Special needs issues close to Lisa Graham’s heart [school board]

School trustee candidate Lisa Graham supports proactive public engagement to better inform stakeholders, believing "meaningful discussion is informed discussion."

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.  

Lisa Graham
Lisa Graham

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

  • What’s your name? Lisa Graham, Voice New Westminster trustee candidate
  • Do you have kids in the system? My youngest, my daughter, Julie (NWSS honour roll student, grade 11)
  • What do our schools do well? Hi Briana, I really liked this question and, as an interesting aside, decided to put it to some district students. The comments are in random order and I won’t include any names (I didn’t ask for full names), but I will pass along their verbatim responses:

High School student comments:
“Teachers also want you to succeed so they encourage you to do well in classes.”
“For some kids that don’t have extra money, they make sure you don’t miss out.”
“Teachers provide a good student-teacher relationship; they offer and provide help when needed or asked for.”
“The IB Coordinator, the Dept. Head, really, the whole department is very supportive, very dedicated.”
“Our school’s principal and staff do a good job of maintaining order in the school — as an example the walk-out was controlled well, people were behaved due to supervision and policies were put in to attempt to stop any students from participating for wrong reasons.”
“They probably killed a few trees with all of the paper they used to constantly inform everybody about the walk-out; the time, electricity and ink used was a waste.”
“The dance curriculum is intense. It’s advanced and goal-oriented and New Westminster has a known reputation because of the quality and qualifications of the instructors. I feel lucky to be part of it.”
“NWSS counselling staff are outstanding; they are very supportive and go out of their way above and beyond what they have to.”
“Our music programme is the best! Teachers care that you do well in all aspects of your education and stress that.”
“Football rocks but is about more than football. It’s about being a good team-player in life, like citizenship.”

Elementary School student comments (from only two catchments):
“Our teacher loves us and keeps us safe and corrects us.”
“They put ‘fun’ in parts of the day.”
“Teachers give you things to think about, not just learning.”
“Math is hard but the rest is good.”
“They cross us across the street to make us safe.”
“School does sharing and friends and being nice very well.”
“They have food if you need it.”
“They talk to us … a lot … and they teach us to be quiet.”
“I love my teacher and she loves me. I love my school!”
“Don’t worry, … it’s all good.”

My Answer: The New Westminster School District supports a variety of choice programming — from Montessori to French Immersion to our Alternate Programs to IB to vocation training (in partnership with post-secondary institutions), etc.
Launching Early-learning initiatives and Smart Starts provides critical bridging into the school system.
In a context that extends beyond the typical application to special needs students, “inclusion”; with available resources, our staff does an outstanding job of addressing the non-school needs of many of our students (weather-appropriate coats and footwear, breakfasts in the morning, hot lunch programs, extra-curricular out-of-school programs and clubs, etc.) unfortunately, there is more need than there are resources to address it. Why do we do this? We do this because we know that when a child’s physiological needs are met, their capacity for learning increases exponentially. Similarly, for new immigrants, we work very hard to support our “new” students as they adjust to a new language and culture, as well as an expanded new role within their own family unit — it is an uncommon stress for children to act as the conduit between their family and the larger society but it is a common occurrence for newly landed immigrant students. With regard to both learning and teaching conditions, when we meet all these kinds of needs, it benefits the whole classroom/school.
I could go on citing other areas of particular merit starting with our football-program but there are more questions yet to be answered … .

