Reducing failure

Last week, we hosted our first transformation conversation with parents, teachers, leaders, post-secondary faculty, Alberta Education personnel and trustees. It was a gathering of approximately 50 participants who by in large have had successful experiences in either their own schooling or their children’s schooling. Later this week, I will provide the feedback from the evening and my own commentary. However, today, I want to speak about what I believe is at the heart of the transformation journey or Alberta Education’s- Action on Inclusion, namely reducing failure!

Since the beginning of October, I have been able to meet with 9 of our 13 school staffs and visit every classroom in those schools. The visits allow me to provide an update on the work of the division, information on the transformation agenda and to start the most important conversation that I believe is facing us in education today, “How do we reduce failure in schools?”  Let me be crystal clear, this is not an attack on our staff as we continually achieve from good to excellent results as communicated by the current standard of measurement from the government, the Accountability Pillar. In fact, the Alberta Education System overall is a world class leader. But still, one in four students in Alberta does not complete high school in the “normal” three year period.

I believe the approaches we’ve begun in Holy Spirit are a start toward reducing failure. The first, an emphasis on early learning has been well established for last number of years. Our Early Learning team provides tremendous support with our Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs. We’ve also been able to develop critical partnerships that offer before and after school programming to assist parents in supporting their needs. The concentrated efforts of establishing strong early learning programming in a play environment is further supported by Alberta Education’s document, “Let’s Talk About the Early Years.” While I believe that local divisions have the best ability to meet those needs, I would suggest that the government can assist by the following:  (1) Ensure flexibility of funding from early ages to grade 3 to meet the diverse needs of all  learners; (2) Eliminate barriers between ministries in order to support the diverse needs of all learners; and (3) Develop an integrated curriculum that focuses on the needs of the early learners to grade 3.

Our second approach that is assisting to reduce failure is not well established but has seen some great growth these last two years. Although many of our staff have participated in Pyramid Response to Intervention training, it is not the “program” that makes the difference. What is reducing failure is making time flexible and learning the constant. I have stated previously that although we innately believe as educators that all students are unique, we still (by and large) require them to finish the same work in the same amount of time. The adoption of intervention blocks in K-9 and flex blocks in high school are creating additional time for students. Offering a continuum of support, student learning needs are being better addressed in multiple groupings. There is no doubt that  timetabling these intervention periods is an art and so I applaud our school administrators for their work in creating this time. I am cautious with what I would suggest should be the government’s response to support this endeavour. It would be easy to suggest that the government automatically open its purse strings and allocate more money to divisions. And while I would never say no to additional funding, I think it is fair to also remember that more is not necessarily better in many cases. Adequate, sustainable and predictable funding will allow school divisions to meet local needs.   

Finally, I share with you an additional requirement to help reduce failure. Simply, we cannot continue to do the same things we have always done and expect different results. The workload in education has become virtually impossible to manage. We cannot ask anybody in education to work harder! But we can ask and probably should insist that we find ways to work smarter. This may be our toughest challenge in education! We have done what we have done in the system for so long and our results have consistently been good, if not excellent. There is a sense of stability when we maintain what we have always done. Yet, I continually see dedicated educators becoming more tired as their load increases. The concept of  balance between work and home is slowly disappearing and that is not good for educators or our students. We need to find ways that we can continue to improve and reduce failure without burning out and giving in! This change requires all of us to look at what we do, evaluate what is most important, create a don’t do list, share responsiblities and in the end work smarter!

Catholic Education Sunday- November 6, 2011

This coming weekend, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday.  Each year we set aside this special day to celebrate the gift of Catholic Education here in the province of Alberta.  This year’s theme, as proclaimed by the Bishops of Alberta, is, “Open Wide the Doors”What a wonderful theme our Bishops have proclaimed this year. Open wide the doors speaks to our desire to welcome into our schools ALL children whose parents seek a Gospel permeated environment. And that is what Catholic Education is and needs to continue to be about. It is much more than just programming and buildings, it is about our Catholic faith, our Catholic tradition.

