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.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- January 2016

Welcome to 2016 and may God’s blessings be upon you this new year. I hope that you experienced Christ’s love this past Christmas and enjoyed some wonderful time with family and friends.

Starting a couple of years back, January marks the month I hold future plan meetings with all administrators in our division. I have a standard format whereby I ask three questions:

  1. What are your 1, 3 and 5 year career plans?
  2. What are three schools you would like to work at?
  3. Who are three leaders you would like to work with?

The purpose of this exercise is twofold. The first reason is to gain a better understanding of my administrators in order to better support their growth and development. Secondly, it assists in the major role of succession planning that I am responsible for as Chief Education Officer. Great leaders, especially at the school level are essential for the development and maintenance of innovative learning environments and as we lose administrators to other senior positions or retirement, it is critical that I am ahead of the curve whenever possible. Looking in the mirror this morning at my increasingly grey and white Christmas beard, I’m reminded that there are a number of us within Holy Spirit who will be able to retire or move onto other positions within the next five years. Succession planning for any organization but especially in school systems is of crucial importance. Please remember to take advantage of Superintendent Chat if you are considering a career move. Please remember to take advantage of Superintendent Chat if you are considering a career move.

Succession planning also leads to staffing. This year, teaching positions of known retirees will be advertised early. This will allow for internal candidates a chance for a possible transfer and will also open our doors early to our most talented education graduates. We will also begin the process of staffing our new school Blessed Mother Teresa early this year. At our December Learning Leadership Team meeting, we gathered input from our administrators on how to proceed with this process. Within the next couple of weeks, the process will be clearly communicated through the Deputy Superintendent’s office.

Obviously the staffing of all of our schools will take into account our own enrolment projections. With registration beginning on January 4th, this will provide us with some needed information about our opening enrolment at Blessed Mother Teresa and other schools throughout the system. We continue to grow in the City of Lethbridge and our rural schools contradict the normal trend in Alberta by either maintaining or increasing in student numbers. This fact speaks to the excellence we strive for in all of our schools and the positive outcomes we are able to achieve!

I’m not a great believer in New Year’s resolutions because I’m of the thought that any time is a good time to break bad habits, live better and love more but I also recognize the importance of a date to begin. So if you’ve set some goals for 2016, I wish you nothing but good luck! And finally, may the year of 2016 be a blessed year for you; one where mercy is shown to you and by you each and every day! God Bless!

Will you open the door?

It is pretty easy these days to initiate a conversation or more accurately an argument by simply bringing up the Syrian Refugee crisis. Very quickly there are two polar opposite camps that debate, why we should or why we should not. Some will contend that it is simply the right thing to do while others, will argue about the current economic times and the need to look after home first. Add the fear of terrorism into the equation and you have a full-out brawl of ideology!

But I want to take us back to a much simpler time before I deal with any side of the above argument. It is the time of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to rest in order for the birth of Christ. There was no room! Nobody offered a room for the birth of the Christ child. Nobody opened the door to give shelter to a pregnant woman into their midst. We would all like to believe that we would open the door but the question is would we?

It might be easy for us to respond as the good Samaritan when assisting a pregnant woman but what about the homeless, the addict, the imprisoned, or the disabled? Do we provide the corporal works of mercy to all or to those that fit our bill and satisfy our need? And do we just “give” during the Christmas season because it is on our mind or do we “give” year round? I quite sure that the corporal works of mercy: Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; Clothe the naked; Shelter the homeless; Visit the sick; Visit the imprisoned; Bury the dead, have no time limit on them.

What would our world be like if we chose to offer mercy each and every day instead of when we feel the need? How would our world be if we gave what we had instead of out of our excess? How do we respond to the passage in Luke that says,

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

All of us should feel a little bit of shame knowing that we haven’t helped our neighbours near or far when we could. We’ve all (including myself) cut a wide path around the beggar or the drunk. How quick we are to point fingers at others when we should really be pointing fingers at ourselves.

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.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 25:35-40)

We all have poor and destitute in our communities who we’ve chosen to ignore long before this wave of refugees. We’ve justified our reasons for not helping and yet now, we use those same or new poor to say we can’t open our borders to refugees. This should not be a choice on whether to welcome the Syrian refugees or to help those in our country. Instead it should be a wakeup call to simply act with mercy for all who live in our homeland and abroad! Don’t make this an either/or debate, do both!

Making the decision on international travel

Board Policy #10- Board Delegation of Authority states the following: The Superintendent has been delegated the authority to approve out-of-province and international field trips. This means that at the end of the day, it is me who decides whether field trips abroad are allowed or not. It is irrelevant to debate whether this is right or wrong, some boards follow this procedure, some take on the responsibility themselves. The fact is, we have seven trips occurring in this category this coming school year and a decision on their future is required.