  • What is the biggest area (aside from building schools) that needs improvement? First, it should be noted that a host of improvements on many different levels will automatically be achieved when construction of the new schools is complete, the most impacting of which will be to improve school enrolment/capacity numbers. Unrelated to facility-based concerns, the biggest challenges facing education are:
    1. funding allocations from the Ministry of Education;
    2. broader social equity issues that impact the ‘school-to-home’ and ‘home-to-school’ dynamic (that is, what happens at school goes home and what happens at home comes to school);
    3. and communication issues.
  • What education-related idea or issue is most important to you personally as a candidate? While no candidate should be, or wants to be, pegged as a singular-issue person, it is often true that there is that singular catalyst that tipped a candidate’s decision to run for office. Having always had an education-focus, that became doubly true for me when my son entered school as a special needs student; David, a recent NWSS special needs graduate (2010), is autistic. From the unique perspective of being a 3-term trustee and a school-involved parent of two (one special needs, the other ‘typical’), I can attest to the fact that “special needs” issues affect all stakeholders: to address those issues, a thoughtful, informed, and *properly-funded* approach is required. Progress has been made but much work remains to be done.

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 communication;
  • use social media to reach out to parents and the broader community;
  • increase frequency of 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
  • all of the aforementioned options are worthy of discussion and pursuit, but in order to do justice to each, I firmly believe that there first needs to be a foundation-document created that would outline some very fundamental district statistics to be distributed to all district stakeholders.

Meaningful discussion is “informed” discussion; informed-input leads to informed decision-making; informed decision-making achieves the best possible decision-outcomes. As a first step to improving district communication, what I would *re-propose* is that an “at-a-glance” profile of district schools be created. Based on past issues and public discussions (as recent as the last school-year), this kind of document would prove useful to all district and community stakeholders.

For example, at the May 31st, 2011 Board meeting, trustees were presented with a recommendation to approve an additional Early French Immersion kindergarten class for Herbert Spencer school, a school that is widely considered by many of its staff and parents as already being “oversubscribed” (which is a polite way of saying “over-crowded”). The recommendation was ‘moved’ but it was not ‘seconded’ and therefore, did not pass; proponents who were not in attendance for forum-discussions were left with many questions about that decision. Paradoxically, at the June 7, 2011 meeting, the Board addressed and deliberated about supporting an “undersubscribed” school (Hume Park school).

The imperative to address significant education issues like these — the popular demand for additional EFI-kindergarten; the need to “right-size” our district schools; and the need to achieve optimal education delivery for the benefit of all students and staff in all offered streams — has made it more than apparent that in the face of district enrolment challenges, there needs to be a comprehensive Board of Education/Community dialogue about the structuring of district-programs-of-choice and about the concept of neighbourhood schools.
Essential to community-discussion is that all district stakeholders share a common understanding of all education possibilities-and-limitations, and of the criteria that applies to decision-making. Regarding the previous examples, if nothing else, the feedback and the resulting non-action on the proposed EFI-K class at Spencer, and the advocacy of the small contingent of Hume School supporters, serves to underscore the importance of pursuing a proactive and comprehensive dialogue with all district stakeholders.

To illustrate in better detail, it should be stated that the concerns expressed about an additional EFI-K class at Spencer School extended beyond the issue of accommodating the initial 22 students. For example, with regard to the ‘sibling clause’ for programs-of-choice that allots preferential placement to siblings of students already enrolled in the program, to add a new division of EFI would have had an affect on the status of the existing EFI wait-list. Current registrants would have been subject to ‘bumping’ by any siblings of the new class and there would have been further implications regarding enrolment and capacity pressures at that site.

At the consultation meeting, EFI parents expressed passionate support for implementing the additional class — there is active demand for this program — and the presentation outlined how the proposed additional class would not only service the existing wait-list for the 2011/12 year, but how it would also enhance future placement and socialization opportunities for that cohort, as well as for the levels immediately prior and subsequent to it. Conversely, it was also explained that this benefit would not extend to the rest of the EFI grade levels, nor would it benefit the mainstream program.

There are approximately 485 students enrolled at Herbert Spencer Elementary. When the school was built, estimated capacity was for 360 students. Over the last number of years, because increasing enrolment has consistently been accommodated at that site, the Board has heard numerous Spencer-parent-delegations lament the loss of the school daycare program, the music room, and subsequently, the multi-purpose room. At the consultation meeting, the school principal was very clear that absorbing 20 students into existing divisions is one thing, but accomodating an entire new division into the school would certainly pose added challenges.

