New West kids deserve fair lunch policy for all

Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent's report on the subject.
Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent’s report on the subject.

The children in my daughter’s kindergarten class, like most in the district, are given 15 minutes to eat their lunches before they are sent outside to play. But it’s not really 15 minutes to eat.

That 15 minutes includes two dozen children lining up and washing hands at a single sink in the class. It includes the time to file into the cloakroom to fetch their lunch kits. It also includes the time to clean up their desks and put their lunch kits away. Talking and socializing are necessarily forbidden. Continue reading “New West kids deserve fair lunch policy for all”

New West school board candidates weigh in on family issues

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about my first impressions of the 2011 Civic Election Candidates for New Westminster, based on a non-traditional all candidates forum at Lafflines Comedy Club. I based my thoughts solely on the all important ‘first impression’, in particular, the issue of trust and authenticity. However, that doesn’t discount the importance of know what a candidate actually stands for. I believe that it is important to do our research as citizens and vote based on policy platforms.

I was invited to write an article for Tenth to the Fraser specific to family issues in the Civic Election. I am happy to have that opportunity. I put together a couple questions and sent them to all the candidates via e-mail- hoping to get a better sense of their policy platforms. My questions targeted two things:

First, it is my belief that part of the reason voter turnout is so low in civic elections is that many voters are unclear on the ways in which Civic politicians can impact their day to day life. I wanted the candidates to help me explain through this article, when it comes to family issues, what it is that they can actually do within their municipal offices.

My second question required them to be as specific as possible about what they would actually like to see happen in our city. I believe in the “Nenshi” mode of civic politics: “Politics in full sentences”. (Haven’t heard of Nenshi? Calgary’s current mayor. Ran an awesome campaign based on grassroots consultation, social media, and a robust but clear policy platform). However, I also believe those sentences should be short, to the point and without unnecessary ‘fluff’. We often hear candidates talk about how they will improve or make things better. The catch is a) What does ‘better’ mean to them and b) how do you get from now to better, aka do we agree on the means to the ends.

I really appreciate the candidates who responded, I know how busy they are. Overall, I got the best response from the School Board Candidates, which reflected my general first impression that overall I was more impressed with the School Board candidates then the council or mayoral ones. I should note, I did have a few candidates who responded but are not included in this article, as they did not directly answer the questions I provided, making it difficult for me to include them in this format. I also had a number of candidates apologize for not having enough time to respond, which I respect.

I will share the candidates’ answers to the above questions in two posts. The first one (below) will focus on trustee candidates. The second will summarize responses from mayor and council candidates.

Part One: School Board

I know many parents make choices of where to buy a house in the Lower Mainland based on the schools, their reputation and their programs of choice. In clarifying what the school board can impact, the answer from Mary Ann Mortensen was that, “our Board of Education trustees are responsible for improving student achievement.” The School board can impact this by allocating budget (which comes from the provincial government) to ‘programs of choice’ such as “special needs, apprenticeship programs, drama and music, sports programs, international baccalaureate, adult education, self directed learning. It would also include after school care, child care, special counselling services.” Says Brenda McEachern Keen. The School Board can also provide community access for recreation programs, according to David Phelan. It is important to note, however, that the school board is not directly responsible for providing day care and can not change the curriculum, though it can advocate as such.

So given that range of what the school board can actually do, the second thing I asked the candidates is to be specific in terms of what they would like to see happen. To do this, I asked them to specific programs or policies (essentially, things they spend budget dollars on) they would like to see stop, reduced, improved, created and advocated to other levels of government. Essentially, I wanted the meat of their campaign platform. This is the part that really got at the heart of the issues for the school board. Here were some of my favorite responses:

Stop:

Jim Goring: “In the past Boards have passed a “Needs Budget.” This has not been effective, takes staff, increases costs and distracts focus. There are alternative methods to look at budgeting to establish needs and make decisions.”

Mary Ann Mortensen: “Creating policies without first creating a Mission and Vision statement through consultation with the community.”

Reduce:

Brenda McEachern Keen: “Participating in the day to day management of the district. This is properly delegated to our capable executive administrators with periodic review by the board.”

