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”

Why PACs never stop asking parents for money

As parents of kids in New West schools know, each school has a PAC, and they never stop asking for your money. Although PACs are familiar, a lot of people aren’t sure exactly what they do or why they do it – and why, no matter how much you donate, it is never enough.

“PAC” stands for Parent Advisory Council. PAC members work very hard to represent the parent voice within their children’s schools. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, School Districts started forming PACs in order to increase family involvement in the education process (this is according to the Vancouver School Board PAC handbook). It became school board policy that all schools must allow the formation of a PAC, and that members of the PAC executive should be chosen by election. Since then, PACs have been an integral part of the BC education system, representing the voices of families.

PACs have been involved in everything from evolving curriculum and communicating with School Boards, to creating school lunch programs and raising funds. However, the PACs’ responsibilities have become increasingly weighted towards the latter. PACs have long been responsible for providing schools with things like hot lunches and activities, but they are now also providing schools with money for field trips, playgrounds, and technology. PACs are becoming a high stakes game, and schools are slowly becoming “have” or “have-not” due to the ability of its PAC to raise those funds. I spoke to some PAC members and parents, and there are some very telling commonalities in the typical PAC that indicate whether its school is a “have” or “have-not.”

When I asked PAC members and parents what one of the main issues was with today’s PAC, the number one answer was parent involvement. When I was a child in the 80’s, I remember my parents’ PAC meetings being a meeting place, a place to socialize, to be involved, and to get sh*t done at the school. There were always at least 20 people at the meetings, most of them on the executive. And this was a school with only 150 kids! That’s quite a ratio! The school I now work in, has a membership of 4, and an average attendance of the same.

Parents assume that they have to commit huge amounts of time to the PAC. And if there are only 4 people attending meetings, you DO! But the more people involved, the more work there is to go around, and the less time it takes to do said work. Then, the work is shared more equitably. The PAC president at my school is here most days, all day. spearheading fundraising, arranging hot lunch days, researching grants, organizing various after-school fun activities, etc. It’s a full time job that she doesn’t get paid for. Some may say, “Well she signed up for it!” And if it was signing up for something that only affected her family, fair enough. But it affects all the families in the school, and if the PAC isn’t providing, the school suffers. PAC members who work their butts off burn out quick. When I asked PAC members and parents what their top wish would be for, one of the top things was more parent involvement.

One of the other top wishes was for more funding from the government. PACs receive money from the government, and over the years, there have been more and more stipulations put on how the government allots that money, and what the PAC can use that money for. For example, PACs have to have a minimum number of members to get funds, and must fill out mountains of difficult paperwork. PACs also receive funding from the BC Lottery Corporation, and over the years, the funding has not caught up to inflation, which means the funding is actually getting cut more and more. Meanwhile, the BCLC is making more and more money, each year and passing that money on to big Crown corporations that work specifically towards the government’s agenda. BCLC money can only be used for certain things. Technology is not one of them. And what are schools lacking in the most? Up to date technology.

As I mentioned before, in the ’80s, PACs played an integral role as the family voice in new district policies, governmental curriculum development, and school communities. However, as PACs’ plates have become more and more full with providing for the schools they represent, their ability to communicate at those levels has declined.

District PACs, or DPACs have popped up. And Provincial PACs, or the BCCPAC. These new representative groups have taken on the responsibilities of policy change and educational reform. Therefore, there should be a lot of communication between DPAC and BCCPAC and the local school PACs, right? Nope. In most cases, none at all. DPACs and BCCPAC have adopted their own political agendas over the years, and the formerly non-partisan organizations have become decidedly partisan in their agendas. These agendas, for the most part, have no link to the average schools’ needs. Local school PACs feel they have little to no voice outside their own school. And even within their school, some feel segregated.

With the rise in dependence on the PAC to provide funding for field trips, school supplies, and even teacher funds, PACs have also noticed less teamwork between teachers and PAC members. In the ’80s, teachers, principals and PAC members worked side by side, creating school communities where children thrived and school was “fun.” Now, PACs are becoming more and more disengaged with teachers, finding it difficult to communicate.

