Kids: April Blog

While I saved this post under the file name “Kids: April Blog” you’ll have to forgive me if I send it out while it’s still March; avoiding the references to the April Fool, or at least hoping to!

I also hope that whatever you did for the March Break, it brought you and your family some level of rest and rejuvenation; the solid block of time between January 1st and the March Break in our world of education always for me, marks the single greatest period of uninterrupted intensive work in our schools and for staff. I suppose that with the limited daylight and cold, it also brings added challenge. But we are entering spring, then Easter, soon to be followed by ice-out,  and of course “Opening Weekend” that many of you mark on your calendars, and onwards!

But timing is everything, and how quickly time flies, ever-amazing to me. Is it just me or do you find that time seems to move faster each year? I mention this because you will remember last year, on this very date (or April 1st to be a exact), that we endured a most severe winter storm that we had had in recent memory, as Mother Nature played an annual spring trick on us. It also marked the first time, we had to shut the entire organization down on account of weather, and cruelly was the date, that we had to reschedule our announcement for the new high school in Sioux Lookout. I recall thinking to myself “Really, we have waited so long to make this announcement and celebrate, and now we have to postpone because of a freak winter storm??!!” But in hindsight, and perhaps with a more pensive perspective, I accepted that we had waited years for this achievement, what was two more days?

It has already been a year since that time. As I write this today, Dean Carrie, our Business Superintendent and Caryl Hron are in Sioux Lookout, sharing with the staff of Queen Elizabeth District High School, the layout for their new high school, and next week I will meet with the Mayor and Council of Sioux Lookout to discuss the required future steps as we prepare for site readiness and municipal planning. My point is we continue to move forward and we continue to roll along, and we are making progress.

In my role as Director, one of the greatest aspects of this responsibility and privilege is that I get to visit all of our schools, meeting staff and talking with students, our kids. I know this will not surprise many of you, as I have frequently shared my experiences in schools. Lately though, I have been able to meet some pretty extraordinary kids from across the system, who not only are a pleasure to be around, but represent a certain innocence and oblivion to a reality that many of us adults find ourselves in. And ironically, for many kids an innocence influenced by necessarily dealing with many adult and very real challenges. For example, if you have not seen the 2014 Director’s Annual Report (and I am not suggesting you take up a lot of time reading through it), it is an annual report card if you will, on what we have done to date. However, I mention this though because this year’s report on its cover, represents what it is I am talking about. Please take a look: the little girl on the cover, whose name is Lilly and is from Ignace Public School, represents a visual that is worth more than ten thousand words. It reminds me of a picture that about ten years ago was a cover for National Geographic, of an young Afghan girl who possessed such piercing blue eyes, it represented the most popular cover for the magazine in its history. Little Lilly to me is our own KPDSB version of that cover, on our own Board report; please take a look.  Click here to view our annual report.

However, and there is a reason why I am sharing this with all of you; Lilly’s life looks very different I would suggest than many of our own, at times humble in its simplicity but undoubtedly impacted by life’s events that are so frequently beyond the control of many of our students. I won’t share Lilly’s last name or specifics of her circumstances, but upon reflection this thought came home to roost for me these past few days. I have just wrapped up two days of Public Council of Directors of Education meetings in Toronto. “CODE” as we are otherwise referred to, is a collection of all 31 public directors of education from across the province, and generally our meetings are held behind closed doors and in private. On Thursday and Friday we assembled together as all of the Grants for Students Needs (GSN’s) were announced and rolled out, one after another for the entire morning. With looking at budget cuts, provincial framework formulas impacting certain areas like Special Education, staffing or enrolment, there was much angst and concern in the room given that we have been bracing for a provincial reduction of somewhere between 1 and 2%.

Everything is relative. And as your Director, I am concerned; we have tough days ahead, and we will be required to make tough decisions, and in saying this I share with you, that my own belief is that we neither seek nor avoid our challenges. We deal with them, and we will. We have worked very diligently and very hard as a Senior Team to bring a staffing and budget process forward that mitigates any potential financial challenges, but most importantly does not adversely impact our kids. I have spent the past two days, looking at my Special Education budget, the impact on funding, and how we need to manage the challenges and present stalwart support for our most vulnerable and needy? As I write this, I look at the needs of Northwestern Ontario, all of our schools, and when we get right down to it, my own sense of ownership over all of our schools, staff, and students. And I often think, how did a guy who was going to be a math and physical education teacher end up with considerations like the ones we need to face?

