Pamela Chan, BCFamily.ca/Editorial
Lean 30 : 30 days of keeping it lean and old school online. More
This year my family took part in the kindergarten registration process in our local school district. Individually, as a couple and as a family, my husband, two children and I attended information sessions, met with our neighbourhood school principal and toured a school choice programme site. By attending the information sessions, we embraced the prospect of school choice and I saw, first hand, how other parents assessed their options.
(I will refer to Montessori and French Immersion programmes, for example, as school choice programmes.)
On a professional level I had the opportunity to consider these options when I completed an M.Ed. programme at UBC and later worked with a team of Canadian researchers who investigated the topic of school choice in Canada. This time around I am on the other side of the fence. As a parent I see how other parents are or aren’t exercising their school choice options. I see how they are asking questions and coming to conclusions. At times I have been concerned when I hear inaccurate information being shared about, for example, the Montessori programme. (I hold a Montessori teacher/directress diploma.) I have also made inquiries about parents’ perceptions and relationships with their neighbourhood schools.
In a recent blog post, a BC elementary school principal and teacher in Langley wrote about the impact of school choice on neighbourhood schools. The opportunity for dialogue these types of posts present – within the comment section – is significant. How else can we capture insights from parents and educators? There are methods that school districts, teachers, administrators and researchers use but is the topic of parental attitudes and understandings related to public education being explored enough?
Unless you have spoken with me at length, you won’t understand why my husband and I have made the decision that we did about schooling for the 2014/15 school year. You won’t know that my commitment to both my neighbourhood school and options provided by school choice programmes left me feeling conflicted after our decision was made. There are compelling reasons why our family would choose to enroll in our neighbourhood school or a school choice programme. When we chose one option we had to let go of the benefits of attending the other programmes.
Many parents have sought me out to discuss kindergarten enrollment options. They know that I am a parent of pre-K children and that I also have a professional background in teaching and educational policy research. So much of what I hear touches on topics and perspectives that aren’t documented in more formal ways.
Do parents put their children in one type of school choice option in BC to avoid having ESL and special needs children in their classes? Yes some admit that they do. This is not news BUT you might be surprised to know that programme information for this specific programme presented to parents supported this expectation. At least indirectly, parents with children who have special needs, for example, might have been discouraged to enroll their children in this programme after attending the information session.
How are parents considering their neighbourhood schools? Have they visited the school in their catchment area? Have they gone on a tour or met with the principal? Did they attend an information night before kindergarten enrollment took place? Do these parents know other families who have children in that school? Were these families able to attend a Strong Start programme in their neighbourhood school? (Assuming that there is one.) In any other way have they stepped into their local school to take part in the community life of the school? Why have parents chosen to have their child attend or not attend their neighbourhood school? Are there missed opportunities in terms of how neighbourhood schools could reach out to parents of prospective students who don’t have another child already in the school?
Do we really know what parents are thinking about our public schools? Some will be frank and share their personal observations and concerns with teachers and administrators while many others won’t. Will the recent immigrant from Europe tell BC educators that her community of friends think students are basically “playing around” in BC schools and that the programmes aren’t rigorous enough? How should I respond to her friend who has heard that it is better to pay for your child’s education in order to access a higher quality programme? What should I say to the parent who says French Immersion teachers are more passionate and committed teachers?
Many parents won’t be commenting on blog posts and don’t use Twitter. Education and politics are two hot topics on social media. If you know the hashtags #BCEd, #EDChat or even #BCPoli, for example, you will know that conversations held in these digital meeting places are addressed to members of the choir. How do we move beyond these communities of interested parties? Do we build relationships with parents well before kindergarten enrollment takes place? Are we maximizing our opportunities to communicate to the community of families about what is happening in our schools? It’s easy to say “YES. Of course! Here’s example X, Y and Z.” Isn’t it more proactive and progressive to ask “how can we do better?” We can be inspired by examples of best practice elsewhere but the strongest solutions are developed at a local level within each school district and school.
Recently I got to know an extremely well informed parent who enrolled her child in one of a selection of choice programme. “Are these choices right for her child”, I wondered – based on what I know about these programmes and my observations of the child. It disturbs me when I hear that the neighbourhood school wasn’t at least considered as an option. After all, we do make a choice to enroll our children in our neighbourhood schools.
How should communities of educators and administrators document and share information about the unique and vibrant educational programmes and culture in their schools – including both neighbourhood and school choice programmes? Of course they are already doing this in a variety of ways and use modern technology tools as aids. We desperately need to move beyond school websites that don’t seem to have evolved since 1999. We also need to move beyond simply hanging up class work on hallway walls next to Parent Advisory Council notes. We need physical spaces that are vibrant (that word again), inviting and readable. Vibrant doesn’t necessarily mean multi-coloured. Some of the most inviting educational environments I’ve seen feature natural material and muted colours. As soon as we walk into a school, what do we understand about a space that could be new to us? We need schools and, to a more controlled degree digital spaces, that display content about dialogue and opportunities for listening, recognition of others and openness. We need to make visible the experiences and perspective of the connected three-part community of students, teachers and parents. Most importantly we need to find new ways to help prospective students and their parents to understand what is happening in our schools.
As if we aren’t stressed out enough as parents…here come the Fraser Institute rankings for schools. (TheThirtiesGrind.com)