When a PAC asks how they can help teachers, teachers want money for more opportunities to provide students with fun and engaging activities. And that means more money from PACs. The fundraising machine runs non-stop. Programs that used to be free are no longer free, such as the Aquarium and Science World. Some programs have been cut altogether (such as swimming and skating) and therefore those field trips and programs have gotten more and more expensive, and all due to lack of funding on those programs’ own parts. And the PAC is still there, needing to toe the line. With fewer and fewer members doing more and more, with less and less.

So the next time you get, yet another, PAC notice asking for money, hopefully you will understand that grabbing money from you is the last thing the PAC wants to be doing. And it is the last thing they should be doing too.

McBride Mom’s Night Out

The McBride Elementary School PAC is putting on a fun night on May 11th called Mom’s Night Out. The event will celebrate Mother’s Day, but they’re also focused on raising funds to replace the aging and outdated computers in the lab at McBride.

The event will allow McBride mothers to enjoy a relaxing evening, enjoying other Mothers’ company. It is from 7-9:30pm at Richard McBride Elementary on Richmond Street in New Westminster.  During the event, they hope to offer a wide selection of products from some of their own parents’ home based businesses as well as some from the local community. Funds will be raised by raffling off items donated and admission fees.

Right now they are seeking donations from the business community – items that can be enjoyed by the mothers at the event such as a platter of food, refreshments etc, or that can be raffled off. They plan to recognize businesses who support the event and allow them to provide literature to handout.

They are also seeking at least 20 local vendors/home-based businesses to occupy tables on the night and feel it is a great opportunity to sell/show off products and businesses to McBride Moms and the local community. Being that it is a Mom’s event, the organizers would prefer businesses with products and services that appeal to women. Participating vendors are asked to donate a gift basket (which will be raffled off) and/or a percentage of sales made on the night.

If you are able to support McBride School by contributing to this event, please contact Lisa Crozier me at 604-527-9519 or ljb466@yahoo.ca to arrange for pick up of donated items.

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.

Why You Should Care Who is a School Trustee

Last round of municipal elections I had a four month old baby and while we made it to the polls, I remember vaguely choosing a mayoral candidate, and a few councillors I knew and liked, and that’s it. I didn’t select any school trustees because in my mind, there was no point. My child was a mere four months old and I didn’t think that a school trustee would have an impact on me. At least not until he made it to school, right? And even then we were considering homeschooling and private school and I felt like if my kid wasn’t in public school then it wasn’t going to matter.

This election I have a remarkably different opinion. I now firmly believe that the position of school trustee is every bit as important as councillors – perhaps even more important – regardless of whether you have children.

Why? Well, first let’s look at what the school trustees even do. The BC School Trustee Association (admittedly, a group who serves the trustees it represents) has a relatively succinct description of what a trustee does:

Trustees engage their communities in building and maintaining a school system that reflects local priorities, values and expectations. School trustees listen to their communities; guide the work of their school district; and set plans, policies and the annual budget. Reflecting the strength of local representation, boards report back to their communities on how students are doing: boards are directly accountable to the people they serve.

Essentially, trustees determine how, who, and at what price the assets (schools and other school district owned buildings) are used as well as in depth policies for how everyone must behave while doing so. And while most of us automatically think this refers only to the children in the community who attend public school, it actually represents a glut of other groups: sports groups (both adult and children), service groups, clubs like Girl Guides or Cub Scouts, the proprietors of craft or plant sales, as well as other groups who may rent the facilities for events.

Additionally, the School District themselves identifies these as the functions of trustees:

  • Policy, Planning and Evaluation
  • Action on Legal Requirements
  • Selection of Senior Personnel
  • Public Relations
  • Final Appeal
But why does this matter to everyone, even those who don’t have kids in the system or even have kids at all? It’s simple: if you have healthy and happy kids in your community, your community is better for it. Let’s not forget that the assets and policies the trustees govern are paid for in part by your tax dollars. Don’t you want them to do a good job with your investment?

