YARMOUTH, N.S. – Education Minister Zach Churchill says the government’s focus is on improving student success and he believes the recommendations presented in a report on the system’s administrative structure will achieve this.
Churchill said on Jan. 24 that the government will act on the recommendations of Dr. Avis Glaze, an education consultant who assessed Nova Scotia’s system. She presented her report publically on Jan. 23 but had submitted her report to the government weeks earlier. Her report contains 22 recommendations. The government said it accepts the “spirit and intent” of the recommendations.
“This is a moment where we need to press forward together with a focus on those who need us most – our students,” said Churchill. “We have great people working in the system who are completely committed and dedicated to our kids. It’s our system that’s fractured.”
In an interview with the Tri-County Vanguard, Churchill acknowledged dissolving the province’s seven elected English school boards is a difficult thing to do. (The CSAP French school board will remain intact. Glaze did not want to see that board dissolved.)
“I know our board members at home, I know how committed they are. I’ve met board members across the province who have put their heart and soul into this work. Everyone has been doing the very best they can,” he said. “It’s about the system. It’s not about the people in it.”
But having all of these elected boards has contributed to a fracturing the system, he said, because the boards and the education department work as independent silos. It has created, he said, a system that does not adapt or respond as quickly as it needs to for kids from one end of the province to the other.
In lieu of the school boards a provincial advisory council will be formed that will have people appointed to it.
“I would like to get that done as soon as possible,” Churchill said. “I also see it as an opportunity to get some of these really valuable school board voices to the table from each of the regions to provide us with critical advice on how we move forward with this transition and how we focus the system on student achievement and success.”
Another recommendation the province looks forward to implementing is enhancing the role and influence of school advisory councils (SACs). This, it says, will strengthen the local voice in schools.
Asked what role he sees SACs serving, Churchill said, “Their role will be specific to their school community, but they will also feed information up to the directors (formerly the superintendents) in their regions and provide feedback to them. But their big focus is being able to direct funds in their own community and focus those investments in areas where they feel it’s needed.”
Churchill doesn’t foresee any issues with giving more power to over 300 SACs in the province, in that it may create too many voices with vested interests tied to their specific schools.
“Big parts of these recommendations are about empowering our front lines, principals, teachers, with local decision-making ability and empowering local communities with funding so they can self-direct funding issues and learning materials that they think will be best suited for the students that they’re serving,” he said. “Nobody has a greater stake in a school’s success than the parents and community members and the teachers that are there.”
There are SACs that have had trouble recruiting members in the past. Churchill said this is a legitimate concern and one the province will monitor.
Another key recommendation Churchill points to is moving principals and vice-principals out of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and into their own association. Their salaries, pensions and benefits will be protected.
“Principals have told us that they’re not able to be the instructional leaders that they need to be because of certain facilities management burdens that have been put on them,” said Churchill. “So this is about giving them independence in the system to be those instructional leaders that we need them to be.”
The NSTU’s president has said the union is not on side with this, but Churchill notes this is the second independent review to make this same recommendation.
“I know there’s implications for the union with it, and we will work with them through that,” he said. “We will offer to cover membership dues for a transitionary period to assist them with this. They do provide a valuable service to their members and we don’t want that to be put in jeopardy.”
Going back to the issue of dissolving the school boards, Churchill said legislative changes are required for this to occur and this has to be done during a sitting of the Legislature. The government has announced the next sitting of the Legislature will begin on Feb. 27.
The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has delivered directives, effectively immediately, to the elected boards as the system goes through this transition.
The directives state that during the transition period, decisions on some board matters will require the approval of the minister. They include:
• approval of any new school board policies
• entering agreements, or making substantive changes, including decisions on transportation, finance, operations and staffing
• initiating any new school reviews
• boards must continue to work with the department to implement universal pre-primary programming.
The department says the purpose of the directives is to ensure that the Education Act is upheld, the interests of students and staff are protected, that public confidence in the education system is preserved, and that resources of the elected boards are being used in a responsible manner during the transition period.
Meanwhile, commenting overall about the report, Churchill said, “We know we all need to do better. We’ve heard consistently that the status quo is not an option. We’ve heard it from teachers, we’ve heard it from parents and we’ve heard it from the public.
“I think this report is responsive to the concerns that teachers have had. They’re experienced frustrations over the course of the last 10 years by losing autonomy in the classroom and I think this will help give that back,” he said. “I do believe by having a unified system that is coherently focused on objectives to better improve student outcomes that this will improve our achievement level for students from one end of the province to the other and allow us to be more responsive and adaptive long term to the ever-changing needs of our student body.”