During my tenure as superintendent, I’ve had to cancel one international trip. Catholic Central High School used to take students on an immersion into poverty to Cuernavaca, Mexico on a yearly basis. The year previous to the cancellation, I clearly remember the phone call I received about gunfire outside the compound where our students were staying. I’m sure I was not the only one in the Division who had restless nights until our students were home safe and sound. The following year, I stood in front of parents and students, many of whom spoke passionately about the importance of continuing this life changing experience. In the end I decided to cancel the trip and although I believe I made the right decision, I will always be saddened at the lost opportunity of our students to experience that trip. You see, I’m a great believer in the learning that can only be achieved through travel. In fact, I’m in the process of setting up an equity fund so that students coming from impoverished backgrounds have this experience.

Now we come to this school year where we have two trips to Europe, two trips within Canada, one trip to Japan and one trip to the United States. On Monday and Tuesday, I will be meeting with parents to discuss our two European trips. Part of the meeting will be to provide a lay of the land but it will also be to simply listen to our parents. While the ultimate decision rests with me, I still want to hear from them. Over the last couple of weeks, I reviewed what insurance providers are suggesting and read the decisions of many school divisions in and around Alberta. There is no one size fits all!

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the direction provided by insurance providers plays a part in these decisions. Unfortunately liability and risk management have too much of a role in what we do in schools but, without their support, school systems would be highly unprotected. Simply stated, any act of terrorism is not covered and there is no waiver that a parent can sign that would exonerate a school division from its responsibility if anything should happen. Sobering thought!

The question that has no simple answer is, “How much risk is too much?” Although if you listen to some, it seems quite simple. Being an arm-chair critic is the easiest job there is when dealing with these issues. It is really interesting (tongue in cheek) to listen to people who have an opinion but no real responsibility. Who stands in front of the parents if a tragedy occurs? Not any of them! I don’t begrudge any school division’s decision and nor should anybody else. It is disappointing when people point fingers and talk about “when they had a similar experience” and nothing happened. There is no similar experience today because the world has vastly changed! I’m also a little disheartened when a Federal Cabinet Minister states that he doesn’t understand why school divisions are cancelling or even suggesting the cancellations of international trips. Really?

Regardless of the decision I make, people will line up on either side to support or criticize. It is not an easy decision and it should weigh heavy on my mind. But in the end a decision will need to be made to continue, modify or cancel trips on an individual or blanket basis and with hope that the right decision is made!

Team Lethbridge 2015

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on December 02, 2015.

Last week, I travelled to Edmonton to participate in Team Lethbridge. Holy Spirit is one of 19 diverse partner organizations that make up the membership of Team Lethbridge. Every two years, the group organizes a “mission” to Edmonton to meet with MLAs, Ministers and their departments. This was the first visit with our new government. Our local MLAs, Honorable Shannon Phillips and Maria Fitzpatrick, were tremendously supportive and spoke highly about Team Lethbridge to their colleagues.

The purpose of the trip is somewhat different from what one might think. The main focus is to demonstrate the progressive and innovative community we live in and to highlight the many benefits offered by the City. In other words, it is not a visit to come with hands out asking for money, but rather an opportunity to showcase the many reasons why investment in Lethbridge supports the province as a whole.

Team Lethbridge is unique and is the only municipality that has been able to sustain this type of work. The reason is quite simple and yet very hard to accomplish without tremendous leadership and foresight. Collaboration is the ingredient that makes Team Lethbridge so successful. Each of the 19 diverse partners speaks with one voice and demonstrates the ability to create strong partnerships. Meetings with the ministries are characterized by how the partners collectively work together and support each other. It is not about the individual, it is about the group. The result is the creation of tremendous synergy.

Though Team Lethbridge understands the importance of building positive relationships with government, since it is through these relationships that awareness of our local contributions can enhance and strengthen our province, the work benefits the partner organizations as well.  Over three days member groups meet and discuss, connect and search for further opportunities to partner. The conversations typically begin with, “If we were able to make this happen, how might that positively impact your organization?” It is rare to have the chance for so many diverse solution-oriented groups together in one place with the same express purpose of supporting the long-term success of Lethbridge and its surrounding areas.

The team will debrief on Thursday, already beginning to look for ways to improve and in preparation for our next mission.  However, it seems remiss not to take a brief moment to congratulate Team Lethbridge group on this past and very successful mission.  Well done Team Lethbridge!

 

 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2015

Three months of school complete and less than three weeks before Christmas vacation. It always amazes me on how quickly the school year passes. Each month I read in the newsletters about the many activities that occur in our schools and the tremendous learning opportunities afforded to our students. I continue to be very grateful for the work done to support our students daily.

