medical techniques of the 1950s or farming practice of the early century, we are reluctant to take the same leap in our educational structure. All of us attended school, some of us were successful in school and we know it! There is a certain amount of comfort in keeping school static, just like it was when we attended. While I don’t believe that all systems can make the wholesale transformation to High Tech High tomorrow, I believe there is one shift that we can start with that will be helpful in this journey.

Let’s begin with content! If you have ever sat on a curriculum development committee you will be reminded of the difficulty of drafting a curriculum that satisfies everybody. Depending on your viewpoint, this outcome or that outcome needs to be incorporated into the new curriculum. It is amazing how everything becomes important and nothing can be defined as essential. The result is a curriculum that is far too wide, forcing many educators to cover instead of ensuring deep learning. In essence, we take on a mentality of teaching to the test just in case it is on the test!  That regurgitation of knowledge is not well supported in research as true learning since many students lose that knowledge within three months.

Even though I often get my knuckles rapped, I continue to advocate for our teachers to collaboratively define the key learner outcomes in each grade/subject that are necessary for success in the next level. Once established, focus on those outcomes and go deep in the learning, capturing student interest. It is not sufficient that our primary response to the question, “Why do we need to learn this?” is “Because it is in the curriculum.” By focusing on key learner outcomes, we build in the time to really teach and therefore improve overall student learning. Students begin to recognize that there is a purpose to their learning, they have time to build their mastery and isn’t it nice that we can teach them a little about autonomy along the way!

There is another essential component to thinning the curriculum. Standards still have to be met and so teachers need to build common assessments around these key outcomes. Baselines must be established to inform our practice and set our direction to achieve high quality learning. The conversations around these common assessments assist in improving teacher practice. Comparatives are important in professional dialogue. But comparatives are made more difficult when everything needs to be taught and/or assessed. We cannot move toward an improved education system without reducing our content and without greater precision on what is most important!

 

The Importance of Principals

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on March 9, 2016.

Most often, behind every great school is a great principal. School leadership counts. I’ve contended for many years that the position with the most impact in a school division is that of the principal. They are pulled in many different directions on a daily basis and contend with issues, whether rudimentary or crisis, that demand time and energy. The reality is that the role of the principal is extremely complex and takes almost “superhuman” abilities to do it well. I’m always amazed at the lack of understanding by my students in the Principalship course I teach around the complexity of the role. It is not until we list all of the “job requirements” that they begin to understand the challenge of the position. Principals are essential in establishing and maintaining a quality learning environment.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines and analyze the effectiveness of the principal. But once you learn of the multifaceted role, a greater appreciation of their work is gained. In the current system, principals are evaluated based on seven dimensions: (1) fostering effective relationships, (2) embodying visionary leadership, (3) leading a learning community, (4) providing instructional leadership, (5) developing and facilitating leadership, (6) managing school operations and resources and (7) understanding and responding to the larger societal context. Within each of these competencies, a number of indicators are provided to guide the practice of the principal.

The first dimension, fostering effective relationships, is foundational to the role of the principal. Great principals build great relationships. Those relationships don’t just include staff and students but also parents, community members, central office personnel and trustees. Under this dimension, the principal not only has to act with fairness, dignity and integrity, but must also model and promote open and collaborative dialogue and use effective communication, facilitation and problem solving skills. Don’t forget about demonstrating sensitivity to and genuine caring for others while improving relationships, dealing with conflict and cultivating a climate of mutual respect. And finally, under this guideline, the principal is required to promote an inclusive, safe school culture that respects and honours diversity. Those are just the indicators for the first dimension!

