School District 48 administrators and teachers appear to disagree about what percentage the approximately 150 Sea to Sky District teachers who attended a recent three-day teaching symposium at Whistler Secondary School represents.
But number crunching aside, all agreed it was a productive session and a positive lead-in to the 2012-’13 school year, especially in the aftermath of the teachers’ contract dispute that droned on for the entire 2011-’12 school year.
The symposium, which focused on collaborative and “project-based” learning, was also a foundation-building exercise as district officials — following the B.C. Ministry of Education’s relaxation of prescriptive guidelines for province-wide learning outcomes — launch the input process for a three-to-five-year Strategic Plan.
At last Wednesday’s (Aug. 27) school board meeting, board chair Rick Price voiced pleasure with the attendance at the symposium, making note of the fact that the district has about 230 full-time equivalent teachers.
“I was really pleased, and more than the numbers was the enthusiastic atmosphere,” Price said, emphasizing that all who attended were doing so on their own time.
Asked about those numbers, Carl Walker, the Sea to Sky Teachers’ Association (SSTA) president, on Monday (Sept. 3) said 150 of 230 isn’t quite correct, but that he was nonetheless pleased with the attendance and content of the workshop.
“We have 350 members in SSTA, and 80 or 90 of those are teachers on call,” Walker said. “It  is a significant number, for sure. All I can say is that we strongly support project-based learning as a model for professional growth.”
At a meeting with The Chief last Friday (Aug. 31), district administrators stressed that in response to the ministry’s reduction in the number and scope educational outcomes, there’s a strong desire to evolve from the old “compliance” model of education — with teachers delivering lesson plans to classrooms full of students sitting at desks — to one that’s more collaborative for both teachers and students.
It’s a two-part process, said Lisa McCullough, District 48 superintendent, that first involves teachers learning how to collaborate both with each other and then with their students. Students, in turn, become more involved in directing their own learning through long-term, team-based projects instead of working individually in rows of desks.
“Teachers haven’t been deeply involved in the past in developing curriculum and education plans for the district,” McCullough said. “We believe teachers know best what their students need and they know best what’s working and we want to engage them in that process.
“We want to shift from isolation to collaboration, from reaction to purpose and compliance to engagement.”
Walker said teachers support the project-based model and are generally pleased with the direction the district is taking. However, “I would add a caveat: That the district is doing this at the same time that they’re cutting teacher-librarian staffing at at least two of our high schools,” he said.
Don Ross Secondary School in Squamish, for example, had a half-time teacher-librarian a couple of years ago but has just a quarter of that now, Walker said.
Cutting staff while seeking cutting-edge teaching methods and techniques is a tough task, Walker said. The problem is that the ministry appears ready to change the model but is unwilling to support the system adequately from a financial standpoint, he said.
“I don’t know which way the district is going with this, but obviously they’re following up on ministry direction on it. Obviously, the SSTA will be right in there and involved every step of the way. We hope that the issues we’ve raised are addressed in the district plan.”
The collaborative, project-based approach educators seem to favour is best exemplified by the philosophy of the San Diego, Calif.-based High Tech High (HTH) program. In practice in something like a dozen schools, the HTH program also includes a graduate school of education that allows visiting educators and education students to spend a few days doing course work and interacting with other educators, learners and their parents.
HTH isn’t so much about technology as it is about project-based learning that may, in some cases, involve the use of technology, Price said.
HTH “is committed to providing its students with learning experiences that are personalized, authentic, and relevant,” the program’s website states. “Our graduate students create personal learning plans, pursue a project-based curriculum, explore their own questions through action research and other forms of inquiry, and develop digital portfolios to demonstrate their learning.”
This past spring, a group of District 48 administrators attended a course at HTH at a cost of around $25,000. Much of the discussion at last Wednesday’s (Aug. 29) board meeting centered on a proposal to visit HTH for a three-day course for $16,940 if all seven trustees attend.
Walker told The Chief in an email that while the SSTA is pleased with the trustees’ commitment to project-based learning, “I don’t believe this modest expenditure is the best use of scarce resources. As elected local politicians, trustees’ time and energy would be better spent advocating on behalf of students for adequate funding of our public education system.”
Most trustees said they thought it would be a useful exercise, with only Squamish’s Andrea Beaubien voicing reservations.
“I already believe that project-based learning is the way to go, so how does seeing this kind of best practice move me further along in the process?” she said.
Whistler trustee Chris Vernon-Jarvis disagreed.
“If only one person goes and then they come back with a report, not the direct experience, quite often the message gets lost,” he said.
Price argued in favour of sending most or all of the trustees. “We need to be informed as political leaders to be informed about the decisions and programs we undertake,” he said.