Glen Richmond: “Overcrowding in our schools.”

Improve:

James Janzen: “I think the School Board could communicate better with the wider community about what we do and how we are doing. We are doing well and more people should know about that!”

David Phelan: “We need to organize community walks, perhaps work with the PACS so students can partake in an active way of getting to school…. Develop local connections to farmer’s markets, community gardens and Farm to School programs that will help develop healthy eating habits in our children.”

Mary Ann Mortensen: “More advocacy for Special Needs funding and supports, more advocacy for a review of Special needs designation, assess students earlier for Special Needs and gifted/talented, improve parental engagement in public education, improve communication, increase programs of choice as demand increases and room in schools increases (3 new schools), improve employee morale, and a host of others.”

Create:

Glen Richmond: “[R]e-establish the School Liaison Officer (SLO) Program (one part-time officer assigned to each school) for all elementary and middle schools.”

Michael Ewen: “breakfast programs”

James Janzen: “In the area of policy I would like to find out from the community if we need to offer more protection for LGBTG students or whether our current policies are good enough.”

Casey Cook: “Increased funding to support special needs, school breakfast and hot lunch program and many many more education supports and services.”

Advocate:

David Phelan: “Funding for more child care spaces, and having the various levels of government work together to create more child care spaces in our schools, and to create more Community Hubs.”

Conclusion

Overall, most of the candidates indicated a need to advocate to the provincial government for more federal funding.

For me, as a parent of a toddler, there are few things in particular that resonated with me and that I will be looking for from our newly elected School Board. Those things are:

  • Getting the new schools built
  • Programs that focus on healthy living: healthy food in the schools, walk to school programs, physical education, ect.
  • The option for parents to enroll their child in a program with a focus on little to no homework and a focus on critical thinking and problem solving, rather then rote memorization

Based on what I heard from the candidates, I am confident there are candidates out there that can move us in the right direction.

MaryAnn Mortensen: New West programs ‘provide many pathways to success’ [school board]

The following questionnaire was sent to all New Westminster school trustee candidates a little over a week ago. Questions were selected based primarily on comments from readers of Tenth to the Fraser collected via Twitter and Facebook, with a few of my own questions added in. Responses are published in the order they were received. Spelling/grammar are not corrected and candidates’ responses are published unedited.  

MaryAnn Mortensen
MaryAnn Mortensen

1. First, let’s hear a little about you:

  • What’s your name? – MaryAnn Mortensen
  • Do you have kids in our school system? – Yes, a daughter and a son
  • What do our schools do well? – From my observations, Principals and teachers and support staff work collaboratively and support each other. I see a great respect between Administrators and Senior Administrators. The selection of program choices from mainstream to Early and Late French Immersion, Punjabi, Montessori, Trade apprenticeships in Plumbing, Culinary Arts and Hairdressing, Music Program, International Baccalaureate Program, Home Learners and our alternate programs (SIGMA, POWER and RECAP) provide many pathways to success and I strongly believe this is vital to encouraging families to send their children to our schools and offers children greater opportunities to achieve success. I see a dedication in our teaching staff that goes beyond their duty from the District Track meet to every day after school activities such as basketball, track and other extra-curricular activities that further deepen the important bond between teachers and students. I see support staff that care deeply about our schools (remembering on particular Custodian who would use his break to teach students how to play basketball and hockey and join in on games with students who already played these sports. There are so many things that our schools do well and they do this even while waiting for our buildings to be built and upgraded.
  • What is the biggest area (aside from building schools) that needs improvement? – Bar none, the biggest issue in our school district is how decisions are made at the Board table. Consultation must happen before decisions are made. I believe that we need a Board and District Mission and Vision Statement and that our policies must be guided by the principles agreed to by those who work in our school district and the parents/guardians who send their children to our schools and the community of New Westminster. We must evaluate our communications in the district using a communications audit. To keep more dollars in our district, I believe we can cost-share the services of other districts communications staff to perform the evaluation and from that our Mission and Vision Statement will guide us in how we address the communication gaps in our system.
  • What education-related idea or issue is most important to you personally as a candidate? – Children are our most valuable “asset” and we must foster in them a love of learning, offer them many pathways to success and ensure that we provide a positive, healthy and safe environment to achieve their full potential. Equally, we must ensure that we provide a healthy and safe environment along with the services and resources to our staff to ensure that they have the best teaching environment in which to teach, inspire and challenge our children.

