Edmonton’s Enterprise – Edmonton Public Schools system

Emery Dosdall

An 81,000-student system stares down the threat of charters and vouchers by finding a good fit for all sizes

If you were to ask me why parents in Edmonton are turning to the public education system first when they think about educating their kids, I’d tell you it’s because we’ve adapted to the needs of our changing community. We’ve introduced some two dozen new, innovative programs, we continue to focus on student achievement and, as a result, we’ve seen positive results.

But this has not come without serious challenge.

Six years ago we saw a change in Alberta’s School Act that featured full funding for charter schools and a defacto government-funded system of vouchers. Our district funding was cut by 12.4 percent and local school boards, including ours, lost their authority to access local property taxes.

The provincial government’s decision was made to appease lobby groups that feared the public education system had become a monopoly and no longer was responding to public expectations. School board trustees believed this change would introduce further levels of accountability for public school boards. They argued that parents needed more choice for their children, and they fully expected a charter school option would lead to a major rush by single-interest groups to start their own schools. Alberta’s minister of education was so convinced of this that he suggested a cap of 15 charter schools for the first year. The cap has yet to be reached.

Alternative programming has a positive impact on student achievement, our top priority. Our community, much like populations throughout the United States, is extremely diverse, and public education should reflect that diversity. This comes down to the fundamental belief that to serve all children, we need to meet their unique needs.

When I became superintendent of the Edmonton Public Schools in 1995, we already offered our students some programs of choice. This same year the provincial government introduced the changes in funding and passed a bill that increased the government funding of private schools, making them eligible to receive 60 percent of what is given to public schools.

We were, for the first time, in a position where we would compete with charter and private schools for our enrollment and our funding. And we welcomed the challenge.

A Collective Purpose

I am convinced public education is fundamental to any democratic society and thriving economy. I also believe every child should be a part of the public education system and that the system should serve all students and serve them well. Our students follow the provincial curriculum, they learn value systems and they can feel as though they are part of a system.

In Edmonton, we have 209 schools, which share a purpose, collective values and support. Each school can respond pro-actively to parental demands and students’ needs while working toward district standards and a common curriculum. This is not rocket science. Serve your customers and they will remain with your system. If you don’t satisfy them, someone else will.

My first response to the new legislation was a proposal to my board of school trustees that we not just publicly complain, but that we aggressively respond to the legislative changes. We believed our system would serve kids as well, if not better than any charter or private school. Even at that time we were a district of choice with more than 20 years of experience in alternative programming and open boundaries. Now we just had to prove ourselves to the naysayers.

As a further response to the legislation, I asked my board to pass a motion stating that available space in our schools, as well as closed facilities, would not be leased to private or charter schools. They also reaffirmed the Edmonton Public Schools as a “district of choice” and emphasized this commitment in our mission statement.

We were innovative, energetic and most of all entrepreneurial. I met with our central staff and reinforced our position, encouraging them to be open to parent and community groups seeking additional choices. I challenged my team to be creative and flexible as they approached existing private schools to discuss opportunities available to them under the public system.

Alberta’s charter school legislation boosted the profile of new program choices. In the first year, six community groups seeking charter school status approached us about forming alternative school programs within the district. The legislation had brought decreased funding overall and placed a cap on district administration costs. Therefore, these requests and subsequent negotiations put significant stress on our staff. Even so, four of the six proposed programs were accommodated as alternative programs within our district.

The two remaining groups-one representing an existing private school, the other affiliated with an inner-city social agency-chose the charter school route. Because the legislation enabled the private school to obtain full funding while maintaining the governance control and programming status quo, the private school had no interest in pursuing alternative program status. At the time, we didn’t believe we could support the other alternative program, as it would be housed in the social service agency. Consequently, it became the second charter school.

Today, we would not see this as a barrier as we could approve an Edmonton Public School program housed in another facility or within another agency.

Parental Demands

We have learned that most parents and community groups are willing to give public schools the first chance to meet their needs. Most don’t want the responsibility of hiring or firing staff, of managing payroll or of maintaining a building. However, some parents want governance and those individuals have the option to choose the charter route.

Responding to these groups has forced us to do business differently. One group wanted a dance program, so we built a dance studio in one of our schools. We said “yes” to an all-girls junior high program we named after an early Albertan suffragette and politician, Nellie McClung. We now have three Nellie locations. We found a way to let parents at the Tevie Miller Heritage alternative school continue to augment the amount of speech therapy their children receive.

But we didn’t stop there.