Catholic Education also speaks of partnership. We are blessed that Catholic Education is publicly funded but need to recognize that it requires the involvement and support of the home and the parish. This triad of strength allows Catholic schools not only to exist but to flourish.  In Holy Spirit we have developed an excellent relationship with our school councils, our parents and our parishes. We are grateful for this continued support. It is another reason why we continue to maintain such high standing in our surveys and our results. 

Our division began our journey in a three year faith plan last year. This year, in our second year, our theme is “Do You Love Me?” It is the question Jesus asks Peter in John’s gospel. And it is the same question that we are asked in Catholic Education. Our response is to open wide the doors and it requires each of us to learn to surrender our lives fully to Jesus. We are called to be witnesses and allow the love of Christ to flow freely over us like a waterfall.

Catholic Education calls us to seek wisdom. Wisdom penetrates our hearts and our homes allowing us to see the light of Christ. It is wisdom that acts as the fuel to light our paths toward the kingdom. Wisdom is radiant and unfading and so must our Catholic Schools. We are signs of hope when we let wisdom shine brightly and end the darkness that surrounds us.  Catholic Schools need to continue to be beacons of hope for our students and communities by opening the doors wide.

As we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday, I ask that you pray for our Holy Spirit staff – that they continue to fulfill their mission of offering education that is fully permeated with Gospel values; that they continue to surrender their lives to Jesus; and finally that they continue to seek wisdom to infuse the love of Christ in our students’ and communities’ hearts and souls. 

God Bless!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- November 2011

It is hard to believe that two months of the school year have already come and gone. Each month, our schools send me their newsletters and I am always amazed at the number of events planned for our students. When I review each of our school’s calendars I begin to understand why time flies by so quickly- we are very busy! But even in our busyness, we still ensure that our Catholic faith is front and central in everything that we do. This coming weekend, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday. It is a recognition of the gift of publicly funded Catholic Education that we experience in Alberta. Most countries and many provinces in Canada do not have that same luxury, and so we need to remember not to take Catholic Education for granted. Later this week, I will post my Catholic Education Sunday message.

Catholic Education in Holy Spirit School Division is about providing each student entrusted to our care with an education rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ. And that means excellence! At this past board meeting, I presented our trustees with our Accountability Pillar Results for October 2011.  With an excellence standing in the following categories: Safe and Caring, Program of Studies, Drop Out Rate, Rutherford Scholarship Eligibility Rate, Transition Rate, Citizenship and School Improvement; and improvement or maintenance of results in 15 of 16 measure categories, we are definitely providing high quality Catholic Education. In fact, in some of the categories, we are among the leaders in the province. These results are a direct result of the work of our committed and dedicated staff and wonderful students.

There were significant decisions made at the Regular Board Meeting held in October. Certainly the decision of the Board to provide additional staffing to our highest needs in the division with the additional funding received by the province was most welcomed. In addition, the Board is taking public engagement to the next level by hosting an initial conversation on transformation (occurring November 2) and initiating a process to review our west side schools. Further information will be coming out from my office about this important public consultation event. The Board will also be meeting with School Council Chairs later this month. I would like to congratulate Sandra Dufresne, who was acclaimed as Board Chair, and Terry O’Donnell, who was acclaimed as Vice Chair. For further information about the meeting, please check out the Board Meeting Briefs.

This month I am continuing with my school visits. In my opening address, I promised to meet with every staff before Christmas. The visits are structured so that I can visit every classroom and be introduced to the students and, at an appropriate time (before school, after school or at lunch), meet with the staff. I provide the staff with a consistent message from school to school and then open it up for questions. Although I love my job, one of the drawbacks of being a superintendent is the minimal contact I have with students. These visits provide me with that opportunity and I am grateful to be around the students. It is great to be in schools and witnessing the many great things going on every single day!

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful November.

God Bless!

Chris Smeaton

Trying to create a sense of urgency!

