Education directors ready for challenges

School closures, improving literacy levels, recruiting staff, and keeping under-funded programs afloat are just some of the issues local school boards will have to grapple with in 2002.
But both education directors with the Rainy River District School Board and the Northwest Catholic School Board say they’re prepared to tackle these and other challenges that lay ahead.
“Last year was an outstanding year. I’ve been here three years and last year was an excellent year,” RRDSB education director Warren Hoshizaki said on his first day back from Christmas break.
Hoshizaki said he was particularly proud of local grade three and six test scores for both English and math, which he said were between 10 and 20 percent higher here than across the province.
“This past year, our board had the biggest increase of any board across the province on these results. That gives an indication of how well our teachers are doing,” he noted.
That being said, Hoshizaki admitted last year’s grade 10 literacy scores, which he described as well below the provincial average, did have to improve.
“The test [last year] didn’t count and [so] the kids didn’t take it seriously,” he explained, adding this year the tests will count towards students’ graduation requirements.
“We’re not making excuses, but we expect to do better.”
As first reported in Monday’s Daily Bulletin, this year’s test now will be held here Feb. 14-15 after being postponed in October.
Meanwhile, John Madigan, education director for the local Catholic school board, said achieving the goal of having every child reading by age eight is one of their chief aims this year.
The board has instituted the “First Steps” program—a new method for teaching and monitoring the progress of children learning to read.
“We’re also looking at some of the best practices in jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand, and some states in the U.S., using most of these practices to help more children to learn to read,” he said Monday.
One of the biggest things Madigan has seen over and over again is the positive effects of parents reading with their child.
“It’s really like skating,” he said. “If you want to learn to skate, you have to skate. If you want to learn to read, you have to read.”
In addition to tackling literacy levels, the local public school board will decide this year whether to close up to three local schools in favour of an expanded J.W. Walker.
While parents of Alexander MacKenzie and Sixth Street seem to be in favour of the closure, parents from Alberton Central are against it, arguing their children would be better off in the smaller community.
Hoshizaki said a final decision would be made by the trustees in May or June.
“They [parents] are very happy with the program in that community, and we are also extremely happy with the program in that school,” Hoshizaki said. But he added school closures weren’t just about how effectively education programs are being offered.
“School closures are a budget issue.”
Other tough budget issues include dealing with what he described as an under-funded transportation program. Hoshizaki said transportation has been continually under-funded for the past few years, leaving the board to pick up the slack.
“That’s an extra $200,000-$300,000 and we have to find that money elsewhere,” he explained.
In addition to finding money to cover these costs, Hoshizaki said the board also must deal with a system that limits their ability to get money for special education programs.
“We’re required to complete a special needs assessment of kids before they’re funded properly,” he noted.
“That can only be completed by a psychologist, but we don’t have access to a trained psychologist in our area, therefore when applying for funding for these special kids, we don’t have the assessment completed.”
He said the board might consider flying a psychologist in to assess youngsters if they could find one willing to do so.
It isn’t just Northwest Ontario that’s facing a shortage of funds for special education programs. Hoshizaki thinks schools across the province are facing similar problems.
“Special education is not funded at a level needed to serve the kids,” he charged.
Madigan said they similarly are trying to deal with meeting the special education needs of their students by incorporating new software and other programs to monitor special students.
This year, he noted the province has chosen his board to be one of 25 that will have their special education programs assessed.
Above all, Madigan said recruiting teachers and principles, especially those teaching French, is an ongoing challenge for his school board.
“There is a high number of teachers retiring, and filling teaching positions and leadership positions is an ongoing challenge,” he admitted.
As a result, Madigan said the board is “recruiting from within” by encouraging its own staff to complete courses and develop skills necessary to fill these positions.
Not all issues the education directors face are negative. Both are looking forward to bringing high-speed wireless technology to schools across the district.
The tower mounts already have been installed at Robert Moore School and antennae have been added to out-of-town schools.
While there are still a few bugs to work out, Hoshizaki said he expected the system to be completely running by February.