When you really start to dig into what is expected of the principal, you start to appreciate the difficulty of the position. Effective principals are very special and should be well recognized for their efforts. It is not an easy task to create a safe and caring environment, meet the varying needs of students, staff and parents alike and ensure high quality learning in schools. It takes time and commitment and simply a love of the job. Principals have a huge influence on the culture of the school and the learning that occurs. Their work must never be undervalued or overlooked.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Spiritual Development Opening Address

Good morning everyone and welcome to today’s Spiritual Development Day. Today is a day that highlights our difference as a Catholic School System. Our learning is not academic focused, but rather faith based. Our minds will likely be challenged but it is more important that our hearts are moved and our spirits our nourished. Today is our last Spiritual Development Day in our current 3-Year Faith Plan.

Many of us remember when we began our faith plan in 2013 at the Enmax with David Wells. He introduced us to our first year’s theme of “Taking Our Place at the Table” and invited us all to come to the table. ALL, was a central theme, not just some and so we were challenged to look at who was not at our table and invite and welcome them.

We then moved to our 2nd year where we focused on “Walking Together.” A very visual theme reminding us we are all God’s people, “created in the image and likeness of God” and as such called to walk together- at times leading, at times near the end and at other times in the middle. We walk as one faith community, all welcome, all different and unique, but all together!

And finally we concluded with creating a “Horizon of Hope” in our division. I’m always reminded of the words of Elder Delphine Goodstriker, “We were given a heart so that we can give.” And so our final theme is about creating a horizon of hope for our students and their families and hope for each other. In our belief, hope is not simply wishing things get better. Hope comes from faith, a faith where we may never understand the hand of God but we must always trust the heart of God!

Remembering the words of Pope Francis, “Today amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and be men and women that bring hope to others.  To protect creation, to protect every man and woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope.” That has been the focus of this year.

And then we were gifted with the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And together with our faith plan, we are called to continue our attention to our lonely, our poor, our disenfranchised and the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matt 25:35

Mercy given! Mercy received!

Throughout the day, I ask that you constantly remind yourself of our journey during our 3-Year Faith Plan and contemplate on your response as an individual and your response to our students during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

God Bless!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2016

Last week, we hosted 10 school divisions from across the province, who form the Learning and Technology Policy Framework Community of Practice. This was a great honour, as it allowed us to showcase our work as well as learn from other innovative divisions around the province. I had the privilege of presenting to the group on our journey and my focus was on changing culture. One of the slides I shared addressed my belief as superintendent regarding relationships and asked the question, “Do they know you or do they fear you?” Although I understand there will always be some trepidation when I visit schools, it is of critical importance that I’m out in schools simply getting to know our staff and students. The photo below shows me “playing” in the early learning program at St. Catherine School last week. While I fully understand my role as Chief Educational Officer of the Division, it is the opportunity to get into schools and interact with staff and students that I cherish the most. And while I have fully committed to going out to schools every single week for a morning or afternoon, it is so much easier because of the welcome I receive in each of our schools. As I stated to our support staff during their PD day, I am grateful for the warm reception I receive visiting our schools.

The month of March brings us into full swing of planning for 2016-17. The Board of Trustees will finalize the strategic priorities at their March meeting and principals will begin looking at how they will incorporate them into their own school continuous improvement plans. It is the intent to be even tighter and more precise for next year while still encouraging individual school autonomy and maximizing creativity and innovation in the pursuit of those priorities. This loose/tight style has served us well in our continuous improvement journey!

Capital projects were highlighted at the board meeting in February. The draft 3-Year Capital Plan  was presented for review and will be finalized at the March meeting. We are excited about the opening of Blessed Mother Teresa School this fall and the modernization of St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek continues to progress well. We also had a start-up meeting for our modernization of St. Patrick’s School in Taber. I don’t think most people recognize the magnitude of our small Catholic Division tucked away in south-west Alberta having three major capital projects. While it certainly points to outstanding planning from central office, it also speaks to the work of our current and former Board of Trustees in their tremendous advocacy role. Often these individuals go unnoticed in their work and yet results like this demonstrate the importance of their role.

Our annual Spiritual Development Day is on March 7th. While faith development should always be an ongoing process, this day reminds us of the importance of nurturing ourselves spiritually. I always look forward to this day as not only is it refreshing but it is also very challenging. Our personal faith journey is complicated and should include both challenges and revelations. I will be speaking about these challenges as it pertains to inclusive communities from the vantage point of both a Catholic Superintendent and father. It should be a great day especially with our special guest Steve Bell.

Enjoy this next month as we continue our Lenten Journey in preparation for Easter. God Bless!

What is your culture?

Tomorrow, I’ll be addressing 80-100 educators from around the province about our journey in Holy Spirit Catholic Schools. These educators have formed a community of practice that focuses on the Learning and Technology Policy Framework; an outstanding resource that addresses some of the shifts required to truly graduate students who are engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit.  My talk however, will not specifically address technology but will instead focus on our changing culture.

The above phrase has resonated with me for many years and has shaped much of my leadership. But culture is not simply corralled in leadership, it is part of all organizations and includes all walks of life. In education, it may be the most contributing part of success in every classroom, school and system. In the recent book, School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess and Transform It,  authors Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker provide a couple of excellent audits on culture for educational leaders.

School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It

While I would suggest that this book be read by leaders and formal culture audits taken, I think a great start to identifying culture is simply leading with questions and as Michael Fullan suggests, “perform an autopsy without blame.”

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some questions that you may find useful as you begin to reflect on your own culture, be it in your classroom, your school or your system.

  1. Are you happy in your work? Do you enjoy going to work most days?
  2. Do you believe you can make a difference in the lives of your students?
  3. Do the problems you face originate from external or internal factors? Do you have any control over these factors? What are the factors you can control?
  4. Is there collaboration amongst staff? Do you discuss student learning? Do you discuss instructional practice? If so, how often?
  5. Do you believe that every child can learn or do you tend to make excuses about a lack of learning?
  6. Does your school/system use SMART Goals? Is there a strong vision? Do you know and understand the direction of the school or system?
  7.  What are the conversations about in your staff room, your parking lot? Are they critical of someone or something? Are they positive or negative? Do they provide hope or despair? 
  8. Are you a learner? Are your colleagues? What do you do to continually improve as an individual, a team, or a staff? 
  9. When you go back to the reasons you went into teaching, are those same reasons still there?
  10. Is the system you are in or the school you are in or the classroom you are in, a place where you would want your own child to be a student? 

Culture is complex and is not “adjusted” after one meeting or one visioning session. It is a long process to develop the culture you desire and requires constant attention. But without a strong and trusting culture that promotes learning, strategies in themselves will never achieve the success that we crave, for all students!

So, what is your culture?

 

Raising the floor!

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to bring my senior education team to Calgary as part of our CASS Leadership Network and spend a day with Simon Breakspear. Since first meeting Simon a few years back, I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to get together with this visionary leader and what I would suggest “provoker” of educational thought. Maybe it is because of his Australian accent or his good charm, but Simon has the ability to really push your thinking beyond the comfortable.  Yesterday, at our own Learning Leadership Team meeting, I was able to use an activity that we had done with him.

To begin with, we need to commit to the basic premise that every child needs to gain a year’s worth of academic growth in a year. That in itself, will likely ruffle some feathers or at the very least elicit a number of excuses. “What about context?” “What about kids with special needs?” “What about…whatever?” My response is not to dismiss those excuses but to consider them exceptions rather than the rule. I would hate as a profession that we would organize around “can’t” or “won’t” and instead, believe in “could” and “will.” Our default therefore, becomes that every child (or at least most) should gain a year’s worth of academic growth in a year.

So now the question becomes, “In order for every student to gain a year of academic growth in a year, what practices should be seen in a class every single day?” This question is a great conversation starter because it requires us to reflect on what needs to happen (what a teacher does) every day in every classroom. The result is the “floor” or the minimum standard necessary to reach the basic premise. These practices need to be agreed upon as a school or system and then they become non-negotiable. The agreement of the “floor” also allows clarity for instructional leaders and promotes honest professional conversation amongst staff on their practice. It also eliminates any excuses until after first reflecting on one’s practice.

But minimum standard is not something we should shoot for in education and so we must be prepared to raise the floor. Raising the floor is simply getting better at what we should be doing in our classrooms every single day. For example, formative assessment is a floor activity in itself! Every teacher should engage in formative assessment every single day. However, there is significant variation in teachers’ ability to assess for learning. School improvement comes from a concentrated effort by everyone to assess for learning better i.e. raising the floor.

Every system I know has pockets of excellence- teachers or classrooms who have raised their own floor to hover around “ceiling” practices. They are innovative and creative and their pedagogy is stellar. Sometimes we get lost by only seeing improvement through the lens of those innovators in our classrooms- “If only they could teach like them!” I love getting into those classrooms and observing that pedagogical genius. It would be unfair however, if I assumed that all teachers could simply leap to the ceiling of practices. Getting to the ceiling requires us to concentrate on raising the floor, one effective practice at a time.

This is not a simple task but one that as a learning leadership team we will continue to discuss because ultimately, our expectation should be “one year’s academic growth in one year!” I would encourage schools to engage in this conversation, define everyday practices and then raise the floor!

 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2016

We have reached the mid-point of the school year and it is all downhill from here! Well, it may be downhill but it is at full speed as usual in the Division. The mid-point of the school year is a great time to reflect. Often that reflection comes in the form of a conversation with a staff member, student, parent, stakeholder, government official or like today, a company that we work with. Interesting when you have a chance to tell your story, the real story, not the superficial one where everything is perfect, but the one that honestly identifies the successes and challenges you face as a Division. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about confronting the brutal facts and honest reflection requires that! While I’m our Division’s biggest cheerleader, I also recognize our limitations. But what I notice when I visit schools and discuss continuous improvement plans with our leadership team is the recognition of those limitations and a fierce desire to simply “get better.” That is the real story and the one I’m asked to share often to audiences both provincially and nationally. We accept that we are not perfect, but we won’t allow our imperfections to limit our capacity to grow and improve. That is truly noteworthy and it is an attribute of our staff for which I am most grateful!

I just want to say something quick about my school visits. Those who know my schedule understand my travel and meeting requirements. It is a taxing part of my position but fully accepted with no regret. But when I get the opportunity to spend a half day each week in our schools, visiting staff and working with students, well that is about as energizing as can be. I’m thankful for the warm welcome I’ve received in all of the classrooms I’ve been in already, the excitement shared and the conversations had. I look forward to my school visit each and every week!

Shifting to the January Board Meeting, you can find the brief here. Of particular note was the decision by the Board of Trustees to eliminate the Instructional Resource Fees for 2016-17. The Board has discussed this in the past and felt that the timing was right to eliminate these fees for next school year. Although we’ve always provided the waiver of school fees for those families unable to pay, this decision is a universal support for all. It calculates to a loss of revenue of approximately $160,000, but given the economic times we are in, it is simply the right thing to do! We are not eliminating option or co-curricular type fees but we intend to be more diligent in the charging of fees. School leaders will be engaging school councils on the topic of fees in the coming months.

This past weekend, the second reading at mass was the beautiful passage on love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)

While it is easy to connect this passage to Valentine’s Day, it is also easily connected to the Season of Lent. As a faith community, we would be well served to focus on love as espoused by St. Paul during Lent. It provides each of us with a wonderful roadmap to follow in this Lenten Season. And so, as we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday (February 10th), I pray that your Lenten journey be bountiful in love. God bless!

 

Linking Education to the Economy

The following blog post  was published in the Lethbridge Herald on January 27, 2016

Alberta is in the midst of some tough financial challenges. With the price of oil continuing to be low and our Canadian dollar ever slipping on the world stage, we are in for some difficult times economically for the foreseeable future. While the ups and downs of the energy sector are somewhat cyclical in nature, and therefore predictable, we’ve not faced this “low” in a long time. But what does this information have to do with education?