Last Wednesday, I presented our Board of Trustees with our October 2011 Accountability Pillar results. A quick review would suggest that Holy Spirit Catholic Schools is a good solid division. We received very high achievement and excellent overall in the areas of: Safe and Caring, Program of Studies, Drop Out Rate, Rutherford Scholarship Eligibility Rate, Transition Rate, Citizenship and School Improvement. Furthermore, we improved in 3 of 16 and maintained our results in 12 of 16 measure categories. In fact, in some of the categories, we are among the leaders in the province. Very impressive and I would be the first to congratulate our staff and students for those results. So, what’s the issue?

Our division like many divisions in the province of Alberta have good results. Yet, we are involved in talks about transformation. Why? Is good not good enough? To paraphrase Jim Collins, the natural enemy of greatness is goodness. The Alberta system is almost paralyzed because we are good. Although no leader including myself was hired to maintain the status quo, that is what we are doing. We lack the urgency to move to greatness and understandably so! A move toward greatness requires a major shift not a little tweak in our education structure and more importantly in our own educational beliefs. The question is how do we create that urgency and really address the needs of future society with students who are 21st century competent. How do we ensure that students leaving our schools possess these 21st century competencies:  problem solving; creativity; analytical thinking; collaboration; communication; ethics, action, and accountability? If these are the agreed competencies that need to be cultivated in our schools, what are we doing to instill them in our classrooms? That is the question to be addressed by the entire community!

Is that enough to create the urgency? I would suggest that it may not be for three reasons. The first is simply because until we are visibly failing our students and no longer solid in our results,  good will be good enough. Secondly, a complete overhaul of our system will likely result in a significant implementation dip as research would suggest. Do we have the patience either provincially or locally to ride that wave until we meet greatness? And thirdly, I would suggest that our measuring of “success” will continue to produce good enough results and therefore not create any urgency. Provincial Achievement Tests and Diploma Exams certainly have their place but fall considerably short of measuring a student’s achievement of 21st century competencies.

On Wednesday, we will begin a local conversation with staff, parents and other stakeholders to discuss how schooling needs to be transformed. It will be our initial conversation and will set the stage for many more conversations to govern the action that will be required. The work needed to ensure that every child is successful will be messy.  We cannot be satisfied with and continue to have a 3-year high school completion rate of 72.6% for the province. It is my belief that our society will suffer greatly with a less than stellar completion rate and result in an eradication of our middle class. I’ve written about transformation and inclusion in previous posts and strongly believe that it is a conversation that we need to fully engage our communities.

At the beginning of the school year, I indicated in my opening address that before Christmas, I would meet with every staff. Part of my meeting involves asking the question, “How do we make Holy Spirit School Division the best division in the province of Alberta?” But in essence, I’m really asking, “How do we create the urgency to move from good to great?” Transformation requires us to find that urgency and run with it!

Our conversation has already begun with our school leaders and will begin with a small group of stakeholders on Wednesday. I hope that each of you will also begin that conversation and… create a sense of urgency. Good luck!!!

Spirit Sings!

Have you ever wondered what happens when you put a concentrated effort into choral music? Well, 12 choirs, over 400 students and over 1000 audience members certainly do… and its called Spirit Sings. Last year was our first division concert and it culminated with the recording of a CD of Sacred Music. This recording was featured in “A Public Education” episode.

This is our second year for Spirit Sings and each year draws more attention to music and the arts overall. I would suggest that the arts provides us with some of our greatest examples of education transformation. Let me explain:

  1. Teachers of the arts are some of the best in their assessment practices. They get Assessment For Learning! The final test is usually performance based (that’s a good thing) and occurs after multiple feedback sessions. When students hit the wrong note or say the wrong line, the teacher intervenes immediately and provides the necessary feedback to ensure learning. The destination (final concernt, project, play,etc) will always be important but it is the journey of learning to get that point that is critical.
  2. The arts provides education with the best example of continuous improvement, although I would include athletics in here as well. System improvement follows school improvement which follows individual improvement. What is individual improvement- simply honing our craft. We desire to improve our ability to sing, to draw, to act… to teach!
  3. The arts reflects the spark for many students and allows them, if nurtured to move from surviving to thriving. That spark is what students say gives them joy, provides them fulfillment. It is a message highly communicated by the late Peter L. Bensen. With that in mind, why do we not advocate more for the inclusion of the arts in every school and throughout the curriculum?
  4. Finally, the arts speaks to our need to develop and promote creativity in our classrooms. The problems of tomorrow will be difficult to solve by logical and linear thinkers. We need to have creative minds who look outside their own paradigm at not what is but at what could be. The arts is such a natural link to creativity that schools and communities can ill afford not to support.

