Category Archives: Programming

Principle Reflections – The Four C’s for Year One

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I have made it through year one as a Principal! (Ok, only eleven days left!)

I figured out a long time ago that the school year always passes quickly.  Maybe that’s a function of age.  However, this year seemed to pass at an even greater breakneck pace.  I think that was a function of the amount of learning I needed to do this time around.  July is coming and I’ll be able to breathe soon.

So how did the year go?  I would say pretty gosh darn good.  All the of the balls for big picture items are still up in the air and are being juggled reasonably well. There is no doubt that  a few smaller balls have been deferred or dropped.  I believe that the year can be characterized as a positive year for students, staff, and the admin team at both sites. And I am pretty proud of the role that I have played to support the work of our staff.

If I was to sum up this school year, I would want to talk about four areas. Two areas that I believe have come a long way in our schools this year are Collaboration and Culture of Learning. Two areas that I believe need continued growth are Communication and Community Involvement.

What was grown this year…

Collaboration – This is what I believe needs to be a foundational approach to the work that we do in education.  Our kids and society are too complex for any one educator to have all of the answers.  A lot teachers have figured this out and have created networks for themselves to access when they run into a situation for which they need help.  This year we have formalized that process and will continue to do so next year too.

Teachers were placed in more or less grade level teams called Collaborative Learning Teams (CLT).  On approximately a monthly basis, they met and were able to discuss students who posed some sort of an instructional challenge with their colleagues.  There were educational discussions related to learning disabilities, promoting reading, connecting kids to friends and school, managing behaviors, speech and language development, anxiety disorders, parenting support, and more. From each discussion, teachers were left with both short and long term strategies to try.  Students were then reviewed at each meeting to check progress and offer further suggestions if needed.  The discussions were inspiring at times!  There was always a culture of support but there was also a willingness to challenge ideas and assumptions.

This work will become the foundation to build a Collaborative Response Model based on Response to Intervention practices in the coming school year.  It is important to note, that because this work is so important, these discussions happened within the school day.  Teachers were  not expected to juggle their after school schedules to participate.

Culture of Learning – I would venture to say that there has been a different feel in the admin led staff development activities this year.  The staff has experienced a broad range of topics to illustrate the breadth of what is happening in our complex educational landscape.  At the beginning of March, I shared a video clip from 2008 which was at about the time when the “talk” of the need for significant educational reform was taking off.  By taking the key points from that clip and connecting them to current educational practice, The Schools We Need – Then And Now, teachers could see that, in those seven short years, there has been a significant response and shift in the work that we do and it will have lasting implications for educational practice.  From there we have engaged in sessions on Cross Curricular Competencies, The Learning Technology Policy Framework, and their relationship to the Ministerial Order on Student Learning and Inspiring Education.

Professional development has encompassed a broad range of topics.  Some of the highlights include a team of five teachers participating in The Daily 5, a team of seven participating in the Google Summit, a team of four participating in Response to Intervention, and five others participating in project based learning sessions. Teachers have participated in at least one PD session this year with many participating in several. Teachers are reporting on their PGP progress at year end. All of this has been culminated in a viewing of the Ted Talk by Andrew McAfee – What Will Future Jobs Look Like? amplifying the importance of the work we do as educators to prepare our students for the future.

I believe this will be a strong foundation upon which to build the Collaborative Response Model/RTI process which will, in turn, generate the continued learning for teachers as they identify the needs of their students and ensure they have the instructional repertoire to meet those needs.

What needs to grow next year…

Communication – This is communication in the larger sense of the school to the school community. This is most definitely an area of growth. While both Forest Green and Connections For Learning have met basic expectations of classroom newsletters and traditional monthly newsletters with the occasional newspaper visit, there is not a strong web presence for either site.  We need to do some examination of what makes the most sense for our school communities.  Most likely, we will build our communication toward accessibility on mobile devices. Will it be Facebook?  Will it be Google? What about Twitter? We also need to build processes to make it regular practice and allow for widespread participation to advertise and celebrate what we are doing.