And then I think back to Lilly, who is only 6 years old. Lilly and I have agreed to become electronic pen pals via the help of Ignace principal Chantal Moore. Little Lilly’s concerns aren’t GSN funding announcements, cuts to budget lines in Special Education, or enrolment declines at secondary schools; in fact Lilly I would argue is oblivious to these matters, as she should be. In our recent email exchange, she shares with me she has a dog and that her dog’s name is Sally, that she likes to spend time playing Minecraft on weekends, and then the times she goes outside for bike rides. She asked me last week to send a picture of my puppy, “Atticus Finch”, the 7 pound Pomeranian that calls us home because we both share an affinity for animals. There is an attempt at a message here, and it is this: our responsibility to all of the “Lilly’s” out there across the KPDSB is uncompromising. She needs to be a little girl, who while not able to articulate her expectations of us as adults in the school board, she also needs to know that we will not fail her or any of our kids, including yours and mine. “Kids First” is going to take on whole enhanced perspective in the future, because putting kids first means everyone else comes second. And those who put themselves on the line for kids need our support, unequivocally; I look at new teachers particularly and staff who have recently signed up to be part of the KPDSB team, and they will need our help. Their careers are just beginning, ready to empower and be empowered.

And so back to my initial comments about how quickly time flies and where many staff might be at themselves, professionally and personally. With time passing, and in our careers, also enters or exits (depending on how you look upon it) phases or chapters in our lives. For many staff, this time of the year serves as a ponderance about whether retirement and entry into a new way of living is what is next, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have new hires simply wondering if they will have a job next year. I have received a number of letters of retirement in the past two weeks, and have wondered what thinking must go through one’s head when making such a decision? With the pressures around us, and knowing that staffing is under incredible pressures this year particularly, I worry about how staffing will affect our newest teachers and staff; recalling my own personal experiences years ago at the time of amalgamation and my own levels of anxiety then. Thinking of this specifically, I encourage any staff who wish to have a conversation with me about their future plans as staff in the KPDSB to email or call me, for my perspective and when asked, my thoughts. Do not hesitate.

In closing, and in reference to my last blog: it generated a considerable amount of response and replies from many staff (and as I am learning from many that read it, who are not staff of the organization; a fact that surprised me, somewhat disbelieving people would give up time to read the musings of a guy who writes what he is thinking and feeling). Certainly, the video and the story of one of our was one that hit home for many, as was the idea that we live for each day, and accept it with the approach that it will be our best. Apparently hearing of my son, Aoedan’s first “vehicular mishap” also resonated as many of you shared personal stories of similar experiences with your own teenagers! I have to quickly add though that when Aoedan came home he promptly informed me that he had “heard a rumour” of my sharing his event with people “I work with” from a friend of his, and suggesting with a level of incredulity that I would never do such a thing. The mortification on his face as he read the blog for the first time, probably reflected my own upon my coming to scene of his inclined vehicle that memorable day back in January! Interesting though, as we talked about him growing up into adulthood, his younger brother Tristan thought it would be a great time to inform the table he had some “good news” to share himself; that being he had decided he is going to live at home until he was probably “30 or 40”; of course with his own “family and dog” he was looking to acquire. He wanted to make my day by disclosing his decision, and that he would financially support it by rotating occupations between being a “professional hunter” and logger (like his grandfather), with maybe a moonlighting job of playing professional hockey…..Coincidentally the next morning Joan indicated to me she was noticing that I was starting to grey a little more on the one side of my head than the other; thanks Joan. I think it might the same side that Joan tends to sit on as well, so maybe there is a connection???

This post is meant to be about kids, their reality in their classrooms, schools, families…..in their lives frankly; and the trust they put in us as adults to protect their interests and needs as children attending KPDSB schools. So as we now enter the season that we use to finalize preparations for next year, the premise about Kids Coming First, will mean everything, and it is a stance that I, and I know all of you take extremely seriously.

Welcome spring and all that is has to offer, and as always, anytime, email or call me.

Sean

2014 Reflections and Wishes

Happy Holidays Everyone!!

