The Fraser Institute recently released its high school ranking—the 25 fastest improving schools in Alberta— and not everyone agrees with it, or the system.
Ponoka Composite High School (PCHS) teacher Rob Haggarty believes the Fraser Institute started their report when they started putting a profit motive on schools and a business model in schools, a model he calls the “right-wing agenda of the Alberta government.”
The 25 named schools are: Bassano High School, St. Gabriel Cyber, Coalhurst High School, F.P. Walshe, F.G Miller, St. Timothy, Oilfields, Calgary Christian High School, Fairview High School, Centennial, Forest Lawn, Archbishop O’Leary, McCoy, George McDougall, Parkview Adventist, Grand Trunk, Hunting Hills, Notre Dame, Bawlf, Roland Michener, Catholic Central, Eckville High School, Bishop O’Leary, Ste Marguerite, and Strathcona Christian.
According to the report, 18 of those schools are public schools. “Our rankings show that every school is capable of improvement, regardless of the personal and family characteristics of its student population,”said Michael Thomas, associate director of school performance studies of the Fraser Institute, in the press release.
“Effective teaching can be measured by the ability of students to pass any uniform examination that is a requirement for successful completion of the course. Schools have the responsibility of preparing their students to pass these final exams,” Thomas said.
But what about the schools that weren’t in the top 25?
“It seems to me you’re looking at one narrow thing. And that’s why most teachers … they don’t pay attention to it (the Fraser Institute). Because it’s not applicable to the complexity of a school,” Haggarty said.
Haggarty believes success can be measured in different ways and that it should be measured by a student’s goals and abilities.
He’s taught dash-two students who didn’t make top marks, graduated into trades and now, he claims, make more money than he does.
PCHS uses a pyramid of intervention to support its students. Classroom teachers handle the students first, but if their efforts aren’t getting the desired results other employees of the school, whose jobs are to provide support for the teachers get involved.
The school also employs a student success teacher, whose job is to identify students who are struggling and plan, with the student and teacher, how to get them back on track.
“For some kids it’s just saying hi to them in the morning. For others it’s having a teacher come to class with them and sit beside them and help them get through a day in class,” said Lacey Elliot, intervention teacher at the school.
There’s also a knowledge and employability program designed for students to receive instruction at their academic level rather than their grade level. “The reality is we have a huge population of kids coming in, reading at a Grade 2 or 3 level in Grade 9,” Elliot said.
Similar to other schools in Wolf Creek School Division, PCHS employs a modified no-zero policy. But, Haggarty says he and other teachers aren’t giving marks to students who haven’t done the work. Instead he’ll give one per cent. He says without the higher marks the results are still the same.
For situations like this the school runs five-week assessments. “We’ve got kids with attendance issues, kids with dysfunctional home lives, so we look more at the root cause of why they’re not here and maybe why they don’t want to do the assignment,” Elliot said.
Three days a week the school has built in tutorial sessions. In the past there were many struggling students who wouldn’t have taken advantage of the time. “It amazes me—I work primarily with at risk kids—how many of those kids are walking through the doors of the building,” Elliot said.
“For the Fraser Institute, in and of itself, you can make numbers whatever you want them to be. I’ve seen it many times,” said Haggarty.
The school had a student go from zero per cent attendance to 90 per cent, but it took a year. To Ponoka Composite that is an achievement, but the student wouldn’t score well on PAT’s. Despite his accomplishments his marks would bring down the school’s average, says Elliot.
When Elliot started at the school 4 years ago there was an average of less than 10 aboriginal students who graduated each year. The school was having trouble bridging the cultural gap and meeting the needs of the students.
However, just because the school didn’t have many aboriginal graduates doesn’t mean the ones who did graduate were less successful or deserving than other students says Elliot.
This year the school had 23 aboriginal students graduate. “I honestly believe it’s because we get behind kids and we help them be successful,” Elliot said.
Kimberly Badari, a Grade 12 student of the school says Ponoka Composite is good about preparing students for a number of possible futures, such as trades, not just academics.
Badari went to Skills Canada with her school for 3-D animation. “I was 90 per cent in programming. I had 95 per cent in 3-D animation, but my other classes around the school were around 70 to 75 per cent.”
Other students of the school are also pleased with the support they’ve been given for the paths they’ve chosen. Tynille Clemmer, a grade 12 student and avid rodeo competitor, is thankful the Broncs Rodeo Academy gave her time to train and keep up her academics.
Hyeong Kim, one of the school’s valedictorians this year, was able to take AP courses at the school.
This year the school had a student graduate that was the first of his family ever to graduate high school. “I was willing to applaud that much higher and louder than one of my students who got five out of five on the AP exam,” said Haggarty.
Elliot says that student has seen more horrors in his 19 years than others will see in a lifetime. “For him to graduate is a big deal, but that won’t show up on a Fraser Institute score.”
Other schools in the district also employ a number of strategies to support their students.
Rimbey Junior Senior High School has, as part of its students schedules, built in tutorial sessions two days a week for 30 minutes.
“As in every school we have teachers working at lunch time with students. Teachers no longer have supervision duties,” said Tim Lekas, principal of Rimbey Junior Senior High School.
Rimbey’s high school has three identified high school courses that have two fully certified teachers per class.
Rimbey also has a no-zero policy. “No teacher will allow them to not do work,” Lekas said. “Honestly, unmotivated students would rather have a zero.”
Lekas has found that with the policy in place student academic standings are improving.
Although it’s not in place yet Bentley School has added, to their schedule for next year, scheduled tutoring sessions.
“We’re trying to support kids in that extra way,” says principal Lane Moore.
Bentley School cycles its curriculum. Giving students the opportunity to take classes biology 20 and 30 in one year and chemistry 20 and 30 the next.
With the support this system provides students Moore, does acknowledge that if a student fails it’s harder for them to make up the course. “To cycle students you’ve got to plan long-term. It does impact staffing.”