Many fac­tors play roles in school im­prove­ment

Calgary Herald - - MAKING THE GRADE - JOEL SCHLESINGE­R

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.

DON MOLYNEAUX

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.

SUPPLIED

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.

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