Community Involvement – There is no doubt that there is already a vibrant feel with both of our sites.  However, the more we are able to tap into our community connections, the more needs we can meet for our students, the more our students will see themselves connected to their world. How can we reach out to support our community? How can we access resources to support our students?  While we have certainly accessed a variety of smaller scale opportunities, can we leverage these?  Can we obtain grants? Can we use technology to connect with others?  I’m sure there is opportunity out there, we just need to find it and access it. Our parent groups are an obvious starting point.  They are connected into the community and to the schools.

So what do I think at the end of year one?  Well first, I’d really like to come back for year two!  I really think that I have found my stride professionally.  I did jump in a bit early the first time around but now that I  have had more experiences, I am feeling pretty comfortable and confident. There is always more to learn and I will continue to do so!

Alternative Ed – One Way, Many Ways

CFL Logo - ColorConnections For Learning (CFL) is the alternative education site for Parkland School Division offering programming in grades 1 – 12.  We have just launched an updated web site which provides a great opportunity to write this post and share our great ideas and model for alternative education. It’s important to note that while CFL is the only alternative program site, Parkland does offer a variety of unique programs within various school settings.

CFL is actually a collection of programs.  The Adapted Learning and Living Skills (ALLS), Brightbank Academy, and High School Outreach programs are ‘directed placement’ programs that provide specialized support for students with identified learning needs, both academic and social/emotional. The Elementary Parent Partnership, High School Parent Partnership, Stony Creek, and Traditional Home Education  programs are ‘programs of choice’ which allow parents to become directly involved in their children’s education through three different models of home based programming. At times, CFL has also created individualized 1:1 programs for students with highly unique needs or circumstances. Where there are good fits, student programs have been developed offering counselling support, literacy support, and student leadership opportunities across the different programs.  As we know, students need to be proficient in their use of technology and CFL offers opportunities for students to learn and develop their technology skills to support their learning.

The common thread through all of CFL’s programming is to provide flexible and individualized programs for all students. This occurs in a variety of ways.  Academically, several of the programs use modules-based learning, and we have amassed a collection of supplementary materials and strategies to assist with differentiation when needed. While the modules system does offer much flexibility and allows for independent completion, there are limitations with engagement and instructional variation. CFL also partners with the Alberta Distance Learning Center to contract courses, typically high school option courses, to broaden course offerings for students. In part-time programs, the academic component is directed by teachers who differentiate for students as needed given the nature of the students in the classroom.  And for home programs, parents are supported in tailoring their instruction to meet their children’s academic levels.

The individualization continues. CFL’s directed placement programs primarily serve students with behavioral concerns and the flexible and well supported classroom environments allow for the creation of routines and processes that address situations where students are behaving inappropriately.  Staff members respond positively and consistently to allow students to learn to shape their own behavior and at times provide direct instruction for students to reflect on their behavior and develop strategies for self-regulation.  Additionally, a number of families have elected to enroll their children in home school programs as a means of supporting their emotional or behavioral struggles, like anxiety or ADHD.  By providing a nurturing learning environment, where they are loved unconditionally, children are able to make great academic gains in their homes when they were struggling with the social and environmental pressures in the school setting.

One opportunity that home education provides is the freedom for differentiation in regard to values based instruction. CFL’s home education programs have different structures regarding which subjects parents instruct and how they are supported. In some programs parents have the freedom to select resources and learning activities that are outside of Alberta curriculum and are values based. In all of CFL’s home based programs parents deliver the health curriculum and are very involved in option programming. This provides a beautiful opportunity for families to spend time together discussing and learning what is truly important for them in regard to their worldview and values. Each family does it differently but it’s powerful learning for their children.  It is common for families to develop projects to teach the children about key family activities. As an example, an outfitter family created wildlife projects for their children. Other examples include using scripture verses for handwriting practice, Bible study, service projects – both locally and internationally, cultural activities, joining community activities (sports, theater, Scouts, etc.), church activities, travel, learning activities together (technology, photography, scrapbooking, etc.), family history projects, and more.