The November board meeting is always characterized by (1) Audited Financial Statements, (2) Updated Budget and (3) Combined Annual Education Results Report/3-Year Education Plan. The importance of the finances of the Division cannot be understated. Even though we are an education system and in the people business, our budget is nearly 60 million dollars. Given that this money is public, it is very important that the independent auditors can give (and did give) a clear opinion on the financials. For educators, that is like getting top marks on the test!

Our education results continue to be strong in many areas. In the most recent Accountability Pillar Report, our Division received an overall rating of excellent in the following categories: Safe and Caring, Program of Studies, Education Quality, Drop Out Rate, Rutherford Scholarship Eligibility Rate, Citizenship, Parental Involvement and School Improvement. One of the reasons for our results is a commitment to the hiring of front line staff. Since 2013-14, we’ve added almost 24 FTE teachers and nearly 22 FTE support staff. Just under 80% of our entire budget (79.75%) is spent on instruction. But results will always come back to the quality of the school and the quality of instruction and that is why Holy Spirit continues to excel. A great summary of our Annual Education Results Report is provided here.

This past Sunday we celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the time that we, as Christians prepare for the coming of the Christ child. In our Catholic schools, the celebrations we hold during the Season of Advent demonstrates our uniqueness. But what else distinguishes us? What do we do in our daily lives that demonstrates we work in a Catholic organization? What is the evidence that we live out our mission that states, “Our Catholic faith is the foundation of all that we do.” This is not an easy question to respond to, but one that we must all reflect upon as we continually journey in our faith. To support this journey, our Director of Religious Education, Joann Bartley and our Division Religious Education Committee have developed a resource that many of our schools are using: Six Strands of Religious Education. As you journey through Advent and celebrate the beginning of the Year of Mercy on December 8th, I extend the message from Pope Francis that calls all of us to be people of joy and mercy. Embedded here is a wonderful video that explains the Corporal Works of Mercy. May God Bless you as you prepare for the birth of our Saviour!

 

 

Vimy Ridge Tour: A journey not just an event!

It has been over a week now since I returned home from France. Given that I was in Paris during the terrorist attacks, most of my conversations and interviews have been about my experiences around those events. Lost in many ways, was the purpose for my trip to France.

In 2017, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Battle of Vimy Ridge. It is said to be Canada’s greatest military victory and spawned what many call the birth of our nation. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, EF Educational Tours has organized a tour which will see between 6000-8000 students from across Canada travel to the site. In preparation for the tour, EF Educational Tours invited a group of senior administrators from across Canada to view the site and provide feedback.

On November 11th, we travelled to the Vimy Ridge Memorial. The first thing that struck me was the terrain as I looked up towards the memorial. Undulations caused by artillery shells mold the landscape. Much of the area is still fenced off because of unexploded shells still buried beneath. Only sheep graze the land! Trees now flourish and provide shelter which is in stark contrast to the barren land during the time of the fighting.

IMG_1724But what really hit me was the Remembrance Day Service held at the Vimy Ridge Memorial. While I’ve attended many school Remembrance Day Services and laid wreaths at cenotaphs before, I wasn’t ready for the flood of emotion I experienced in Vimy. Canadian student guides read letters from fallen soldiers at the service. The letters beamed with excitement as these young men looked forward to an adventure, an opportunity to serve their country. Many didn’t survive their first day of battle and those who survived lived with horrors that were unimaginable!

I don’t come from a military family and don’t have any veterans in my life. And so it is hard for me to fathom why young men (and now young women) would be willing to sacrifice their own lives. I can’t imagine as a parent watching my children go off to battle and not knowing whether they will ever come back. Looking at the sculpture of the mother who oversees the memorial with such sadness in her eyes reminds me of the tremendous sacrifice of our soldiers then and now.

IMG_1773

 

November 11th will be forever different for me because of my experience at Vimy Ridge. Although a proud Canadian, I’ll stand just a little taller. And when I’m around veterans, they’ll deserve my respect even more. But for 6000-8000 Canadian students including a group from Holy Spirit, the Vimy Ridge tour must not be simply a historical event. It must be more; it must be a journey!

One of my learned colleagues made the statement that it will only be a journey, only be impactful,  if we move students from thinking from the head to emotion in the heart and then to work with the hands. Students travelling to Vimy in 2017 must have some prior knowledge before they arrive. I will be working with our own teachers to ensure that this is part of the Vimy process, which will address the head piece. Addressing the heart can begin with simply linking our own veterans from the area to Vimy or connecting current events that parallel the conflict of the Great War. I really don’t worry about impacting the heart of our teenagers, who have a much better understanding of social justice than any generation previous. The transfer from the heart to hands is what will make the journey come alive. What students will do when they return home is the critical piece of the experience? How will they take the experience of Vimy and promote social justice, seek peaceful solutions in their world and ultimately make a difference in the world of others? The actions of our students will demonstrate that the event has moved from head to heart to hands and the journey has begun!