Citing a myriad of issues ranging from increasing traffic volumes around the school to constraints on education requirements and school routines (times for gym, computer, resource, lunch, etc.), of all of the feedback received, a considerable and diverse number of stakeholders expressed opposition to the addition of another division to the school and the effect it would have on existing capacity numbers, on the education delivery for both streams of programming, and also on the overall ‘climate’ of the school.

Unfortunately for the 22 hopeful EFI families, instead of adding another division to an already well-populated Spencer school, in the absence of a comprehensive Board dialogue about the future of district programs-of-choice and neighbourhood schools, there were simply too many uncertainties about the effects of implementing an additional division at Spencer to justify the class for September 2012.
A structured community dialogue examining education values and priorities would certainly help to avoid future uncertainties and disappointments, but more than that, if New Westminster is to fully benefit-by and participate-in the Ministry of Education’s 21st-Century “personalized” learning agenda, such a forum would be a good place to start. As a basis for improving communication with stakeholders, an “at-a-glance” profile of district schools, one that is comprehensive and easily digestible, should be created to provide an understanding of the district in terms of student numbers and programs of choice. To facilitate more informed discussion and expand that discussion to the larger community, the profile would include:

    1. the program-streams offered at each school;
    2. the Ministry-determined optimal capacity numbers (enrolment) for each school;
    3. the actual capacity-enrolment numbers at each school;
    4. the number of enrolled students (regardless of program placement) that live within each schools’ neighbourhood-catchment area;
    5. and, in consultation with the public, the profile could be expanded to include other pertinent information.

Due, in part, to the fact that there is a lack of understanding about district schools, unfortunately, many segments of our community do not engage in school-based discussions. Providing an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand profile of district-schools/programs for the community at-large would enable and encourage greater public-forum participation by all, especially by individuals and/or groups that traditionally, to-date, have not provided input. As stated previously, I will re-propose that such a profile be developed. Proactive public-engagement better informs all stakeholders about (1) the district’s status and (2) issues affecting education delivery.

3. Why should residents who don’t have children care about school board issues? 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.

4. Which of the following statements most closely represents your views on bottled water in schools? The environmental consideration seemed to be the thrust for the campaign to ban plastic water bottles in schools but in the motion that was before the Board, no similar concern or mention was expressed about other plastic-encased beverages. At the high school, whether valid or not, there was also a question of confidence, not about the water source, but about the age and condition of the pipes dispensing the water through the fountains. Others raised concern about the consequences of breaking vendors’ contracts, the proceeds of which fund sports and other extra-curricular activities. I was part of the majority decision on the matter to implement water-filling stations in new school facilities but continue to offer bottled water as a choice until then.

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)? More than just budget is required to justify implementing new programs but if all of the criteria is met, there is no reason not to support another stream of programming (whatever it may be). So the short answer is: yes, I am in favour of expanding programs of choice.

What are the criteria?

  1. Is there a program (ie., curriculum)?
  2. Is there a teacher (or qualified instructor)?
  3. Is there a cohort?
  4. Is there ‘depth over time’ (ie., student commitment over multiple years, not just the entry-level cohort)?
  5. Is there a budget (do sufficient finances exist, or can they be acquired)?
  6. Is there capacity (ie., in terms of the physical plant. Do we have space to house the program)?

6. What will you do to expedite building the new schools? To expedite building new schools, I will stay the present course. Though it was long overdue, at this point in time, there is an agreement protocol in place to ensure that the new school-capital-projects will stay on track. I might also add, for the first time ever, I am truly optimistic that there will be an imminent announcement from the Ministry of Education confirming a “green-light” for construction of the new school projects.