We encouraged our staff to collaborate with a community group to develop Logos, a program that provides instruction of the provincial curriculum within a Christian context. Logos now has been expanded to eight locations. The School Act does not allow religion as the basis of a charter school, but it does enable the public system to create alternative programs based on religion.

Due to the success of Logos we have been able to bring two long-established private Christian schools into the public domain, and this has challenged other school districts also to consider these options or face a considerable student exodus.

Collaboration between our district staff and the community group enabled us to extend public education to a group of home-schoolers whose parents had not previously felt they could safely entrust their children to the public education system. Our success also has helped us to reach out to several home-schooling parents through our LearnNet program in which students take instruction via computer and visit our library services and science center. This program helps a range of students who cannot (or choose not to) attend public schools. The program has grown to include 2,000 students in the past four years.

The inclusion of these programs did not come without their own challenges. The Alberta Teachers’ Association was publicly opposed to providing Christian education within the public school setting. The union raised questions about the separation of church and state and asked, “Will you give Lutherans or Pentecostals their own schools too?”

Some of our trustees also had reservations, as did our unions for support, maintenance and custodial staff. Union membership is mandatory in our district and this became one of the greatest challenges that the private Christian schools faced in joining our district. All parties had to overcome traditional thinking. In this case, all staff members now belong to the ATA and their respective union locals.

We encourage parents and students to shop around for the school that will best meet their needs. As a result, 41 percent of our elementary students, 48 percent of junior high and 58 percent of high school students attend schools other than their designated school. Some students travel across the city by local transit to be involved in a desired program, such as performing and visual arts, a second language or a dance and cadet program.

Transportation costs remain a challenge. We distribute subsidized bus passes to all students who rely on public transportation and we provide bus service to all elementary school students at a cost to parents. We know this can be an impediment for some in accessing our programs. We also know there will always be critics who suggest the students of poor or unmotivated parents may not have the same opportunities as those who come from higher-income families. But if we had waited until everything was equal we never would have begun.

A major part of our strategy was to place many of our alternative programs in our downtown core where our student population has diminished, where space is available and where schools are most accessible for all students.

Changing Perceptions

Our experience at Edmonton Public Schools demonstrates that public education can provide a good fit for all students. The perception of what public education is, however, remains a challenge. There are opposing views on the purpose of public education.

For me, public education is about providing every child with an opportunity to reach his or her potential. It’s not about providing the same menu for every child. Equity in public education should be about equity of outcomes, not of inputs or processes.

Although programs of choice or alternative programs do not receive additional allocations, we do provide additional dollars to schools facing high transiency or to those schools located in more impoverished areas. Allocations to alternative programs and indeed to all schools are made public each year. This is one way we eliminate concerns that we are subsidizing our programs of choice to the detriment of others.

Because some parents and community members believe the same instructional approach and basic curriculum should work for every student, we sometimes need to explain why a different approach or program may be better suited than another for a particular youngster, without the alternative sounding as inherently better.

All of our programs are quality programs. They comply with curricular standards and are reinforced with additional options and curricular resource materials. Nellie McClung, the girls-only program, has resource units on women’s studies. Military history and Canadian studies units have been developed for our cadet students at L’Academie Vimy Ridge Academy. And at Amiskwaciy Academy, our senior high school for aboriginal students, Cree language and native studies courses are available.

Site administrators must understand the nature and intent of the programs they administer. To choose the best staff, respond to questions from parents and provide program leadership, they must truly understand the intent of the alternative programs offered in their schools and the positive impact they can have on a child’s achievement. Our preferred model is the “school-within-a-school” approach, which means that administrators must maintain staff and parent unity in the school. Unfortunately, at times they want to make an alternative program more like the regular program. It’s my job to assure them that different is OK.

Our central-services staff also must understand what matters to parents and community groups. They must be familiar with school district policies, financial restraints and union groups to help develop programs that can receive board approval.

Relinquishing Authority

Parent and community groups that have fought to have their program developed and implemented can be extremely demanding. They want to oversee its implementation and are prepared to be vocal and demand results. For programs to be successful, principals and staff must be committed to their programs and be prepared to engage in ongoing dialogue with patent groups. Occasionally, these demands can’t be met.

In one instance, a parent group insisted the school board and I relinquish to them authority to appoint the school’s principal and that the principal relinquish authority to select staff. While I was prepared to have them submit criteria for the type of principal they wanted and allow them to have a representative on the interview teams, I was nor prepared to give them sole authority to make staffing decisions. They were not satisfied with the compromise and they began their own charter school.

