Sunday, 31 January 2016

Better By Design

Just before Christmas, Education Minister Mike Bernier visited to announce the building of a new elementary school in Fort St John. The announcement was more than welcome, as schools in town are full well beyond capacity. Rooms originally designated for multi purpose or specialized uses have long since been pressed into service as classroom space, and plans are in the works for portables to added as population pressures mount. The new school is earmarked for the northwest end of town, currently served only by CM FInch Elementary where the first of possibly several portables was added earlier this year. Beyond creating new classroom spaces, the district continues to petition the government to replace aging facilities at Ecole Central and Charlie Lake.

The process for new schools began with the acquisition of school sites. With the assistance of both provincial and local governments, suitable sites have been identified and purchased. Site preparation and construction will begin this spring at the northwest site. The  design and construction phases will need to be aggressively addressed if the district is to meet the Ministry of Education's hoped for timeline of completion in less than two years.

The work is already underway. In addition to visiting a number of new schools, senior staff have also engaged an architectural firm to help create a school that suits our northern context, recognizes the needs of learners and educators and will efficiently serve our community for years to come. Over the weeks to come, our architects will run focus groups to consult with a wide range of community and district stakeholders in order to better combine community needs and values with current developments in 21st century educational structures. We are confident that the resulting building will be marvelous. When complete, the new school will not only be a learning center of excellence, but will also incorporate space to support other diverse community needs such as day care and after hours recreational opportunities in an enhanced gym.

Its been a long time since our community built a new school, and we know that we need to make the most of this opportunity. More than just adding seats and spaces, we see the new school as an opportunity to create a facility that can serve the greater community, well beyond the boundaries of traditional schooling. Our new school will be designed to make our community better than before and will recognize that community needs and aspirations are also education matters.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Seeking the Best for Our Students

The January snow and post Christmas return to classes make September feel a long way off, but preparations have already begun for next year. The recent announcement of a new school for Fort St St John kicked off a flurry of behind the scenes activities as we rush to find architects, designers and builders in order to get building as soon as possible. To accommodate the current and projected numbers of students, schools have been asked for fall enrollment projections; always a challenging task in a community as energetic, fluid and vibrant as ours. In the past years we've been pretty accurate in projecting our needs. This year however more than 300 additional students arrived above and beyond projections.

Providing quality service and instruction to a growing community goes beyond just ensuring that everyone gets a seat. Besides making sure facilities are available and up to the task, senior staff are always searching for the best people to work with our students. This week, I accompanied our district recruiters to the education job fair at UBC, in order to meet aspiring new teacher graduates. Recruiting efforts continue this week in Saskatchewan and Alberta as staff meet with teacher candidates in Regina and Grande Prairie.  Closer to home staff recently celebrated with graduates of Northern Lights College's AHCOTE teacher education program.  I'm happy to report that several of them are now working within the district.

It can be a challenge to find and retain good people to work with our students, whether it be in teaching or any of the many support positions that are all so essential to our operations. Beyond teachers a school district must have clerical staff, educational assistants, custodians, bus drivers, and a whole team of skilled tradesmen to ensure that our students are well served. Northern recruitment has its own set of challenges. Public sector compensation cannot always compete financially with the private sector,  and there remains a perception in folks who've never been here that our geography and climate are inhospitable.

Fortunately we know better. Our district includes a tremendous range of talent in all ranks and professions and we are always seeking to add to the team. Whether its through the online provincial jobs portal at , our own district websites and youtube channels or just word of mouth we continue seek the best for our students. We are working to get the word out that SD 60 is a great place to live, work, and make sure that education matters!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Power of Penguins Revisisted!

Over the Christmas break my wife and I again enjoyed the privilege of visiting the vastness of the southern ocean. We returned re-energized and with a huge array of penguin pictures and media. As I've posted previously, my duties as superintendent include visiting schools, but I don't get to classrooms as often as I'd like.  However, the word is out about my preference for penguins, and so, about this time every year I start getting requests to come make presentations. This was the fifth time I have journeyed deep into the southern hemisphere. I've been able to see penguins in their native habitats on the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand, the Antarctic peninsula and the windswept Falkland Islands.  Each visit we  take only pictures and leave only footprints. As a result, I now have well over 6000 pictures of a dozen different species of penguins.

The popularity of penguins is universal. The penguin unit is a favourite with Kindergarten and primary classes. There's just something about the stubby little flightless fellows that makes folks smile. Whether its their snappy black and white attire, their awkward walks, their determined, fearless and curious natures, or their fluid grace in the water, nearly everyone holds penguins in some regard. Penguin resources abound. Teachers Corner and Penguin Science are just two of many amazing and rich web resources available.

Popular culture embraces penguins too. Movies like "Happy Feet", and documentaries like "March of the Penguins" or the BBC's Lonely Planet, are great box office hits. As far back as Disney's "Mary Poppins" or as recently as the "Penguins of Madagascar" animated penguins continue to amuse. The venerable "Mr. Popper's Penguins" (now a live action motion picture), first published in 1938, is still being read and enjoyed by students.

When word got out that our district had a real live "penguin person",  the requests started coming. My teaching experience is mostly in secondary English, so facing groups of up to 40 primary students can be a bit unsettling. What if I bored them? What if my pictures didn't interest them? Its a bit of a risk as Superintendent to put yourself out there as a teacher leader and then be a flop! 

The good news - the presentations go very well. I continue to get requests. And the students are wonderful. I continue to refine my lessons based on the feedback the students (and their teachers) give me. Sometimes, rather than just show pictures and talk, we learn to walk or call like penguins. My vocalization of the call of the Magellenic penguin is apparently quite entertaining! (you can listen to the real thing at We've made and enjoyed penguin cookies and we've explored "action research" on such probing questions as "do penguins have knees?" and "could polar bears and penguins ever meet?" Students do penguin art and consider penguin adaptations to snow, ice and water.  Most of all, we have fun while learning. When I go back to schools after speaking on penguins students don't always remember my name, or that I'm the superintendent, but they do remember that I'm the "penguin genius" and they are excited to tell me new things they've learned. Their teachers do a great job teaching about penguins both before, and after my visits. During a recent presentation the googling for more penguin information began even before I had finished speaking.

So I say, "more power to the penguins!". Any animal that can get me out of the office and get students so inspired must have special powers. I'm already hoping to going south again so I'll have new information pictures and video to share in the future. (Students and classes interested in adopting a penguin should check out the site at this Adopt a penguin! link). I used to find business attire a bit restrictive but now, I look forward donning my black and white "penguin suit" and waddling forth to share penguin perspectives as education matters.