What I witnessed on Tuesday evening reminded me of one of the reasons why I entered education so many years ago. It wasn’t just about the performance, although the finale gave me goosebumps. No, it was watching students doing something that they were fully engaged in, doing it well and loving every minute of it! It is all about the students who walk into our classes and our schools. “Children are not vessels to be filled but lamps to be lit!- Hebrew Proverb” And through the arts, so many lamps are lit!!! 

Congratulations to all the staff and students who made Spirt Sings such a great success.


Mission and Vision

This past week, we began our leadership development program in our division. It’s a program that we offer every two years, although with the impending retirement of over 60% of our administrators in the next 8-10 years, we may have to offer it every year. Our first session is always about mission and vision. It is a crucial component of the leadership challenge and one that took me a long time to fully understand.

I remember when mission and vision came into the education sector in the early to middle 1990’s. Initially, I didn’t see the importance of developing a mission statement for my school, partly because of my immaturity as a leader and partly because of the process.  I was steeped with a bias that if it wasn’t practical, why would I spend time on it. And early on, I didn’t see the practicality of mission statements. It was a statement that we spent hours/days developing and wordsmithing and then we would find someone who was good at calligraphy to put it on some paper, frame it and hang it in our halls. At that time, it was a compliance activity at best with very little commitment attached.

Thank goodness I’ve matured as a leader (or at least I hope I have) and now more fully understand the critical need of schools and school divisions to focus on their mission and vision. Although matured as a leader, I still like to keep things simple and so I define mission as “Why we are here” and vision as “Where we want to be in five years.” In those terms it is easy to recognize why mission and vision play such a critical role in system and school planning.

One of the slides that I share in my presentation is about the leader’s challenge: “Fulfilling the mission. A mission statement is a covenant with the people we serve- it is a promise. It is important to deliver on that promise.” When we place our mission statements on our websites and in our schools, we are publically committing to that promise. The more that our actions align with our mission, the more trust we build with our stakeholders. When we make this public statement, we are held to that action. The example I use comes from my opening address to staff this year. I stated that by Christmas, I would meet with every school staff in our division. I have to deliver on that promise or my credibility is impacted. By making it public, I’m held to a higher accountability and so it is the same with our public mission statements.

The power of vision is that it brings us to a world that we want to create through continuous improvement. In truth, vision should never be quite achieved because we should always be strving to get better. As we get closer to our preferred state, we set the bar a little higher. Unfortunately, the term continuous improvement has been misdefined because of its deficit origin. Continuous improvement does not assume weakness but rather the desire to just get better, hone your craft, just as the musician, artist or athlete. I would venture to say that few leaders are asked to “just maintain the staus quo!” Continuous improvement is directly linked to our vision.

In order for mission and vision to be alive in systems, it needs to be reviewed on an annual basis. We need to ensure that why we are here and where we want to be in five years is still relevant. The discussion with your staffs should be quite frank and probably a little messy. It is not easy work creating urgency to move a school or system ahead. In the end however, everybody needs to sign off publicly that they are committed to the mission and vision so the whole group can ensure accountability. Without that commitment, your ability for continuous improvement is compromised and the status quo will remain, which is unacceptable to support the needs of today’s students.

Leaders, both formal and informal need to ensure that mission and vision is realized. And so I ask you to reflect on the question, “What leadership skills do leaders need, to make mission and vision a reality in schools?”

What… another PD day?