This year, as part of our competitive response to charters, we launched a program with a similar philosophy right in the same neighborhood. We remain a serious competitor.

A Growth Mode

The debate around programs of choice continues and we ourselves occasionally question where we will draw the line. But until we do, we will continue to assess every proposal that comes forward.

We offer 29 different programs of choice at Edmonton Public Schools, and we’ve found they enable us to serve the diverse needs of children in our community. Although our city’s population has remained relatively stable, our enrollment continues to grow. Students are attracted to our programs from across the province, and this past year we attracted more than 220 international students–most of them from Korea, Hong Kong and China–who pay $9,000 in tuition per year to attend.

Our commitment to run alternative programs has helped us to demonstrate that public education can provide a good fit for all students. Programs of choice have allowed us to improve student achievement and respond to the needs and interests of students, parents and teachers alike. They also can reduce conflict and increase cooperation. Two good examples of this are our Cogitoz and Caraway programs.

Teachers who prefer a teacher-directed pedagogy are ensured parent support for this in our Cogito program. In this program, the systematic teaching of phonics, spelling and grammar in language arts and the computational and problem-solving skills in mathematics are emphasized, as is the assignment of homework. Alternatively, the Caraway program is based on mixed-age groupings and integrated, thematically organized instruction. Parental involvement, a strong sense of community and creative approaches to learning are also encouraged.

Holding Accountable

If students and parents are interested in a particular type of schooling and our staff is committed to that approach, student achievement will improve. While we have no current empirical data that supports this claim, we have seen a positive trend in our student achievement results over the past six years.

In 2000, an even higher percentage of students achieved the acceptable standard and the standard of excellence for the majority of courses. In the International Baccalaureate program, our district average continues to exceed the world average. This has been a consistent pattern for the past five years.

We’ve also seen our provincial scholarship winners increase. In 2000, we had 1,049 students qualify for almost $2 million worth of provincial grants for college studies, compared with 1,007 students and $1.8 million in 1999 and with 827 students and $900,000 in grants in 1995. This year, we will complete a benchmark study that will show the direct correlation between our programs of choice and our student achievement results.

In a recent survey, we learned that 91 percent of parents are satisfied with the programs and courses we offer and that 93 percent are satisfied with the quality of education we provide to their children. These results, in addition to our student achievement results, are made public and are favorable to public education.

The future of public education depends on our ability to focus on student achievement. We must continue to be accountable to the public, parents and, most of all, our students.

At Edmonton Public Schools, we will continue to find innovative ways to help those students who are not successful today find success in the future. We are committed to remaining responsive to changing parental expectations, economic realities and cultural shifts. We believe that providing alternative programming is just one of the crucial elements in providing a quality education to all students.

Emery Dosdall is superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, One Kingsway, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5H 4G9.

Edmonton’s Wide Array of Programs

Edmonton Public Schools offer a comprehensive array of 31 program choices. Of the district’s 209 schools, more than 80 have adopted at least one of these specialties.

A handful of Edmonton’s schools operate as magnets with strict entrance requirements. These typically are the dance schools and cadet programs. Most offer one or more specialty programs that run parallel with their regular academic program.

The programs offered in the most locations include French immersion, Logos and Nellie McClung.

Because additional specialty programs are adopted throughout the school year, the school district uses its Web site for the most current information: www.epsb.edmonton.ab.ca.

These are the current program choices available to Edmonton students.

Aboriginal Program-Awasis: Elementary and junior high programming that enables students to increase their knowledge and appreciation of native cultures and traditions. Cree language instruction is also available.

Aboriginal Program-Rites of Passage: Designed for aboriginal students of junior high age at risk of dropping out, this program stresses basic academic skills, while providing cultural teaching and second language instruction in Cree and Ojibway. Classes are small and students work at their own pace and can enroll at any point in the year.

Aboriginal Studies Program-Amiskwaciy: High school programming for students in grades 10-12 interested in pursuing their studies from an aboriginal perspective. Students learn about aboriginal culture, values, beliefs, practices, sports, arts and the Cree language.

Academic Alternative-Junior High and Senior High: Enriched programming for motivated students who have achieved above-average performance. Eligibility requirements apply.

Advanced Placement: Programming that enables students to take challenging internationally recognized examinations in order to receive advanced standing at the university level. AP exams are offered in nine subjects.

Arts Core: Arts-oriented programming that emphasizes the visual and performing arts: art, music, drama and dance for grades K-12.