The first obvious answer is simply for students to stay in school and graduate. It is generally accepted that the earning power of a high school graduate exceeds that of a drop out. That statement should ring true regardless of when the economy is strong or weak. However, there has to be more for these students than just the prize of graduation at the end of their academic careers.

Recognizing that our future is uncertain, our schools must prepare students for the turbulent times ahead. We can only achieve this goal with engaging classrooms that teach the competencies required for future success, not just a litany of curriculum. Education is the game changer in students’ lives when being a learner trumps being learned. The ability to be a learner, to problem solve, to articulate a critical response and to adapt, is instrumental in navigating this ever-changing world. The world of tomorrow will not require learned students who regurgitate knowledge and tend to have great difficulty adapting when the situation changes. As Eric Hofer suggests, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” The problems we will face in the future will likely be unsolvable by current solutions. So we need our students to be precise in the identification of these problems and divergent in their thinking to respond nimbly.

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division has been on this journey of preparing students for their future and not our past for a number of years. We are continually improving our learning environments to welcome creative minds who think outside the box and support innovative risk-takers. None of this is at the expense of the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy. In fact, these skills are core to all learners’ success.  But being learned alone, or a compliant student at best, will not assist in developing students to their full potential as committed learners.

The unknown future must be prepared for through education. We need to develop learners who will be successful in the future; learners who will challenge the status quo, be able to adapt to changing contexts and be flexible in their problem solving approaches. Developing these skills in our schools today will assist in the growth and development of students who are also highly resilient. And this student, well rounded and resilient, will be a learner who will be equally suited for a boom and bust economy or a more diversified approach.

Transfers offer an opportunity for growth

I’m two weeks into my annual future plan meetings with all of my administrators. Forty-five minute meetings with approximately 40 principals, associate principals and central office administrators is certainly a time commitment but a very worthwhile endeavour. There is little doubt of the impact on succession planning given the honest information I receive from my Learning Leadership Team on their future goals and aspirations. My job should always include creating more leaders not more followers and so any influence I can leverage to assist them in capacity building and career development is essential. Listening to them tell me about their preferred future or where they want to be when they reach retirement age provides me the ability to both enhance their own leadership capacity and build a stronger organization. Opening these types of conversations to all staff through my weekly Superintendent Chat has further extended this learning.

In my mind change fosters growth and the development of multiple perspectives. Even as a smaller division, we have a culture where administrators transfer to other schools. It is part of their growth and it is simply what we do. It is never done as a punitive measure but always seeks, as mentioned above, to build leadership capacity and a stronger organization. I’m not suggesting that every transfer comes without some trepidation on an individual’s part but the success rate of growth is impressive. Administrators gain new perspectives when changing schools which accentuates growth and diversifies skill sets. While I’ve worked with some tremendous administrators who have only had one school or level experience, multiple school experiences are preferred. Moving school based administrators also creates a stronger divisional culture, where the competition between schools is replaced by collaboration amongst schools.

While we’ve not achieved the same level of transfers for teachers, I’m so very proud of those who have already taken the opportunity to request a move. Taking that plunge from the known to unknown and comfortable to uncomfortable should be recognized. Although some are interested in administration and thirsty for the learning they will gain from this new perspective, some just want to change in order to grow farther. Regardless of the motivation, I applaud those teachers.

Transfers are complicated because the goal is success for the individual and both the leaving and receiving school. Sometimes in a smaller system there are not as many opportunities to transfer. But when possible and within a strong system with a trusting environment, the benefits of a transfer most certainly outweigh any bumps along the way.

Most school systems are already preparing for staffing for the upcoming year. I would hope that opportunities for transfers at the administration and teacher levels are encouraged and supported. Gaining multiple perspectives, working with new people and taking a step into the unknown and uncomfortable is a great recipe for growth and development.