Tomorrow, Holy Spirit Catholic Schools will be engaged in a division wide professional development day. Our entire staff of nearly 500, will gather at Catholic Central Campus East for the day. The keynote address from Dr. Bryan E. Kolb, a Professor at the University of Lethbridge’s Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, will speak specifically to the day’s theme, “Gray Matters – Engaging the 21st Century Brain.” Dr. Kolb will discuss how our understanding of brain development has fundamentally changed in the past decade and how these alterations influence children’s development and learning. I’m excited about tomorrow’s PD day not only to listen to Dr. Kolb but on the multitude of presentations being offered to division staff. Many of these sessions are being led by our own staff and demonstrate the high level of expertise we have throughout our division. Take a look at our sessions by visiting the following link:

Although I am excited, the fact remains that this is the day that parents have to find alternative childcare and that is not necessarily easy in today’s world. So, when parents or the community join in chorus and say, “What… another PD day?”, I think that we need to be fully transparent in what is occurring during these days. Furthermore, we know as educators from the research that one shot PD is not very effective so why do we have these days anyway??? Why do we inconvenience parents and whole families if that is what the research says?

Professional development days must satisfy one major requisite if they are to be considered useful in the eyes of staff and the community. For the day to be worthwhile and deemed a success it must invoke change and possibly a little internal conflict in the participants. Learning occurs when we are stretched a little farther in our thinking, our beliefs and our practices. The day’s topics must be considered either to be a revelation to some or an affirmation to others. Both require us to reflect on our current practice.  Professional development days can never be seen as an end. They are either a beginning or part of the journey of professional growth.

Professional development is a hot topic right now in our province as we address the transformation agenda. The transformation of education will not suddenly occur with these days but it may not ever start without them. A balance has to be struck between full days like this and the focused conversations occurring in schools’ learning communities.  But when you have a division wide PD day, make it worthwhile and communicate the intent to parents so they can see the benefits of getting childcare for another day!


Supporting FNMI Success

The other night we had our first FNMI Parent Advisory Committee meeting of the year. We typically have three meetings a year and for the most part, have them in our large PD centre in our division office. Although our attendance at this meeting has grown over the past number of years we still have not been able to get the response that we have wanted. Our FNMI team reflected on our meetings and came up with a brilliant format. Our first meeting was held at the Friendship Centre and included agencies from the area and a student panel. The result… over 90 people in attendance.

The evening was a great success but what I was most impressed with was our students. Ten students from elementary, junior high and senior high told their stories. I caused me to reflect on three points that I would like to share.

  1. Support- Each of the students talked about the support they had received both at home and at school that enabled them to be successful. From a school’s point of view, every student in every school has to have a person that they can turn to for that support. I would venture to say that the vast majority of students who are not succeeding have also not connected with an adult in the school. Our support of every child that walks in our doors is critical.
  2. High Expectations- Each of these students had high expectations of themselves. Even our young elementary students had a plan to finish school and go on to something beyond. They had a fierce belief that they would be successful. In education we have too often looked at students who are facing many difficulties with sympathy and therefore provide excuses for their lack of success. Instead, we need to show empathy but then look for opportunities for them to be successful. This isn’t about lowering standards but instead having high expectations- the belief that they can and will succeed.
  3. Student Voice- This last one is a note to all of us in education. How often do we truly listen to our students? How often do we seek their input? If we truly want them to be part of our education system then we need to ensure that they are full partners. And that means providing opportunities for student voice.

We are still a long way from closing the achievement gap, but if we continue to provide support, set high expectations and give an opportunity for student voice, we will make positive strides and ALL students will benefit!


From the Desk of the Superintendent- October 2011

I begin my monthly update reflecting on the sudden passing of Jeff Warkentin last weekend. Jeff was a new teacher at St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. His passion for teaching and more importantly his desire to always be witness to his faith was repeated throughout the funeral service yesterday. I was deeply impacted by the strength and emotional conviction of his wife in her tribute to her husband. Even in the short time that Jeff was with us, he touched the lives of the staff, students and community of St. Michael’s. Our prayers continue to go out to his wife and family. May God continue to bless her and her family with comfort and strength.

As a Catholic School Division, we rely on that faith. It is what makes us unique. It does not make us automatically better than our public school division counterparts but it does make us different! I am reminded of this especially in troubling or tragic times. Our ability to gather in prayer, openly, allows us a strength to heal. Too often we take this great gift of publicly funded Catholic Education and our ability to practice our Catholic/Christian faith for granted.  This was one of my key messages last week when I spoke at the Calgary Diocesan Catholic Women’s League Fall Meeting. May we always remember and treasure our gift!