One of the elements that contributes significantly to the relaxed, casual, and welcoming environment at CFL is the actual building itself. The building originally housed a health club but has since been renovated. There are nine classrooms that are on either end of the building allowing for some separation between programs which works quite well as there are differences in operations and the nature of the students. The one ancillary classroom does not have a smartboard, but the other eight do.  One of the squash courts from the health club was saved to create a mini-gym which is handy for our small elementary classes and some small group activities for older students. A kitchen was built about a year ago which allows for some option programming and job/life skills development. The Outreach classroom is located where the locker rooms used to be so there are several small breakout rooms and a conference room which easily allow students to isolate themselves when they are out of sorts or provide a location for small group instruction.

Now I am sure that you realize that there are a pretty special group of people working at CFL. The CFL staff are experts at forming relationships with students and parents, even the most difficult ones.  Each of them has the ability to intuitively read their students to know when something is different and has a gentle and authentic way of interacting with students to get to the root of an issue. The nature of alternative ed. requires adaptability as the structure of most of the programming has a basis in flexible delivery. As well, the nature of alternative ed. families who are seeking something inherently different and at-risk students who’s stories can sometimes change on a daily basis need people who can be accommodating and inventive in their approach to education. The teachers in our home based programs have particular skill in relating with parents and usually play more of a coaching role when assisting parents in developing and delivering their children’s programs. Finally, organizational and data management skills are critical given the wide variety of small details that are different between student programs and the individualized pace at which students work. It’s a tracking nightmare sometimes.

Connections For Learning is also set up as a service provider to the rest of the schools in Parkland School Division.  When school personnel realize that they have a student who is unable to be successful in the school setting or can no longer be served within the building, an administrator will contact CFL to discuss programming options. Some examples of the students that have been served include students going on extended holidays, students struggling with health concerns and can no longer attend school, those suffering from toxic social relationships, etc. Some of the ways that CFL will support schools are to fully take over programming for the student and actually transfer registration, offering temporary programming for a portion of the school year, lending our modules materials for the school to use temporarily to cover a particular situation, or just brainstorming regarding possible solutions for the student. Other than the brainstorming option, CFL charges a fee to the sending school for any services provided after September 30 registrations are finalized. These ‘transfer of funds’ are determined on a pro-rated basis and then submitted to division office for the transfer to occur and are part of the budgeted money that keeps CFL operational.

While life at CFL is pretty darn good most of the time, it`s not always rainbows and roses.  There are challenges. One of the first is the inconsistency in budgeting which is directly tied to transiency in enrollment. Conservative budgeting is required, as with many alternative sites, but there is a strong commitment to the need for the existence of CFL by Parkland School Division which has subsidized particular programs or projects on occasion.  Along with transient enrollment sometimes comes skewed enrollment with some programs bursting some years and others being under subscribed. Several of our teachers are part-time teachers who will sometimes have their FTE increased during the year to support additional enrollment. Professional development is interesting in that CFL is expected to participate in all of the division initiatives, like AISI. As these initiatives are designed for the regular classroom, CFL staff members have become accustomed to having ‘the meeting after the meeting’ to discuss how the ideas presented at a PD session can be tailored for part-time and or modules-based programming. That said, there is plenty of specific PD out there to support alternative programs.  Engagement is an issue for the programs that rely on modules-based programming as it is dry and boring to say the least. Over the years we have added workshops to support students with some face to face assistance and learning activities. Currently, we are looking toward online resources as a means of engaging those who attend both on-site and off. It is also important that CFL operates as a respectful place across all of our programs because we have a great spectrum of families/students in our programs, from those with quite liberal values to those with very conservative values.  When there have been incidents where behaviors, values, and judgments have clashed, that foundation of respect for all has brought clarity to all involved.

So if you think your school community needs a version of CFL, here are some suggestions.  Try to gather together a combination of forward thinking leaders at the division level with grassroots people committed to alternative education. It’s important to have honest reflective conversations regarding the students who are not being well served, what they would need to be successful and how to tap into the unique talents that exist among your educators along with innovation opportunities. As well, there is a thriving network of home educators out there, both formal and informal, some of whom are fully committed to remaining apart from the school system and some of whom are looking for innovative partnerships. Tapping into this group of parent educators would be most helpful. Alberta Education is supportive of school choice and with some research and a willingness to be innovative and responsive, program development will happen. Both the Alternative Programs Handbook and Outreach Program Handbook contain checklists for decision making and program development which are great starting points. This is truly hopeful education and I wish you well on your journey should you choose to take it.

Why I Love Alternate Ed.

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For me, alternate ed. is an encompassing term that includes specialized programs, outreach education, alternative programs, home education and individualized programming.  Almost all of my teaching experience has been outside of the regular classroom, so alternate ed. is the heart of what I do.  So what has kept me on the fringes of the education system?

It was/is just in my nature to be a helper for those who needed an extra boost.  I remember visiting my grandparents farm as a little girl in the summers and I would always ‘adopt’ a brood hen chick that had a damaged wing or a hobbled leg and feed it and look after it.  In grade three, I remember Gary R. punched out Bobby G. when the teacher was out of the room and Bobby’s nose bled like a faucet.  I commanded Gary to sit on a chair, sent one of my friends to go get the teacher, told Bobby to stop crying and started piling kleenex on his face.  Kirby D. was my partner in grades four and five.  He was visually impaired and he sat with me so I could narrate for him. And it continued in various ways over the years.

In my early years of teaching, I taught an off-campus behavior program and a junior high special ed classroom in a small town.  For the most part the kids had social/emotional concerns of one form or another. Their heads were wrapped up in a lot of trauma and/or disappointment.  Their self-esteem was in the tank.  These kids seemed to do a lot of dumb things that alienated themselves from their peers and other teachers.  At the same time, they had some sorts of goals of what they wanted out of life and concerns for family, getting a job, and pursuing their interests even if their dreams were a little off the beaten path.  Being in these specialized classrooms gave the students the support they needed during the times when they were a little ‘off’ and helped them each develop skills as they were ready.  Each student’s educational journey is unique and it’s important to empower students so that they can achieve what they want for themselves.

In my 30’s I started to gain a broader perspective of life as I got married, started a family, started to think about  where my tax money went wanting a sound society for my kids to grow up in, and, in general, became more observant of what was going on outside my own little world.  At the same time, having more experience in teaching gave me the opportunity to see how the education system responded to students requiring a little more from ‘the system’ given their unique or unusual situations.  By this time, I was a high school counselor and was helping to program for these students. Elite athletes needed time away from school for competition. Sick kids needed time to regain their health.  Top end academic students needed opportunities to nurture their talents and flourish in their academic life.  And there are plenty more examples.  I have come to deeply believe that public education has an obligation to educate all students and this sometimes means unique programming is needed to meet the needs of students who are in unusual circumstances.

Most recently I have had the tremendous opportunity to become familiar with several models of home education.  Families have stepped up to create a lifestyle for themselves that embraces the education of their children.  For some families this is the means by which they are ensuring that their children are immersed in their family values.  For travelling families portable programming allows them to educate their children both at home and away as our mobile society sees more people having the opportunity to travel for both work and pleasure.  Some families have children with learning issues and are willing to adjust their whole family structure to support the child in a 1:1 setting that is rarely seen in the school system today.  In all of these scenarios parents are able to create learning experiences tailored specifically to their children and their families.  It’s a deeply personal experience for them. Personalizing  education has the capability of providing a deeply meaningful experience that nurtures the interests and priorities of students and sometimes their families.

All of these priorities really come to the forefront for me on almost every intake that I do.  Most of the time families come to an alternative school because they at the very least know they need something different than regular education and at the very worst have had a bad experience.  I can’t tell you the number of times that parents have shared their relief in discovering that there is a viable educational option for their child/family.  Education should be a hopeful endeavor.