Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Many Meanings of Back-to-School

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Education is truly timeless for all of us")

School bells ring! Over 14 years I’ve worked in a wide variety of teaching situations. Education, in all forms, is key to any society. It’s a growing industry in Barrie, and with low energy and material inputs this growth is very sustainable, creating social and economic benefits with minimal drawbacks.

“Education” calls to mind children’s public schooling, yet that represents only part of the process. Kids transcend “the three R’s” with extra-curricular sports, dance, swimming, martial arts, or crafts. Our boards offer them free foreign language classes, but in many countries such learning isn’t free. In Korea where I began teaching, a major industry is private English institutes building on the basic grammar & vocabulary taught in public schools. Supervised by native speakers, children and adults practice listening and expressing their own ideas, instead of preset answers. They see the economic value of international language and happily pay a premium to learn.

In Barrie, one can study almost any subject. Georgian College is a leader for careers, and a variety of private institutes offer accelerated work-skill programs. Like myself, many of their teachers find themselves in a classroom role based on life experience or communication skills rather than having gone the standard teacher’s college route. But this continues the age-old cultural tradition of people from all walks of life sharing and passing along their skills and knowledge.

The classroom is no longer the only site for learning; what was previously called correspondence study is a rapidly-growing field. Replacing mail, the swift and powerful Internet has driven the “distance learning” explosion of the past decade. For ten years since settling in Barrie, I have continued teaching Korean students English online. Distance education erases many barriers of traditional classroom studies like geography, scheduling or cost.

But back-to-school always means costs. Beyond clothes-shopping traditions of dubious educational value, a perennial expense is textbooks. While many suspect the driver of new editions is publishing profits – which I can’t deny is a factor – it’s a rare text which doesn’t need improvement or updating. In recent years I’ve been writing and editing English texts for foreign and Canadian markets. Students may find reading textbooks a chore; they can take solace knowing that writing them can be a chore, too!

Another growing influence is co-operative education, where students put classroom learning to use in the workplace. I benefited immensely from my 6 Waterloo co-op work terms, and over the past year the Barrie Green Party has in turn enjoyed the contributions of three Georgian co-ops, helping them learn by doing. Although a “new wave”, co-op is really a partial return to traditional non-classroom learning of past centuries.

And of course education isn’t limited to long-term enrollment. I’ve been invited to educate service clubs, NGOs, and business groups in Barrie and the US, addressing environmental & economic topics like carbon pricing. Audiences are still very interested in lecture-based learning; not just a dream, life-long education is a reality for many. So I guess we never outgrow that back-to-school feeling.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Electing to pay attention to education in Barrie

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Education questions linger around election")

This is an important fall for education in Barrie. Our Trustees must address many critical issues, right as they go into an election period and face either being returned to their seats or replaced.

First off, the expansion to full-day kindergarten. Some schools launch this next week, a major change which will undoubtedly generate unforeseen consequences requiring careful response. Experienced or new, trustees will need to pay close attention and act in a timely manner. The first round of schools to go full-time are the easiest, because they have spare classrooms available. Future rounds won’t be so easy, as they will require either expensive additions or dreaded portables. With Barrie’s continued downtown growth and revitalization (see mayoral platforms for details), the public board will likely regret closing and selling off the only two downtown elementary schools (King Edward and Prince of Wales). The suspension of Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) E in Clearview township preserved several under-populated schools from potential closure. Those schools are now providing needed extra kindergarten classrooms and receiving upgrade funding. Could Prince of Wales see a similar reprieve?

While on the topic of potential school closures, Barrie Central Collegiate needs major infrastructure upgrades or risks forced shutdown. Although the public board emphasizes they have not predetermined BCC’s fate, their choices on how to proceed haven’t been encouraging. Despite mentioning BCC repairs as a top capital priority, that apparently wasn’t formally expressed to Barrie MPP Aileen Carroll and so has not been heard at the provincial level, which has the money to make it happen. MPP Carroll has stated that she’ll lobby for the board’s priorities, but not until they have been conveyed through the right channels. I hope they do so in a timely manner.

In the meantime, the board has put BCC’s future in the hands of an ARC with other Barrie public high schools. Such a measure is not necessary to refurbish a school, but is required before closing one. So what signal does that broadcast? Intentional or not, it isn’t reassuring to those who hope to see Barrie Central survive & thrive. This ARC works under an odd mandate: created under one board, it will operate through the election period, and then report to the new board. Who will be held accountable if the resulting decisions are unpopular?

A final question is the ability of the board to provide affordable before- and after-school care. This is mandated by the Education Ministry, yet seems to cost far in excess of similar community programs, like those the YMCA provides. Since parents must pay the price, few will choose to pay more at schools, leaving the programs without enough enrollees to exist. The board has higher staffing costs but the same charity powers as the YMCA and the advantage of far more public infrastructure funding. Can the incoming trustees find a way to offer these programs at equal or lower cost than what is already available? That’s another good question for candidates.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.