This month we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on October 5th. Teachers around the world are recognized for the impact that they have on children day in and day out. Sadly in North America, teachers are not nearly afforded the same level of recognition as they are in other parts of the world. This is unfortunate as there are so many teachers who make a difference in a child’s life and most times without knowledge of it and certainly without recognition.  I was fortunate to have some great teachers in my life that helped shaped my path- Sister Aquinas, Mr. Matsuba, Mr. Tarnasky to name just a few. On October 5th, please take some time to let the teachers in your life and in your children’s life know how important they are to you.

The board’s regular meeting was held on September 28th. To review the main points please take a look at the Board Briefs. Of particular note is the desire of our board to engage our community in a transformation conversation. The changes required in education to meet the needs of each child will not be successful without the trust, understanding, permission and support of the community. On November 2nd we will begin that conversation with our teachers, our parents and other members of the community. We are hopeful that Alberta Education  personnel will also be able to attend this beginning dialogue. Please read my previous posts entitled “Transformation is a journey not a  destination” and “Action on Inclusion” for more information.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful October and a joyous upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend.

God Bless!

Chris Smeaton

Transformation is a journey not a destination

Last week, I attended the transformation meeting for urban boards in Edmonton.  These events are being held throughout the province and are sponsored by Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA. Although my first thought about gathering “like” boards was to mix the groups up, I found it quite refreshing to be able to spend a day engaged in quality dialogue with our own teaching staff. I would say that we have a pretty strong relationship with our teachers, but are always pressed for time to really get to the “meat of the matter.” In reviewing the day, I have a couple of thoughts to share.

1. Transformation is a journey not a destination- Even though we need to have some thought about where we are going, we need to understand that transformation should be a continual journey. Until we reach perfection, we’ll always be on that journey. Education should be changing to meet the needs of our students and that in essence is transforming. The difficulty however, is that never before have we been requried to educate EACH student. And that puts us on a faster track than any change initiative prior!!!

2. Finland vs. Norway- I learned that both countries tackled school improvement differently. Norway who had a strong system suggested the status quo while Finland, decided to blow it up and start again. Don’t get me wrong, Finland is far different from Alberta and so any comparison has to be made carefully but should we be looking at really blowing the system up and starting from scratch? Consider the following and ask yourself whether the change would require just a tweak or a complete overhaul:

  • Do we need 2 monthsof summer holidays in today’s society?
  • Should we really have a distinct Social Studies and Science curriculum in the primary grades?
  • Does every child have to finish the same material in the same year/semester/quarter?
  • Does every child need the same curriculum?

3. Community readiness- If our true desire is to meet the need of EACH student then we had better be prepared to engage our communities. Battle scars will be the norm because school won’t be like it was and that will create considerable angst amongst our public. The known is always preferred to the unknown so resistance will be plentiful… from both inside and outside the system.

4. Mandate creep- A colleague of mine produced a visual that illustrated the number of initiatives facing school divisions. If transformation is truly what we seek, then let’s remind ourselves that research supports the implementation of  2-3 priorities not 50-60. Let’s focus on what is most important AND be prepared (all of us) to drop those things that don’t contribute in whole to our 2-3 priorities.  

5. Relationships are critical- To achieve the necessary transformation required, the relationship between Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA must be authentic. Too often, we fail because the relationships have been built on niceness instead of grit. Egos must be parked and ears must be opened. We must be prepared to listen to everyone without formalizing a counterattack part way through the message. We’ll hear things we don’t want to hear and probably not like but if the relationship is to be strong, it must be authentic.

Finally, I’m excited about being in education today. I think we are beginning to promote an attitude or even more importantly an environment where we can take risks. In our division we use the term, “Fail Forward.” We won’t get this transformation right immediately but we will never get it right if we don’t start. Every chance you get, talk about what transformation means to you and your colleagues and then get on board for a great ride!!!