Students shouldn’t have to wait for a good education

September 21, 2013

People say that “good things come to those who wait.” Maybe they do. But this saying is cold comfort to the families of more than 8000 children who are waiting to get into the most popular charter school in Calgary.

Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) enrolls about 3000 students in its seven campuses across the city. While the school would like to accept more students, the government caps its enrolment. Meanwhile, families on the waiting list are left to wonder whether they will ever have the opportunity to get their kids into this school.

It isn’t hard to see why FFCA is popular. While regular public school administrators and school boards are largely under the sway of the latest edu-babble fads and failed progressive ideologies, FFCA encourages its teachers to use strategies that actually work.

Among other things, this means teachers take charge of their classrooms and provide lots of teacher-directed instruction. In math class, students memorize their times tables, learn the standard algorithms for basic operations, and do lots of practice questions. In reading, FFCA teachers make regular use of phonics because of its proven effectiveness. Students learn proper grammar, receive regular homework assignments, and write a lot of tests. Obviously, parents want their children to be able to calculate and read effectively.

While these traditional methodologies are very popular with most parents and some teachers, they are anathema in education faculties where teachers are trained. Education professors regularly encourage prospective teachers to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” In other words, the last thing they want is for teachers to provide a defined knowledge base and skill set to students. They downplay the importance of academic content and focus on social issues and the students’ self-esteem.

The influence of this failed ideology can be found throughout the public school system. Fuzzy math, invented spelling, no-zero policies, incomprehensible report cards, and lax discipline are only a few examples. Parents are fed up with how their neighbourhood public schools have been turned into laboratories for a never-ending succession of senseless fads. They want their children to receive a solid education, and consequently they flock to schools like FFCA.

At first glance, it seems surprising that schools like FFCA are not popping up across the country. Considering the pent-up demand for a back-to-basics education approach, there would be no shortage of students.

Unfortunately, despite all the lip service given to diversity, most public school boards are highly monolithic. With the notable exception of Edmonton Public Schools, school boards tend to control everything from teacher professional development to the textbooks used in class, leaving local school principals to simply implement board directives. Also, school boards don’t like it when students try to attend schools outside their designated catchment areas, and they throw up as many road blocks as possible. It is not surprising that public school principals usually fall in line.

If it wasn’t for the Alberta charter school legislation, passed in 1994, FFCA wouldn’t exist today. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of public school boards. Like other public schools, they are non-sectarian, open to all students, and do not charge fees. However, their autonomy makes it possible for them to offer courses and programs, such as basic math and English, which simply do not exist in public school boards. Hence, FFCA’s back-to-basics approach is serving the needs of students.

While charter schools are common in the United States, Alberta is the only province that allows them to exist. As a result, FFCA won’t be opening up sister branches in other parts of the country, no matter how much demand there is. Even in Alberta, charter schools don’t exactly have it easy. The government only allows 15 charter schools to exist at a time, and it makes each school re-apply for a charter every 5 years. The government also caps enrolment at each school so they cannot expand to take in more students.

Charter schools, like FFCA, have proven their worth to students and parents. If Alberta made it easier for new charter schools to exist and provided more support to the ones that do, fewer students would need to sit on a waiting list. As for the rest of the country, it’s time to follow Alberta’s example and allow charter schools a chance to revolutionize public education.

Charting new course for small schools

April 20, 2013

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

The last few years have been difficult ones for public education in Nova Scotia. Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province.

When it comes to school closures, trustees and parents are caught in a vicious cycle. As student numbers decline, the province reduces funding to public school boards. In order to balance their budgets, boards make unpopular decisions to close schools. Parents feel powerless as trustees ignore their impassioned pleas to keep community schools open.

However, instead of making parents fight a hopeless battle against monolithic and unresponsive school boards, the province should give them the tools they need to take meaningful action. It should follow the example of Alberta and pass charter schools legislation.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school boards. They are governed by non-profit organizations and receive an annual per-student operational grant from the province. Charter schools have no religious affiliation, practise an open enrolment policy and follow the provincial curriculum. Currently, 13 charter schools operate in the province of Alberta.

Parents in rural Nova Scotia should take note of recent events in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta. Several years ago, Valhalla Centre nearly lost its community school. However, instead of allowing the school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school.

Because the school now operates independently of the school board, the community adopted a charter that reflects local concerns and values. Valhalla Community School places a strong emphasis on rural leadership and requires its students to learn about board governance and parliamentary procedure. It also focuses on teacher-directed instruction, classical literature, drill and practice in mathematics, and accurate spelling and grammar. Interestingly, since becoming a charter school, student enrolment has steadily grown as it now attracts students from the wider geographical area.

Imagine what Nova Scotia parents could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools as parents in Alberta. Charter schools legislation would make it possible for parents to keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community.

Not only that, but charter schools can revolutionize education in urban centres as well. Consider the example of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary. FFCA was established almost 20 years ago and its enrolment has steadily grown to almost 3,000 students today on seven different campuses.

Like Valhalla, FFCA places a strong emphasis on traditional academics and hard work. FFCA students wear uniforms, complete regular homework, memorize their math facts and learn to read by phonics. Its program is so popular with parents that it has more than 6,000 students on its wait list.

Many parents in Halifax would probably be very interested if a school like FFCA opened in their city. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, admission would be open to all parents, not just those who could afford high tuition fees.

Parents dissatisfied with the instruction provided in regular public schools would finally have an alternative.

However, the range of potential charter schools goes far beyond those who prefer a traditional model of education.

For example, the Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group while Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Mountain focuses on aboriginal education. In addition, the Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton promotes advanced music skills at an early age using the approach of renowned musician Shinichi Suzuki.

Clearly, charter schools reflect the diversity of Canadian society.

In contrast, the one-size-fits-all model of public education in Nova Scotia does not meet the needs of a diverse population.

The natural trend towards increased central control by school board officials means school principals have limited control over their own schools and simply follow the dictates of the board.

Not only that, recent controversies around school closures have shown that school boards cannot effectively respond to the needs of parents and communities in the face of budget cuts.

Charter schools have the potential to transform public education in Nova Scotia. All the government needs to do is give them a chance.