I will simply start this last blog of 2014, by thanking everyone in the organization, from custodians, to early childhood educators, to administrative assistants, teachers, principals, parents, elders, and of course the kids themselves, for a memorable and overwhelmingly successful year! I think 2014 will be remembered as a year in the KPDSB that saw great change, greater impact, and accomplishment for our schools, those that serve them and are served by them everyday.

Thank you.

As I write this last post, I can share with the organization that since September I have now been able to visit, and meet with every single school and staff in the entire region known as KPDSB; we even brought both Board office staffs together last week to meet with them together too. It has been at times, challenging (driving our northern highways can make this so), informative, but more than anything rewarding and extremely validating. I have enjoyed my visits to all of your classrooms, your staff-rooms and libraries, your assemblies, and our meetings focused on Efficacy and reform. I hope by now, that when you read comments from me about efficacy, and change, you will have a better understanding of what it is we are talking about at the system level. And of course if you have more questions, you can always email and ask me! However, the one thing that the Efficacy staff visits have also been and represent is “investment”.

As I sit back and reflect on the hundreds of conversations with staff, I have come to appreciate how important it is that we, who work at the system and senior level, remain connected and in sync with what is happening every day in our classrooms with our teachers and educational assistants. While I will admit that getting to every school in three months was a slight undertaking, I have always felt that it was an investment in our system, our schools, and in you. I have come to believe, like any good investment, the return will be greater, and that the return on the Efficacy visits will be ten-fold. I believe this to be true. Why??

Because the last several months, have not been just about efficacy, have they? They have been about empowerment, openness, challenging the status quo, getting better to become the best, motivating and activating new thinking, new beginnings, and ultimately about change and leadership. It has been about flattening the organization, so that each one of us is not just colleagues in name, but in importance, that the traditional hierarchy of doing business is removed. It is about seeing the same sense of value in two new teachers at Beaver Brae in Tyler Greenwood and Brooks Meija, as we do with experienced teachers at Dryden High School like Todd Desaultels and Rick Lindquist. It is about recognizing the incredibly hard work that folks like Mike Lalonde do on behalf of all student-athletes for NorWosaa, or what Suzanne McIntosh does with her vocal musical group “Good Fortune”. It is about the seeing the same value in the support that Deb Liedtke provides as an educational assistant at Red Lake District High School, as new teacher Brennan Flickinger provides his students at Crolancia in Pickle Lake….and as Caryl Hron provides school principals as the Superintendent of Education. We are integral to the success of each other, and we motivate those beside and around us; in our work though this is particularly rewarding because a lot of “those” around us, are students, young people looking for someone to inspire them and in turn inspiring us with their stories of resiliency.

I have also come to the realization over the last number of months, that leadership is very important, and that true leadership is tough. Being a leader, can be very difficult, because making decisions can be easy to criticize and judge; that taking a stand isn’t always popular and that taking the high road also means taking the hardest and silent road. But it also is the right road, and I myself am reminded daily by staff in schools, it is what defines the KPDSB, it is what marks our organization, and it is what people have to come to expect from us and from me. To make tough decisions, to take a stand, and to represent our interests and the interests of our kids. I find that as we enter the holiday recess, I am motivated by many of you, and in the same breath continuously humbled by your commitment to our organization. As I commented to our new Board of trustees recently at an orientation, our strength collectively is our people, and I believe that.

2014….well for us in the KPDSB meant many additions to our schools, especially with kindergarten and special education programming in mind. We moved into our new Board office in Kenora downtown and overlooking the lake, and we were visited by the Assistant Deputy, Deputy Minister, and Minster of Education, and all within one month. No other Board can say this (by the way, you need to check out the Minister of Education’s annual Christmas card to all school boards….there is a KPDSB flavour to it!!!). We had improvements in all of our student achievement measurements in Grades 3,6, and 9; and we installed video-conferencing equipment in every single school, keeping people off the roads, in classrooms and principals in schools. And oh yeah, we also announced that we had been successful in securing the funding for a brand new $30 million state-of-the-art high school in Sioux Lookout!! Yes it has been quite a year.

On the personal front, some of you became parents, some of you became known as “no longer bachelors: Jason McMillan”, some of you became grandparents, some of you were diagnosed with cancer, and some of you are beating cancer. And you put kids first throughout all of it; so again thank you.

As I close, I want to share with you, that while 2014 will be hard to top, we will start the new year with the same renewed energy and focus that we started this current year with, and I encourage you all to feel empowered and to take a hold of your learning and your own personal leadership. I predict that we will face tough decisions in 2015, and that we will face challenges in the new year; but in doing so we take the approach that we neither seek nor avoid our challenges and problems. We deal with them.

I wish everyone of you and your families to get the “long winter’s nap” that we hear about at this time of year, rest, and enjoy those around you as you, like myself contemplate the year was, and the one that will be.

Here is to an optimistic and hopeful 2015,

 Sean

November Post

Hi Everyone!

Have you ever noticed that during the late fall days and weeks that make up the latter part of October and early November, the sky at times turns into an amazing blue hue, with colors that can be nothing short of spectacular?

It becomes even more noticeable and even omnipresent, when you travel as much as I do within the Board’s reaches on our highways and you find yourself looking ahead into the horizon. On several occasions in the past couple of weeks, I found myself driving along Highway 17 from Dryden towards Kenora, under a heavy cloud cover of grey only to look westward where the sky opened up as a definitive line separated a deep blue from the clouds. I also found myself during these drives home, thinking and reflecting on many things, most of which I doubt would interest you, but on a couple of thoughts, most definitely I would speculate.

October and early November have been incredibly busy months for many of us, you, your families, your colleagues, your principals and administration, and absolutely for us in Senior Administration. For myself, I have probably and admittedly in hindsight, overextended myself a wee bit by trying to fulfill my commitment of meeting with every single staff in the system to discuss the Efficacy Review. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have managed to make it to Upsala, Ignace, Pickle Lake, all of our schools in Red Lake and Ear Falls, a few more schools in Kenora and in Dryden, and of course back and forth to Sioux Lookout on a couple of occasions. In total, I have now been to 17 of our schools, and have the remaining ones in Dryden and Kenora to go, before calling the “Efficacy Tour” complete. The visits and staff discussions have been as diverse as the Board is itself, and have been more than productive, sometimes challenging, but always a learning experience. I have also been working with the school administration team across the system to continue to impress the belief that Efficacy can mean change, and can make us better. But on this last point, is where my greatest learning and candidly, my greatest challenge of recent, has emerged.

I should add that after the last Efficacy email that I sent out, I did receive a criticism (I will call it friendly and perhaps even constructive) that I should not be so candid, perhaps even so open with staff. I have thought about that, and I have to tell you, while I appreciate the feedback, I disagree. So with this in mind, I want to tell you what has been stirring me; and in sharing this with you, I also invite your comments and thoughts too.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has prided itself, on being a Board that is home to everyone, and a Board that can serve everyone. We have gone to great lengths, spent energy and much capital on celebrating our diversity and our challenges. I suspect the latter comment, because we have achieved so much when you consider how big our challenges are, specifically when it comes to the wide-ranging needs of our kids. We have celebrated, and in fact promoted our work in Special Education, Aboriginal Education, and even as recently as last week, our work in FASD. We have received national recognition for our work, and frequently are called upon to share our success stories with provincial leaders and other Boards, because as we have often identified, our work and our achievement when you look at where we start with our kids is truly nothing short of heroic. And yet, and for myself….a personal struggle, accepting that some in our communities might look at our accomplishments and agree it is noble work, but feel it is not the environment for their kids?

Recently, Susanne raised this question to me, that is “Can celebrating our challenges at times work against us?”, and while she and I may not always agree on the color of the sky, I do respect and value her opinion and experience a great deal. I also know that she, like all of my Senior Administration would only do and accept their best work for the good of the organization. So when she raised this question, I admit, I had to struggle with the notion that some in our communities might turn away from the KPDSB because we are a system for all, and include all. To complicate further my own internal questioning, is like many of you the fact that I too am from the North, and that we live, work and play in the very communities we have grown up in. The fact that a few of my own lifelong friends could consider looking away from the KPDSB because we have many different students and challenges, remains a very difficult concept to accept, to be honest. The KPDSB remains the biggest school board in Northwestern Ontario, outside of Thunder Bay, and is the face of public education, that I will not concede anything on. If you say you believe in equity and fairness, you need to live it, because talk is cheap. In other words, if you actually believe in all students then you accept all students, and that this stance is not merely a punch line.

What am I talking about? Perhaps the best example that I heard in the last couple of weeks, was when I was told of a situation of a new family who had moved to one of our communities. The family was looking at schools, and when they heard that the school closest to their home had an “FASD” dedicated program, felt that it would be an environment similar to contagion that they could not have their child in. As if to suggest FASD is a contracted disease, as opposed to the brain impediment that it is. I could rail against ignorance in our area or put the spotlight on racism and bigotry, or I could reflect on what this is telling me and all of us. And that is we need to work harder to get our message out, we cannot be nonchalant about our schools and we cannot under any circumstances take anything for granted.

We need to support our system.

We need to be champions of our schools! I have challenged staff everywhere I go to look at Efficacy, to question the status quo, to look at us from a different perspective and asked you all to consider how we can do things, a little or even perhaps a lot differently? If I can go school to school to school, and door to door to door, then I need to believe at the very least that every single staff will take ownership of their school too.

When I think back to my recent Efficacy Staff meeting at Golden Learning Center, Michelle Parrish and Kathi Fawthrop asked me to consider the following: if we are asking teachers to look at students from a growth mindset, then can we also not look at our teachers from a growth mindset as well?? Michelle, we certainly can and we will.

We will do better, and efficacy is all about believing we can do better, and that anything is possible, if we believe it to be right. Efficacy is also about asking tough questions, like can we compromise our beliefs that all students have a right to be in our schools, regardless of their background, their race, their needs, or their family circumstances? Efficacy also requires, as I have learned first-hand, tough true-grit leadership too. I am glad Susanne asked me the question, because it only reinforced my belief we are a system for all, and on that point I will never waver, not ever. It matters not to me, how challenged our kids are, they are human beings and they are the best their parents have got; we will never close our doors or send them down the street.

At my recent Ignace School Efficacy visit, Kevin Goudie surprised me with his comments; not because Kevin is opposed to expressing his views, but because of what he said. He remarked that we have been in very difficult circumstances where the environment had been extremely tough, and when you might visualize us as being at opposite sides of the table. But he also commented, that never, ever did our position about children and helping students waver, even in the face of extremely difficult conversations. He made my ride home that night, seem to fly by, as I clipped along the highway trying to get home to our youngest son Tristan’s birthday supper. I can tell you Kevin’s comments as have many of yours over the last few months, reenergized my belief and faith in the pursuit of public education and uncompromising support of KPDSB.

I am asking you to give of yourselves in support of the KPDSB, and more specifically your own schools. I remain steadfastly committed to my promise to you that I will never ask of you to give more than I am myself am prepared to give, and I am asking you to lead efficacy by example, by being strong and supportive of your colleagues and schools.

And for myself, I do plan on trying to slow down, for a little bit anyways, but I have a few more Efficacy visits to go.

Please think about what I have asked of you, and I encourage you, to as always, give me your thoughts.

Take care,

Sean

Embracing Change and Celebrating Our Accomplishments

Welcome Back, everyone, from what I hope was a relaxing, restful, and at times self-directed March Break, wherever that may have taken you. It was clear from the large number of responses to my email sent to all of you before the Break, that most were ready for it!

We will still get one or two more blasts of winter, living in Northwestern Ontario has taught many of us to expect that at this time of year, and even into April….but make no mistake, spring is coming and with it, the melting of snow and the sun’s warmth. And with it, the acceptance and relief that we have managed the most difficult winter in memory.

I send this version of my Sean’s notes to you, with many thoughts about where we are as an organization, and as we head into the “third period” of the year (hockey fans that’s a tribute to you as the playoffs are just around the corner and Hockey Night in Canada becomes a nightly pleasure as opposed to just a Saturday evening event!!!), it is a good time to reflect. There are many, many efforts, on a scale so diverse as the Board itself, taking place in everyone of our schools and in everyone of our classrooms, it is difficult to keep up. However, in saying this, and even though we are coming off of a restful March Break, I do feel it imperative to share with you that the pace of change now in the Board is not slowing down. We continue to work together with Confederation College as we bring them into more of our high schools as campus locations, we continue to partner and expand partnerships with Seven Generations and the Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board (SLAAMB), we initiated the first ever partnership with a local hospital at the Meno Ya Win Health Center in Sioux Lookout by providing teachers and staff to young moms and their children who do not have access to education, and we continue to add to our FASD classrooms concept by expanding the program to include two more communities, strengthening our leadership as the only board in the province to do so.