7. Would you support prioritizing the construction of the new high school before the other new schools planned for the district? No, I would not prioritize the construction of the high school before the other two new schools. As we undertake an aggressive capital-construction process to do a physical-plant restructuring of the district, the most effective and efficient way to accommodate students is to first build the new elementary school (on an unoccupied site) so that we can move the students from the current John Robson Elementary to the new facility. Once that step is taken, completion of the new middle school on the current John Robson site can occur; grades 6, 7 & 8 would be the next cohort of students moved to the new school on that site. Effectively, this will take grades 6 & 7 out of ‘John Robson’, Lord Kelvin, Lord Tweedsmuir, and Connaught Heights elementary schools, as well as removing grade 8 from the high school. Construction of the new (grade 9 – 12) high school will entail some very involved planning in order to accommodate the education of students on-site while constructing the ‘new’ high school. To alter the current plan and build the new high school first (before the new elementary and middle schools) would result in more students (grades 8 – 12) on the high school site during construction, would be less efficient, and would create a cohort of “homeless” grade 8 students because once built, the new high school will not be able to accommodate grade 8. To best meet all district needs, there needs to be an orderly process that takes all of these factors into consideration.

8. What should be done with tiny Hume school? When the superintendent first issued his report on Hume Park, all indications about the future enrolment of the school were rather abysmal. To resolve the issues that were identified in the report, he recommended closure; no other options (or alternate solutions to identified problems) were offered which is why I voted to support the superintendent’s recommendation. Believe me when I say that no trustee anywhere ever wants to have to vote on a school closure motion. To the great surprise of most at that time, including Hume parents and the superintendent, the vote tally did not support the superintendent’s recommendation. It was decided that the school would remain open (which was the personal preference of all) but nothing was decided regarding the identified problems; those remained unaddressed. It was the absence of any proposed remedies to those problems that triggered a prolonged and emotionally-draining roller-coaster process for the Hume-community, and for trustees. Finally, last June, a process was begun to address outstanding issues of concern. A few weeks ago, the Board received an update-report on the resolution process and I am happy to say that it seems like the Hume committee is on the right track to developing a viable recommendation for continuance. I am hopeful that when the current process concludes and the Hume committee delivers its final report, that there will be a solution to remedy undersubscribed enrolment projections and secure the continuance of the school. To provide context, that was the long-answer; the short answer is — if there is a solution in sight, I’m supportive of keeping it open as a neighbourhood school!

9. What more do you think schools could do to improve the health of children? (physical activity, healthy eating habits, etc.) Installing bike racks so that students have a safe area to store their bicycles while they are in class encourages the use of bicycles as a mode of transport to-and-from school; along with “awareness/safety” education-campaigns in our schools, it’s not only environmentally-friendly, it promotes better physical health too. District breakfast and hot lunch programmes are highly nutritional. Last year, research-based data was presented to the Board about the science of implementing healthier eating protocols via longer lunch breaks — two of our district schools were already compliant with that science, and a pilot project is occurring in another of our schools. “Reverse-lunches” whereby students go out to play prior to eating lunch is also being considered as a means to achieve healthier eating habits.

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) On the surface of it, the impulse response is to say “Great idea, I support it.” Non-profit groups should be able to use schools to meet, and for years, in schools where the custodial schedule corresponded with group meeting times, groups did meet free of charge. One of the issues hindering that kind of accommodation in ‘all’ of our schools was the costs that would be incurred by the district; when schools need to remain open, custodial hours need to be paid. There are also practical security and liability issues to consider; school offices contain confidential records and Parent Advisory Councils have raised thousands of dollars over the years to put books on library shelves and up-grade computer labs — those things need to be kept safe when the school doors are ‘open’ — paid staff need to be on-hand. Also, there were district-incurred costs for wear-and-tear of equipment and facilities when user-groups booked gym-facilities. To resolve current hardship-concerns for the ability of some non-profit groups to pay a user-fee, it is my understanding that the recently developed policy to charge a nominal user-fee for access to school facilities is currently being re-reviewed by staff.

If you’d like to learn more about Lisa Graham, you can find her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/@LisaGraham9

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

Tenth to the Fraser