 

And finally, there is a giant body of science based knowledge out there that shows children thrive most when they are given all the right building blocks, and some of those blocks don’t come from their immediate families. (Just Google “healthy kids research” – over 49 million hits). Teachers, neighbours, community role models, and the community at large all have an impact on the children in our community. The New Westminster Children’s Charter, endorsed by both the City of New Westminster and the School District, sets out what kids need to thrive.

In short, if you’re on the fence about why you should be voting for a school trustee, I urge you to consider that these are the people that will help further the growth of children in our community who are going to grow up and hopefully stay in our community and become us – voters, taxpayers, and hopefully deeply engaged citizens. I’d prefer kids who want to contribute and who care about what happens, don’t you?

* * *

Here’s a list of what candidates said in our survey when we asked “Why should residents who don’t have children care about school board issues?” (arranged alphabetically by last name with a link to their full questionnaire responses published earlier this week.)

Jonina Campbell: Education matters to everyone. How we educate and raise youth affects all society. Furthermore, there are issues relating to schools that affect local neighbourhoods such as traffic planning, playground space, and space for community use. Already our schools are open for recreation and the arts (ie. Massey Theatre). I’d like to explore ways we can continue to expand the use of our schools. For example, because New Westminster has limited space available to build new recreation facilities, our schools could be used for recreational opportunities on the weekends. This might include something like a yoga class or open gym for children.

Casey Cook: Everyone should care about education and School Board issues. A healthy school system is a great contributor to a healthy community. Furthermore, today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. They are tomorrow’s decision makers. On a practical level, residents are taxpayers and should have a level of interest as to how effectively their taxes are being spent.

Michael Ewen: Beyond the democratic and economic argument about a well educated work force being more able to contribute to the development and hopefully evolution of our economy, residents should care that our schools are more fully utilized for the community. Due to budgetary constraints we are looking at a new policy that will see us charging our community user groups. We should be continuing the practice of keeping these facilities open and available to our community, at little or no cost.

Jim Goring: Public Education has an impact on the quality of life in our community in ways that benefit all, creating good citizens, supporting democracy, providing employees some who become employers.

Lisa Graham: On average, children are ‘in the public education system’ for a relatively short 13 years but are ‘in the community’ for their lifetime. This is particularly true in the Royal City — in fact, some families have called New Westminster ‘home’ for multiple generations! Unfortunately, too many residents do not realize that they are already vested stakeholders in school board issues because it is their tax dollars that fund the public education system. Schools are a microcosm of the larger society; as such, it is important to hear from yet-to-be engaged constituent groups, not only because they have a right to be heard, but because their contribution/input on school board matters can help shape outcomes that will impact the larger community. Active collaboration amongst all stakeholders can create a better community for all of us. The best consultation outcomes are the ones that sort through the most input; it’s in everybody’s best interest to participate in public matters.

James Janzen: Because we are all going to be relying on these kids to be the citizens of the future.

Brenda McEachern-Keen: Empowered students = empowered citizens. The social skills students learn as children will be the social skills they take into adulthood. The values our schools instill will be the values they live.

MaryAnn Mortensen: 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.

James Pepa: Children are our future and we should all be active in their education.

David Phelan: Our schools have strong connections to our community. The community uses our schools for a variety of social, community and athletic events. Community support and involvement is strong for many school programs, such as Hyack Football and the spectacular performances put on by NWSS students at Massey Theater. The Neighbourhoods of Learning areas in the new schools will provide a varied number of programs that residents will be able to access. We also have the opportunity to create connections to our environment in our new schools. This can be building relationships between our schools and community gardens, local farmer’s markets and Farm to School Programs. These connections can be used to promote healthy eating patterns in our children.

Glen Richmond: Because our students are the future citizens of our community and, as products of their environment, their experiences will affect others in the fullness of time.