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

End-of-January Note and Kindergarten Registration

Does January feel like the longest month of the year for you?? If it does, you can join the myriad of parents and staff who have told me the very same thing these past couple of weeks. Sure it has 31 days, which by mathematical terms makes it one of the longest months; but when you add that it also represents a period of the year where sunlight is lacking, add the three to four feet of snow we have received in some parts of the Board since January 1st, and that we have had more days than not below -40 degrees with windchill, and even a couple past -50 on a couple of occasions….is it any wonder people have felt that January grinds along?

But here is the thing, and it is worth noting, January ends in two days. The days are in fact getting longer, the warmer weather is coming, the kids will be going outside for breaks, “report card-itis” is almost done, and we have survived. It has been the longest and coldest January that I can remember, and while a few days ago, a colleague of ours remarked to me that it was colder in 1927, I am afraid I was not around to experience that winter. I send this end-of-January Director’s note, to draw attention to the fact, that we as northerners live in a special part of the world, by choice, and inherent in that choice is the resiliency that makes up part of our DNA.

(As an aside, a Director friend of mine last week, said he could relate to our weather, because they too were experiencing cold and frigid temperatures with the mercury dipping down to -12 at one point! How did they survive??!!!!)

I often feel that in my role as DOE, it is my responsibility to not only characterize why the KPDSB is different, but why that difference needs to be celebrated, and to communicate that celebration out to all stakeholders, including and particularly importantly, staff. If we were only talking about weather as being our defining characteristic, what a low-level comment on the KPDSB we would be making. However, when we deepen the conversation to our schools, all of them, our staff, all of you, and our kids, every one of them…..you begin to see that the Board is indeed very different.  So different in fact that our Ministry friends want to help and are trying to help us in the most unique ways and with that, we are trying to help ourselves in ways that we have never tried before, or had thought of even a few short years ago.

It has been raised to me by many staff over the past few months: has the nature of the Board, meaning the high incidence rates of kids with needs that years ago were not experienced, the diversity of our families and communities, the acceptance that we are a Board for all, and the fact that we are the Face of Public Education, in fact turned some people away?

It is a good question, and it requires a lot of thought, and reflection. Before I reply with (and this will surprise you) my opinion, let me first ask this supplemental question: if you were to be part of an organization, would you want it to be one that accepts all, welcomes all, and feels a responsibility to our most vulnerable? Would you believe that no matter how compromised an upbringing or home environment, (or lack thereof) that many of the kids who come to us face, we have an ethical responsibility to give them our best?

Or, would you close the door and turn the child away and say we can’t, because we really don’t have to, or “you’re not our problem”. Would you say that it’s Ok to exclude some by choice? If you believe in public education that truly is about closing gaps and levelling the field for all, not just some, I assure you, you have come to the right place. I say this, because I am incredibly proud of this organization, or as a principal said to me a few weeks back, “Sean, you bleed this organization.”

I suppose I do.

But these comments are not without a strong message to all of our staff: If I am proud of our organization, then I am going to assume you are too. And if you feel that the organization is good enough to call home as an educator, an education assistant, or office staff, and an education system to say “I am proud to work for the largest regional school board in the area.” (and I might add, one of the largest employers in the area too), then the assumption is that it is unquestionably equally good for everyone. The KPDSB sets the bar high for all and works relentlessly to improve, it is probably one reason we often feel our job is never done. It is also why we come up with amazing and innovative programs, and not wait to see what someone else is doing. However, I challenge you on this, if the system is strong enough for adults, then it’s good enough for kids, all kids, including yours and mine. This week is Kindergarten Registration Week for the KPDSB across the system; there are ads and media advertisements everywhere. I am not only respectfully asking all staff to speak up the KPDSB in your communities, I frankly expect it. The Board is surging and growing, and getting stronger; we have a bright future, and an impassioned vision of who we are and where we’re going. And if you had your choice, would you choose to get off the bus, or stay on the team?

Let the conversation begin, and as always, please feel free to call me.

As you ponder my comments, make sure you put time aside to cheer for our Canadians in the weeks ahead in Sochi!

Take care,

Sean

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

We have one week to go, before the annual and affectionately known time we call that “long winter’s nap” arrives. I have heard two things consistently from staff over the past few weeks: one, how quickly time has flown by since we returned to school in August and two, how people are looking forward to the Christmas recess. Not to be confused with being unhappy and forlorn, what staff are telling me is that they are tired; very happy and supportive, but still tired.

My response to that?  You should be tired; we are engaged in the hardest work we have been in, here in the KPDSB. We have many, many challenges with our kids and their families. We are engaged in cutting-edge learning and we have challenged each other and ourselves to be leading the learning process. And it’s tough, true grit and very difficult work. The needs of the KPDSB are immense, and they require an all-out effort, so when people tell me they are tired and ready for a break, I can relate, because I feel the same way. However, in sharing this with all of you, I recall myself promising all staff and stakeholders, that I would never ask you to do any heavy lifting that I was not prepared to do myself, and I remain passionately committed to that.

Now, having said this, I have one really important question to ask you: have you ever been to Savant Lake, more specifically Savant Lake Public School? If you haven’t you are missing out on one of the true gems of the KPDSB!! At the end of the stretch of highway, known as the Marchington Road, and a little south on Highway 599, you come to a several-room school house that is home to three teachers, and 17 little souls who attend school at Savant Lake PS each day and night. Why do I share this with you? I suppose for a couple of reasons. First, I am going there on Tuesday of next week to attend their annual Christmas concert, to be followed by a street hockey game outside between myself (and staff) , and then a community Christmas dinner. Aside from my lacking hockey skills, I am excited about going and can’t wait!  The second thing though I want to tell you is that every time I have gone to Savant Lake, the kids are always, always smiling and happy! They are the same kids that you will see smiling in a sleigh in the Board’s Christmas card that will be sent out next week to all….and make no mistake they are smiling. They are simply happy to be there.

Aleea, Irene, and Larissa, the three teachers that call SLPS their home, make these kids feel extraordinary!  They are extraordinary staff doing extraordinary things with their kids, and as a result, these children, who to some might seem to not have a whole lot of worldly possessions, have something even better and more powerful, they have teachers who care about them, very deeply. So to Aleea, Irene, and Larissa (and of course Chris and Lis) Merry Christmas and enjoy your well-deserved break, you truly put kids first.

One extension to this conversation, please see the picture below that I took yesterday outside the Ministry of Education’s infamous “Mowat Block” head office in Toronto.

Jump Start

I was there yesterday meeting with Ministry officials and a couple of the Assistant Deputy Ministers discussing (again) the QEDHS file, and the unique needs of the KPDSB, and asking them once more for consideration to help us across the system. If you take a close look at the picture you will see a large Canadian Tire trailer unit, with staff from the program “Jump Start” unloading its hold of toys. They were bringing the toys into the foyer at the Mowat Block for a publicity event and toy drive promoting toys and Christmas for kids.

I want to share with all of you, that last night Scott Urquhart (Student Success  Leader) and I met with representatives from the Jump Start Initiative to begin partnering with them and Canadian Tire to bring the program to the KPDSB. The program is about reengaging kids in activities, athletics and involvement, to get moving again, and to get energized. I look forward to sharing more with all of you about this in the weeks and months ahead, but we will make the lives of our kids and staff extraordinary, as I said in the video earlier this fall. And we will start in Savant Lake.

Before I close this edition of my thoughts (blog), I want to add one further comment about the toys, Jump Start, the kids in Savant Lake who are like many of the kids in every one of our schools; they all count on us, they count on you. As I walked down Bay Street yesterday after my meeting, and noted the feeling of Christmas in the air, it was very clear to me that there are many in our world who have much and enhanced privilege. But as my good friend and colleague Chantal Moore said to me a couple of weeks back, “there are so many in our communities, who have so little.”  She is right, but what our kids have in our communities, that no one can pick up off of any shelf, is they have us, and we have each other in the KPDSB, and you will never be able to put a value on that.

I am so proud of this organization, that I am not able to appropriately articulate in words, and couldn’t do my feelings justice. I am proud of my staff, and proud of my students, and I am extremely proud of all of you.

From my family to all of yours, happy holidays and enjoy that long winter’s nap that you all so very much deserve.

See you in 2014!!

Sean