School initiatives take flight on budget surplus

A budget surplus of more than $200,000, from the current school year, is enabling Wolf Creek Public School (WCPS) board to move forward

A budget surplus of more than $200,000, from the current school year, is enabling Wolf Creek Public School (WCPS) board to move forward with a number of initiatives.

However, due to fiscal constraints and a lack of what trustees call “hard data,” not every initiative presented was given support or even discussed.

Visitor monitoring

One option not given money was a visitor monitoring equipment pilot presented by Mark McWhinnie, assistant superintendent of technology services.

McWhinnie proposed the pilot option in response to ongoing concerns over who’s entering school buildings.

The pilot would allow regular visitors to the schools to scan an ID card. Nonregular visitors would have to type in a number of security questions to receive a temporary ID.

“It’s a fairly prevalent product in the United States but not so much in Canada right now,” he added. If WCPS had adopted the pilot they would be a leading division for this type of system.

McWhinnie told the trustees the pilot was coming to the board at a reduced cost and they should think about acting early, before the system became mandated and prices increased.

Trustee Bon Huff feels visitor and student monitoring is important but options focused on student achievement are a higher priority. “If we have some extra money how are we going to get the best bang for our buck. Maybe we need added security in our schools but at what expense?”

“We’re called public schools for a reason because our public should be welcome,” said trustee Lorrie Jess. However, Jess feels the situation is delicate due to incidences such as Sandy Hook or the threats made against Ponoka’s high school last December.

“This will not be a priority before the financial picture turns around,” said secretary-treasurer Joe Henderson.

Satinwood School

Satinwood School was a funding option on the board’s list of initiatives.

However, it wasn’t discussed at the May 21 school board meeting. Superintendent Larry Jacobs wants Satinwood on the back burner for the time being.

Pre-K programs

No money was given in the name of Pre-K programs.

Wolf Creek school division has 18 schools providing kindergarten programs, five running a play school under the division’s umbrella but only one true Pre-K program.

A Pre-K program is classified as every student involved is registered and also a program funded unit (PUF) student.

PUF students are those with extreme disabilities.

Trustee Barb Walker says Pre-K is a good preventative initiative rather than having teachers and other resources straining to support students in higher grades for issues that could have been targeted years before.

“It would be really good if there was that, for lack of a better word, hot spot funding,” said Walker.

Amber Hester, assistant superintendent of student services, told the board there are approximately 85 PUF students division-wide. The trustees decided not to look into funding until the fall when more data for the upcoming year is available.

21st Century Learning

The 21st Century Learning (U21C) project was given another $50,000 out of next year’s budget.

“It would be used to continue to support every school,” said McWhinnie.

In the upcoming year every school across the division is going to have technology coaches.

Huff says this is a necessary expenditure since schools are becoming more digital and the ministry is pushing to have exams administered online. “If we’re going to set out students up for success we need to introduce them to the digital products out there.”

Video conferencing

Another technology-based initiative the board funded at $30,000 was video conferencing in the classroom.

Eight years ago WCPS received a provincial grant to include video conferencing in high school programs.

“We were very successful with that,” said McWhinnie.

However, over the eight years the program has continually been subsidized, with an average shortfall of approximately $30,000 per year.

Both McWhinnie and Gerry Varty, assistant superintendent of learning support and system improvement want learning support rather than technology services to maintain the program.

To assure the board the funding and program are creating results, the trustees were told that math 30 level courses were producing higher grades through video conferencing than through traditional learning.

“There’s a lot of assistance being provided to make them successful,” said McWhinnie. Video conferencing allows for smaller classes, more one-on- one time and gives students the ability to discuss their learning before and after course times.

Distance learning

WCPS board is also giving $20,000 to purchase course rights from the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) for further develop a distance learning module program for students.

The set-up fee is a one-time expenditure said Varty.

The long distance module learning comes in 10 credit bundles and the schools are still able to collect credits.

“It’s all revenue, it’s no expenses. We don’t have to put a teacher in front of them,” said Varty.

If 10 students sign on for the bundles each year that pays for the next year’s operating of the program.

Varty knows module learning isn’t the best learning model for every student but it opens a wider variety of courses students in smaller rural schools would otherwise not have access to.

Having the module program also allows students who failed a class in the first semester to retake it in the second.

Aspiring Leaders program

Money was also given to an Aspiring Leaders initiative headed by Varty.

“Aspiring Leaders has merit,” said Huff.

He wanted to know why the division was having problems attracting people to central office administration positions. “I think we should find out why they’re not coming into these positions.”

The $60,000 and Aspiring Leaders program funds a two-year program for candidates working to fill the administration positions.

In the first year candidates are put through five “intensive” days of pre-professional framework, says assistant superintendent of people services Jayson Lovell. In the second the candidates are given release time to work shoulder to shoulder with administration professionals. “We want them to be hands on,” said Lovell.

Trustee Karin Engen feels like with any other position, administrators need fundamental support. Last year, in the division, first-year teachers were part of a mentoring program with more veteran staff. WCPS was able to retain more first-year teachers than many other positions.

Lovell says the positions are becoming harder to fill because administration is seen as a position that’s hard to balance. He also says the pool of candidates is becoming more shallow.

That’s is why the Aspiring Leaders program is going to work to train those already in the division. “If we don’t grow our own we’re susceptible to whatever’s out there.” said Lovell.

Literacy programs

Despite some trustees’ concerns about the ability to produce enough funds to ensure the longevity of the program, a kindergarten to Grade 12 literacy program is also being supported.

Huff says the $20,000 given is only a start-up fee and for the program to be maintained and grow it will have to be continually fed financially.

District profile funding

Hester says this is the first year there’s going to be no top off money given to fund severely disabled students.

District profile students are those who are not able to function through a complete school day without continual one-on-one support.

Last year the school division had 70 district profile students. When the criteria to identify a district profile student changed, 25 were dropped off the list.

However, under the new guideline some different students were appointed, putting the number back at 70.

Last year Hester budgeted for five new district profile students and 19 entered the division. “It was an anomaly. We’re never seen a year like that.”

Surpluses in all Hester’s budget lines are used and support coming from Alberta Education to top off funding is also gone. Hester is looking at an $180,000 shortfall, which the school board decided to grant.

The trustees stipulated the money and grants resulting are a one-time gift.

“I’d be happy to couch it as a one year opportunity to advance inclusion,” said Hester. She feels every child is a puzzle and the schools would be grateful for the limited grant and simply be given the opportunity to try.

Mental health initiatives

The school board also granted another $55,000 toward mental health initiatives.

Over the past three years $40,000 was given to complete Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) training.

Hester wants to expand the training to more staff. “The training is fantastic. I wouldn’t want to expand the training if I hadn’t seen it in action.”

She says the training changes the staff dealing with students in crisis or heightened states, such as anxiety, depression or suicide.

Without the boosted funds Hester says it would take another additional three years to compete the training expansion. She says if the training can be fast-tracked a contractor can be brought onsite to the staff.

Hester also wants to conduct research and look at different social skills programs, selecting the best for WCPS and focusing on programs for different grade levels.

“We just don’t have the manpower to research them all and bring them all in.” Hester wants someone for the program where that would be their only task.