On a stormy Saturday afternoon in April, around 40 or 50 citizens braved nasty weather to attend the first “Town Hall on Public Education” at Mount Saint Vincent University. It was hosted by the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE)and chaired by Trish Keeping with a panel consisting of Adam Davies, a former Chignecto School Board member, Paul Wozney, President of the NS Teachers Union, and Angela Gillis, union representative and Gr. 5 teacher. Trish kicked things off by reminding the audience of the events in the education world of the last year since the adoption of the Glaze report and the imposition of a contract on the teachers – the abolition of English school boards, the empty promise of School Advisory Committees and the appointed, non-accountable Provincial Advisory Council on Education. Trish laid out the purpose of the town halls, which the group plans to take to communities around the province: to hear from parents about how their children are faring in the public school system and from educators about their teaching conditions. The hope is that the NSPPE will help create a consensus of views about what schools need and use it to inform the government.
Angela said she sees more and more students falling through the cracks, and more frustrated parents. Paul reminded us that “the best education systems have vibrant relationships between stakeholders” and that the failure of the government to negotiate fairly with teachers has threatened one of the most fundamental relationships in the system. Adam talked of the loss of the community voice with the abolition of school boards, with communication now going in only one direction – from the top down.
Once the floor was opened to the audience, the level of emotion in the room was palpable. Parents choked up while relating stories about children with learning differences waiting inordinate lengths of time for testing and missing out on crucial learning opportunities in the meantime. A gym teacher’s voice cracked as he told how a 20-year old program that helped children with special needs was cancelled without consultation, supposedly because of the cost, (which was largely due to the inordinate expense of renting buses from Stock). A grandparent talked about the dense bureaucracy at HRCE which resulted in a 2-week search to find the right person to talk to about an open window in a school basement. Other parents talked about the centralization of power, where principals have been turned into site managers, responsible for doing the departments’ bidding rather than their former role as leader teachers. We heard about world class literacy and teen mental health programs, developed here in Nova Scotia, that have been overlooked by the DEEC in favour of imported ones.
But there was one concern which really caught my attention, largely because it was repeated several times, and because it was very compelling – that of parents of “dyslexic” children. Over and over, we heard about children who had had difficulties learning to read which persisted in spite of various levels of “remedial” help throughout their elementary education until the parents were forced to enrol them in some form of private tutoring or in some cases private schools. We heard how parents’ pleas for testing went unheard, how children struggled and wasted precious years of learning before getting minimal help if any, and how there was exciting new science about reading acquisition that recommends that systematic phonics instruction be taught to all children. The parents speaking had obviously had an incredibly difficult time, and my sympathies were aroused.
There are serious issues with education in this province, as this Town Hall, shows – and the frustration on the part of many parents was obvious. But it’s not just parents who are fed up; teachers too, are frustrated with the lack of trust and respect they have been getting from the government, with their workload and with the lack of student support. A follow up to the Educators for Social Justice Teachers’ Voices survey asked 3 quick questions in early April, and the results were immediate and clear. In one week, the survey, which was distributed to teachers on social media, got 578 responses. Over 98% of the respondents did not agree (88% strongly), as the Education Minister stated earlier this year, that teaching conditions had improved since the imposition of a contract in January 2018. 96% of respondents disagreed (78% strongly) that they are seeing “demonstrable impacts” from “the hiring of nearly 200 support staff”.
I am looking forward to another Town Hall on education in the Halifax area, and other ones in rural communities. I’m also looking forward to a government that takes its promises seriously, treats its employees respectfully and is willing to invest in excellence and equity in education.
Next post: Reaching for consensus: Part 2