On the Operations side of the organization, the staffing/budgeting process is virtually complete and was started this year in January positioning ourselves for a good and intensive conversation around staffing our schools based on their needs and in marked ways have overhauled how that looks. We have prepared a capital plan that is updated and will propose significant capital improvements to our schools including Red Lake, Upsala, Kenora and Dryden. And of course, we continue to await news on the biggest capital project application we have ever submitted to the Ministry: QEDHS.

Our IT department has been reorganized, and added muscle to it, and look for more changes to HR so we can help them in assisting our schools in hiring of staff in a fluid and nimble way, as well as be there for when any of our staff need to call upon them.

And for us on the Academic side of the organization, we continue to push very hard on some clear non-negotiables for me: less time out of classrooms for teachers and support staff, less absences out of schools for principals and vice-principals, more hands-on in schools, less meetings meaning less travel and greater utilization of beefed up video-conferencing equipment in all schools, and of course fewer initiatives. As Terri Forster, exemplary teacher at BBSS, commented to me earlier this year, it is a very “boots on the ground” approach. What a great term of reference.

And when I sit back now as I return home from another meeting with Ministry staff again last night, I consider this work and I am well-pleased. The Board is not perfect, no one has ever claimed us to be, and I will be the first to admit that; however, we are the hardest working group of staff and team-members that a director could ever ask for. I want the system to know that I have pushed the Senior Administration team very hard this year to work on implementing the very items identified above, and in the process reflect on how we do business. Change is very hard, but change is constant, and if with a purpose, can be a non-negotiable too. I am particularly proud of my senior team folks. We will be going through a very intensive self-efficacy review as senior administration soon, in which we will not only be challenged to look at ourselves and asked to consider our responsiveness to the needs of our system and staff, but how we are now preparing the team and system for the next decade and succession. It is exciting!

And amidst all of this, we continue to celebrate our schools and their accomplishments: we celebrate the fact that RLDHS under the tutelage of Darin Bausch went all the way to OFSAA championships from Red lake with his basketball team and performed admirably; we celebrate Tyanna Carpenter’s bronze medal at OFSAA in wrestling for BBSS; we celebrate the fact that as winter grinded along the staff at Ignace, Crolancia, and Savant Lake Public Schools continued to open their doors and provide not only learning opportunities for kids, but a place for them to go after hours in a healthy and positive way. We celebrate the fact that currently in Dryden, while the recent DHS 7-12  public consultations have evoked strong emotions, they have also brought out powerful public messages from parents in the community that they are so completely enamoured and pleased with the programming at Open Roads, New Prospect and Lillian Berg Public School, they couldn’t ask for anything better (at a recent public meeting, I stayed behind and talked with several parents for an hour in which all they could rave about was how welcoming and inclusive ORPS and Syrena Lalonde were!!). And we celebrate the day to day extraordinary efforts of classroom staff such Patti Boucha and Shelley Sabeski in the Firefly Classroom at Evergreen PS, which often go without any fanfare or recognition. We as a system are doing amazing things as I stated earlier and you as staff make the lives of others exceptional on a daily basis for so many.

Thank You.

After my last blog, I received quite a number of responses from staff, and I do try to respond quickly but personally. Your feedback and connectivity to me as Director is not only welcomed, it is vital. I have asked many staff who email me why it is they feel like they should take five minutes and read the musings of a guy who shares his thoughts on the system, our purpose and work we do. What I found interesting is that many of you indicated you feel it gives you insight into where we are going as an organization together. I do have a strong vision for the Board, replete with the Strategic Plan guiding us, but it is a vision and there is an agenda; a kids first agenda that is unwavering and uncompromising. Considering all of things I have tried to articulate for you above, I myself get a feeling of increased energy and dynamism! I like where we are going.

We are the face of public education in the region (we accept all who come to us), and we are the big kid on the block (benevolent as we are), and you all are on the front lines and part of an era now that is filled with excitement and change!

As always, please feel free to drop me a line at any time, and take care. And please keep your fingers crossed for big, big news coming soon!

Sean