Many factors play roles in school improvement
Ask Nita Sproule what makes St. Vincent de Paul School great, and her answer is simple.
“Both my kids love it,” says the mother of two children, one finishing Grade 9 and the other completing Grade 6 at the kindergarten to Grade 9 school in the Calgary Catholic School District.
“They’ve always had a positive experience there.”
St. Vincent is one of the top elementary schools in Alberta, according to the Fraser Institute’s School Report Card, which ranks the province’s elementary and high schools, both public and private.
Ranked 30th out of more than 800 elementary schools, St. Vincent is one story among hundreds that provide a glimpse of the state of education in the province.
And while ranking highly is certainly noteworthy and desirable, lead author Peter Cowley says the annual report should really be viewed as part of a continuum of reports from the past five years. Only then, by examining how schools are improving or not, year over year, can parents, teachers and other stakeholders get a sense of how successful a school’s academic programming is for students.
“Top schools tend to be up there every year,” says the senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, based in Vancouver. “To me, what’s more important is looking at the list to see who is showing consistent improvement year over year.”
Indeed, a handful of schools showed marked improvement on scores out of 10, based on provincial standardized tests written last year by Grade 6 and Grade 12 students.
Impressive improvement was shown by 29 elementary schools, out of 863 in the province, and 17 high schools out of 253 secondary schools.
Bishop Mcnally High School from the Calgary Catholic School District saw marked improvement, ranking 114th in Alberta this year, up from 136th the year before.
Neil O’flaherty, the school’s principal, credits previous principals at the school, along with the vice-principals, for building a strong foundation for current academic success.
“The staff has also readily accepted the innovations and creativity offered through the high school redesign process,” he adds.
Among those innovations is offering a five-period school day rather than the typical four-period school day.
“This provides students with more subject choices each semester and finds an effective instruction ‘sweet spot’ in 68- to 73-minute periods as opposed to four 80- to 85-minute periods.”
The ability to get more subjects of instruction into the school day is particularly helpful to Bishop Mcnally’s growing number of English language learners and diverse student body, who have a strong desire to learn and improve.
Of course, not all schools show improvement every year. But that doesn’t mean they are not great places to learn.
Case in point is St. Vincent, which dropped from 16th in the 2019 report to 30th this year. Principal Greg Woitas says because the Fraser report card study uses the Provincial Achievement Test scores to rank schools, each year presents a new opportunity for different Grade 6 students to complete the exams.
“The tests are just one measure out of many we look at as educators,” he says. “Other important factors to a good educational experience are that kids come motivated to school, and a big part of that is they have food in their bellies.”
As such, socioeconomic factors play a significant role in education — not easily measured in the study.
Having seen her children complete elementary at St. Vincent, Sproule says the school’s true strength is its teachers.
“You can really see the effort they put in; they do fun projects that make kids want to learn.”
The same can be said about Sunalta School. The public elementary school ranked ninth this year.
Kristi Nelson, who has two children enrolled at the school and one in its preschool, says the quality of education is as good as any top private school. While its upsides are too many to list, she adds the teachers are most critical to students’ success.
“A lot of the teachers have been there a long time and they’re wonderful,” she says, adding the school has excellent early literacy programming.
The school is also quite striking — an iconic city landmark.
“It’s a heritage building to the point where there’s a girls’ entrance and a boys’ entrance, which is not enforced any longer,” Nelson says with a laugh.
Of course, it’s not the building’s esthetics that count in the Fraser Institute’s report. It’s what goes on inside.
As Sproule can attest, that amounts to many good things at St. Vincent despite most learning lately taking place at home because of the pandemic. But that’s only served to reinforce teachers’ value.
“I know all teachers work hard but this year, in particular, you really know how hard they work,” Sproule says.
Peter Cowley, senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, says the annual rankings give parents a snapshot on how their school is performing.
Greg Woitas, principal at St. Vincent de Paul School, says Provincial Achievement Tests are just one measure of educational quality.