Bilingual Language Programs: Language programming that provides students with an opportunity to acquire or maintain proficiency in one of six languages (American Sign Language, Arabic, Chinese, German, Hebrew and Ukrainian). Programming is provided in the target language for up to 50 percent of the school day.

Cadet Program: Offers courses in drill and parade instruction, marching band programs, pipe and drum band, a full military band and outdoor pursuits such as biathlon, rappelling and orienteering for students in grades 7-12.

Caraway: Programming based on mixed-age groupings and integrated, thematically organized instruction for grades K-6.

Child Study Centre: Alternative programming for grades 1-3 based on the project approach that encourages young children to explore their environment and express themselves through an in-depth study of a particular topic, building on children’s everyday experiences. The program is offered in partnership with the University of Alberta.

Cogito: Programming based primarily on whole-group, teacher-centered instruction. At the elementary level, the systematic teaching of phonics, spelling and grammar in language arts and the computational and problem-solving skills in mathematics are emphasized. Mastery learning of a knowledge-based curriculum is emphasized. Designed for students K-10.

Dance Program: Programming that allows students to pursue dance studies leading to a professional level of performance. The program, offered in partnership with the Edmonton School of Ballet and the Edmonton Festival Ballet, features ballet, jazz, rap and modem dance.

Edmonton Christian School: Programming based on thematic, faith-directed learning that integrates Biblical principles into all areas of study. This is offered at two K-9 schools and one senior high school.

F.I.R.S.T. (Focus in Research, Science and Technology): Programming that provides learning opportunities for students who share a common interest in science and mathematics and have a strong motivation to learn.

French Immersion: Programming that provides students with an opportunity to acquire or maintain proficiency in French. Programming is provided in French for more than 50 percent of the day and may be as much as 100 percent in kindergarten to grade 2.

Hockey Training Programs: Two elite hockey programs are available for junior high and high school students. The Hockey School and the Hockey Academy are programs operated by private groups at a cost to parents. Students are provided with flexible programming and timetables to facilitate their participation.

Home Education-Blended Programming: Combination of traditional home schooling and in-school programming for grades K-12.

Home Education-Christian-Based Programming: The programming adheres to a traditional home schooling approach with advice and supervision by district teachers. The reference materials and resources used are recognized by the Christian community as acceptable resources.

Home Education-Learn Net Programming: On-line programming that allows students to carry out the majority of their schooling without leaving home, connecting with teachers, classmates and school resources through an on-line telecommunications link.

Home Education-Traditional Correspondence Programming: Programming for students grades 1-12 that allows them to carry out their schooling at home with advice and supervision by district teachers.

International Baccalaureate: Programming designed for students who intend to continue their studies at the university level. It features an extended curriculum and includes a community service project.

International Baccalaureate-Primary and Middle Years: Five-year program designed for elementary and junior high students emphasizing the development of the whole person, the interrelatedness of knowledge and global awareness.

Logos: Programming provided within a non-denominational Christian environment grounded in Christian principles. Teacher-directed instruction, whole-group mastery learning and a knowledge-based curriculum are emphasized.

Millwoods Christian School: Programming provided within the context of an evangelical Christian tradition.

Nellie McClung Girls’ Junior High Program: Programming for girls enhanced by the inclusion of a women’s studies component and an emphasis on experiential learning. The program emphasizes the development of leadership, initiative, self-reliance and independence in young

Science Alberta Foundation: Programming providing a special focus on science and mathematics in an environment in which learners strive to become ethical leaders who forge connections among the sciences, mathematics, the arts and the humanities.

Soccer Academy: Opening in September 2001, the Green and Gold Soccer Academy is developing a year-round soccer development program for highly motivated players. The academy provides a supportive learning environment and flexible timetables for students in the under-12 and under-14 soccer levels.

Spanish Academy: Opening in September 2001, the academy begins with kindergarten to grade 2 programming with additional grades added over time. Spanish and English instruction will be offered to make students fluent in both languages.

Sports Alternative: Programming that facilitates training, travel and participation in competitions by providing flexible scheduling, which may involve distance learning and computer-assisted instruction.

Tevie Miller Heritage School: Programming that provides intensive speech language services. The program is offered in partnership with The Heritage Society.

Traditional School Program: The goals of the traditional program are high academic success and standards of conduct. These are achieved through shared traditional values and goals of education and citizenship, direct instruction of basic skills and continuity of instruction and resources across the grade levels.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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