2. How do you think schools could improve engagement and communication with parents and the broader community? Select all that apply.

  • Identify a dedicated communications resource for the district (employee or shared services) to improve communications protocols and materials
  • Use social media to reach out to parents and the broader community
  • Increase frequency of public consultation opportunities
  • Expand public consultation beyond parents of school aged kids to include those with preschool kids and concerned community members
  • Improve collaboration/trustee involvement with parent advisory councils
  • Using the shared services of another district’s communications specialist, perform a communications audit, identify the gaps in the system and follow our Mission and Vision statement to guide how we will fix our broken communication system in New Westminster school district.

3. Why should residents who don’t have children care about school board issues?
A healthy school community is vital to the community as a whole. We have roughly 6,000 students in New Westminster and we know that while some residents are transient, most stay and raise families here. One of the roles trustees play is to ensure that through sound policy making, we provide the best learning environment and safe buildings in which students can learn and teachers and staff can teach and support students and staff. Trustees are also charged with the duty of distributing a budget. This money is all our tax dollars at work. Part of good governance also means that we communicate with services/agencies/organizations in the community that encourage, support and engage children in their learning and lives while they are in our school system. The cost to society is enormous when we do not pay heed to our school communities. The seven trustees you elect oversee the management of our school district. Many have only to think about the concerns around the Massey Theatre’s future or how the lack of planning for new schools has impacted not only our students but also the community around where to site the elementary, middle and high school. Our schools are called community schools because they are shared hubs for all community members. Resident Associations were impacted by a decision to charge insurance fees for their meetings, extra-curricular activities and activities for children and adults are impacted by the decisions of our Board of Education. Too often, people do not realize the impact a school board has on its community and they vote only for council and Mayor. It is my hope that the community is awakened to the reality that your seven-member school board does matter to you whether or not you have children, whether or not you have children in the system or whether your children are grown. Your tax dollars pay for public education and our school buildings. You have a right and obligation to ensure that you vote for individuals who you believe will spend our $60 + million dollar budget responsibly and equitably and manage the schools in your community with good governance.

4. Which of the following statements most closely represents your views on bottled water in schools?
The Medical Safety Officer for New Westminster provided the Board of Education with a recommendation on the sale/use of bottled water. This recommendation was brought to our Parent Advisory Councils and our District Parent Advisory Council. The recommendation stated (paraphrasing) Provide safe, clean drinking water and stations where our water comes from, (fountains) stop the sale of other beverages other than healthy juice drinks, stop selling single use containers – in that order. As trustee I will advocate for and encourage the use and provision of reusable bottles (perhaps using any proceeds for arts/sports related activities in our schools).

5. Assuming it is possible within our district’s budget, should New Westminster expand programs of choice to include sports academies (hockey school, for instance)?
As your trustee, I would put forward a motion to research the demand, funding costs, necessary staff, support from staff, parents and community and the availability of facilities for all academies. If we were able to meet approval on these and other necessary criteria, I would support requests for proposals on sports and other academies.

6. What will you do to expedite building the new schools?
It is my understanding that an announcement about the Ministry’s approval on the elementary and middle schools is imminent. As trustee, I would call for consultation with the John Robson School and community to determine the needs/wants for the new schools (elementary and middle) in order to expedite the building process.

When Ministry approves the plans for New Westminster Secondary; I would follow the same process as explained above. It is important that we consult on the design build of our new schools with those affected and this includes all of New Westminster. Until we have room in our buildings to house the high school students, we cannot begin construction on the New Westminster Secondary School site.

