In a recent blog post, I argued that Ottawa schools are not as “user-friendly” as they should be – in other words, they are not always serving their target populations in an effective manner. Students and parents often find it difficult to navigate bureaucratic processes, due to a mix of “red tape” and inconsistent application of rules and procedures (e.g., placement in special education programs, access to transportation, Individual Education Plans, etc.). Furthermore, communities are not always meaningfully consulted, even when fundamental decisions such as the closure or relocation of schools or programs are at stake.
To use a concrete example: as recently as last year, the OCDSB closed a large number of schools across the District. See closures at a glance and other changes here. The stated goals were to create more consistent school sizes and to provide fairer access to school programming. However, the decision left students, parents and communities frustrated and deeply upset about both the process and the outcomes. This should have been a wake-up call for the Board, prompting staff and trustees to revisit engagement strategies, communications plans, and the way consultations are designed and conducted.
Nonetheless, we see a similar situation developing now, regarding proposed changes to the OCDSB’s Gifted Program at the secondary (high school) level. In a nutshell, Board staff is proposing the transition of gifted classes to a so-called “geographic model”, the stated intent being to promote attendance at schools with proximity to a student’s community. However, what this means in practice is reducing the number of high schools that offer the Gifted Program, from four currently (Lisgar, Bell, Glebe, and Merivale) to just two sites in the future (locations TBD). One of the proposed sites would be in the Eastern side of the city, the other one in the West.
What is important to note is that the proposed change has implications that go far beyond this particular special education program. The fact is (according to the latest Board statistics) that no fewer than 363 gifted students attend Lisgar Collegiate Institute, followed by 207 at Bell High School, 68 at Glebe Collegiate Institute, and 29 at Merivale High School. Any change to the Gifted Program would have profound implications for the four school communities (particularly Lisgar and Bell), as well as gifted students currently at the elementary level who plan to stay in the program during their high-school years.
Such a fundamental change cannot be made without meaningful and extensive consultations with all the relevant stakeholders. The list includes, but is not limited to, groups such as: gifted students and their parents / guardians; specialized organizations (e.g., the Association for Bright Children of Ontario, the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton, the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils), the four school communities (Lisgar, Bell, Glebe, Merivale), any newly proposed high school(s) offering gifted classes, “feeder” elementary / secondary schools, educational experts, and any other interested parties.
The Board should not only take all the time required to do this right (and push the decision to school year 2018-19 if necessary). But it should also demonstrate policy flexibility, transparency, and openness to all reasonable proposals. The Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) should play a very active role in this process, and school trustees from all implicated OCDSB zones should be allowed to not only inform the conversation but also vote on the final package. The Board has a real opportunity here to improve an already well-regarded program, and strengthen OCDSB’s reputation as an educational innovator in Ontario.
It would also be sensible to leave such a key important decision to the next batch of school trustees, following the upcoming municipal elections in Fall 2018 – as they will have to oversee the implementation of any proposed changes. This would ensure that the large and growing “democratic deficit” that we are experiencing in Ontario school boards is at least acknowledged in Ottawa. It would also send a signal that small steps are being taken towards restoring the public’s trust in school boards, OCDSB included.
Dr. Dragos Popa
OCDSB SEAC Member