EF Educational Tours has organized an impactful program. It will allow our students to interact with other students from across the country, share experiences and develop a coalition of global and ethical citizens. It is an educational experience that will help shape our youth and strengthen our communities. It will be a journey and not just an event!

 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- November 2015

Happy Catholic Education Sunday! I hope you appreciated the message that was read at masses in our local parishes today. It was written to inform our parishioners, many of whom have no direct connection with education, of the many successes of our division but, it also carried a slightly political message. While I do not believe that Catholic Education will cease to exist in my time in education, I’m not as confident in what will be offered for my future grandson! Both apathy of Catholics and government legislation has led to the demise of Catholic Education in all provinces that once offered publicly funded education. Using a little play on words I would suggest that Catholic Education has not been handed down from past generations but rather has been borrowed from our future generations. In other words, it is up to all of us today to ensure the gift continues for our future children and grandchildren.

Stepping off my soapbox, I would like to share some decisions made at the organizational meeting of the board in October. Every October, this meeting is held to select the positions of board chair and vice chair as well as other committee appointments. Please join me in congratulating our new Board Chair, Bryan Kranzler and new Vice Chair, Pat Bremner. Both of these individuals will continue to serve the Board well and build on the successes of our previous Chair Terry O’Donnell and Vice Chair Bob Spitzig. While our trustees may not be in the spotlight like some other Boards, rest assured they continue their governance, fiduciary and strategic functions with great tact and success. The culture of learning that permeates our division and our ability to be creative and innovative in our practice is a direct result of their vision and direction. Furthermore the capital projects provided to Holy Spirit are due to strong relationships they’ve developed with government and associated stakeholders in addition to well designed strategic and capital plans. While the role of trustee can often be a thankless job, it should be remembered that when things go well as they most often do in Holy Spirit, it is because of this committed group of elected officials standing in the background doing their jobs! For more information on the latest board meeting and committee representatives, please click here.

Coming from an outstanding division wide professional development day last week, schools will be engaging in further learning this coming month. These days, are essential in our overall desire to “get to excellent.” We need to share the importance of these days with our parents and public, as too often they are only seen as “days off.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! The work being done in our schools as described by school administrators in meetings last week to review continuous improvement plans highlighted the desire to “get to excellent.”  While literacy and numeracy remain foundational for today’s learners, the required focus on competencies can rarely be taught as we’ve taught before. This is why ongoing and high quality professional learning (which occurs through PD Days) are critical to getting to excellent.

I close off my November comments with my continual gratitude. Our most recent Accountability Pillar Results demonstrated our many strengths. The feedback I receive from internal and external stakeholders are testaments that we are on the right track and that the work we do in our schools and throughout our division is very good! Each of  us, no matter the role in the division, contribute to these results. I thank you for your continued work, your continued journey to excellence and your continued commitment to Holy Spirit!

 

Catholic Education Sunday 2015

Below you will find the message read at all masses this weekend celebrating Catholic Education Sunday.

Holy Spirit is a regional division that serves students in Bow Island, Coaldale, Lethbridge, Picture Butte, Pincher Creek, Taber, and surrounding communities.  Today, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday.  Each year we set aside this special day to celebrate the gift of publicly funded Catholic Education here in the province of Alberta. This gift is not something that should be taken lightly, as there are now only three Canadian provinces that still fully provide publicly funded Catholic Education: Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Other provinces, because of apathy or legislation, have lost this gift and there are many within our province who would like to see only one publicly funded system.  Therefore, it is essential that we recognize that Catholic education is precious, and something that must be nurtured and supported by our communities, not only today but throughout the years.

Catholic Education must fulfill two mandates: excellence in learning and spiritual growth for our students. From the learning perspective, Holy Spirit continues to be one of the most progressive and innovative systems in Alberta. Our recent provincial accountability pillar report shows that we continue to meet the standard of excellence in the categories of Safe and Caring Schools, Student Learning Opportunities, Parental Involvement and Continuous Improvement. A culture of learning permeates our schools, ensuring that students are being prepared for an ever changing world.

But, to be truly prepared, we must nourish our students spiritually. Through our three year faith plan, schools guide our students in developing their spirituality. This year’s theme, “A Horizon of Hope,” reminds us of our responsibility to exercise mercy and compassion in our communities. We were given a heart so that we can give and it is hope that we must give to our students, their families and to each other. Pope Francis says, “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.”

The words of Pope Francis remind us that we are unique in Catholic Education. It may be our jobs to educate, but it is our calling, our vocation, to form our students to be spiritually healthy, faithful, merciful and filled with hope. And so, as we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday this weekend, I would ask that you pray for the division…our students and our staff… as we unite to create a horizon of hope that inspires all to witness the goodness of God. Have a wonderful Catholic Education Sunday and God Bless!