7. Would you support prioritizing the construction of the new high school before the other new schools planned for the district?
No
During construction, it is essential that we ensure the safety of our children/students and staff in the district. Were we to construct the high school first, we would need to house well over 2,000 students in portables at an enormous cost. The phased construction of the elementary and middle schools will provide us with facilities in which our high school staff and students can safely teach and learn during the construction phase of NWSS. I believe that with the decoupling of the elementary and middle schools, we are able to begin construction of both of these buildings in tandem though, again, we must be careful to ensure the safety of our students and staff at this time. While the St. Mary’s site is without a building, students and staff, construction on the John Robson site must be carefully managed. Think of how unpleasant it is to live near a massive construction site and you can appreciate what that might be like for our staff and students to teach and learn during this time. The Ministry’s funding of over $100 million dollars is the largest in the history of the Province of BC. We must take care not to waste any dollars that will otherwise provide our students and staff the best facilities in which to learn and teach – something we have been waiting ten years for!

8. What should be done with tiny Hume school?
The current Board of Education has made a promise to the Hume Park school community to develop a plan to increase enrollment numbers. The plan takes into account the educational and financial considerations to assist Hume Park in growing their school to acceptable numbers. As trustee, I support this plan and will work with the Board and the Hume Park Community in achieving this goal.

9. What more do you think schools could do to improve the health of children? (physical activity, healthy eating habits, etc.)
I believe our schools do a reasonably good job in educating our children and families on healthy living. A caveat is that I am not fully versed with all that our twelve schools do to improve the health of our children. As your trustee, if not already undertaken in our schools, I will advocate for the following:

  • Full consultation with staff and parents on expanding the lunch break for elementary and middle school students.
  • Continually update health and wellness information for our schools.
  • Work with existing agencies to provide support to our students/families (Cameray Services, UBC Counselling, Ministry for Children and Families and others).
  • Promote mental health awareness and work with agencies to help inform parents/guardians of support services for children and families.
  • Expand our hot breakfast and lunch programs.
  • Work in partnership with Action Schools BC, Fraser Health and other agencies in the promotion of healthy eating/physical habits.
  • Work with local businesses, organizations and associations to provide low to no cost physical activity trials for students and staff.
  • Promote safe routes to school program.
  • Promote and encourage bike clinics and other sport related clinics in our schools.
  • Provide safe, sheltered areas for bikes, scooters, etc and encourage children to bike/scooter/roller-blade etc to school.
  • Work with community sport/art associations/organizations in tandem with our great Community Coordinators to encourage greater participation in healthy physical, nutritional and wellness programs and services.

10. What do you think of the idea of expanding the use of school facilities to act as satellite community centres in neighbourhoods that lack such amenities? (For example, offering recreational programming outside of school hours or offering free space for nonprofit groups to meet, such as residents’ associations)
Not interested, this isn’t what schools are for.
All of our schools are currently used in the evenings for recreational programming outside of school hours. As a committee member of the Neighbourhoods of Learning (NOL), along with my committee members, we developed the criteria for the guidelines on what kinds of services and programs our new schools will offer. The Ministry of Education initiative allows for an additional space of 15% per building (will be smaller for smaller school sites) for such services as ESL for adults, childcare, parent-guardian & child drop-in centres, Speech and Language Pathologist, Health Nurse, etc. during and after school hours. Once our schools are built, a request for proposal will go out to the programs and services that are appropriate to run in each of our schools respectively. Some services and programs will operate during the school day and others will operate in after school hours. Requests for proposals will be accepted for use of a multi-purpose room in all our new schools and non-profit and community based associations and organizations will be permitted to use the space if they meet the criteria. Other than the multi-purpose room, the additional 15% space is dedicated and operating expenses will be shared with the school district. The existing agreement between the City and the school district has caused some confusion and uncertainty for user groups that use our community schools. As your trustee, I will advocate for and support the use of our schools as community hubs for recreational, non-profit and wellness programs. For our new schools, I will follow the Neighbourhoods of Learning initiative where some of the services and programs mentioned earlier will operate both during and after school hours. These services and organizations will be appropriate to the level of school (elementary, middle and high school) and by time of day. Our schools are of the community and paid for by the community and as such, we must provide space within them for the community to enjoy and use.

For more information on MaryAnn Mortensen, you can find her online: