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Local mother accuses Edmonton Catholic School Board of discrimination

On April 30, 2015 Global News ran a news item that suggested that Edmonton Catholic School Board was discriminating against a transgender girl because it would not allow her to use the girls’ washroom.  I am familiar with this case and know that ECSD administration has gone to great lengths to provide a gender neutral washroom for this child and any child or adult who for a variety of reasons may not want to use the designated male and female washrooms.  Our district along with school districts, municipalities, and other public bodies across Alberta and Canada are working toward providing a private bathroom experience for anyone with safety concerns.  Edmonton City Council for example, very recently announced that they were ensuring all their facilities had such amenities based upon the recommendations of the LGBTQ community.

The problem in our district and the reason for the news item is that the parents of this student would like the option for their child to either use the gender neutral washroom or the girls’ washroom.  Since their child identifies as a girl, they believe she ought to have the option of using the girls’ washroom.   Because ECSD will not provide that option, the girl’s family has gone to the media and has now filed a complaint against our district with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

I can’t help but see parallels between how African Americans were made to use “black only” washrooms and this transgender student being made to use the gender neutral bathroom.  Why is it that struggles with equality end up coming down to a fight over who can use a washroom?   Kathryn Stockett author of The Help provides a fictional account of how ridiculous we can become as we argue over who can use a bathroom and which bathroom etc.

And the arguments are petty and ridiculous but they also can cause grave harm.  Canada Journal published on May 7, 2015, a study of transgender youth that showed that in the past year, two thirds of transgender youth had harmed themselves, more than one third had attempted suicide and a third of those under the age of 18 had been physically threatened or injured. The study’s author Elizabeth Saewyc found that “If someone had a supportive adult in the family, they were about four times less likely to have self-harmed in the past 12 months.  If they felt more connected to school, they were almost twice as likely to report good or excellent mental health as those with lower levels of school connectedness.”

This study shows that we must take seriously the importance of supporting transgender students in our schools.  As a Catholic school district we don’t have to agree morally with all the decisions our parents, students and staff make but we can offer them a place of welcome and a place where their souls are cared for. If there are some parents who do not understand our stance, then we need to educate them about what the research is showing:  that with appropriate support in their schools, our LGBTQ students have less inclination to self harm. We either take this stance or as a Board and District we will have to be very careful who is serving us pie (read The Help).

Motion Regarding Catchment Areas for All ECSD High Schools

I presented the following motion at the Tuesday, April 21, 2015 ECSD Public Board Meeting:

I move that there be a catchment area around all ECSD high schools to allow students to attend their local Catholic high school.

This motion was defeated 5-2.

Below, you will find my speaking notes to substantiate why I believe there should be a catchment area around all ECSD high schools.  Since I did not receive any push back from any other high school than Archbishop MacDonald, I have addressed my comments to their school.

Comments:  Part 1

First of all, I want to dispel some misunderstandings I have been hearing about the impact that a catchment area would have on Archbishop MacDonald school.  In no way does putting a catchment area around the school mean that I am suggesting we get rid the school of entrance requirements.  As I said at the March 18 meeting, I personally do not agree with our schools having entrance requirements but I am willing to keep them as a compromise.  Secondly, it is a not accurate that through my motion, I am suggesting we rid the school of its academic focus.

Through this motion, I am seeking support for a very small minority of Catholic students who wish to continue their education in a Catholic high school near where they live and go to church.  This is a matter of supporting our local Catholic students to choose Catholic education. And no offence to the 222 non-resident students who attend MAC, but they are being accepted while nearby Catholic students are being turned away because they missed the entrance requirement by a couple of percentage points [Please note that the same situation exists for public school students living near EPSB’s “academic school” Old Scona:  Catholic students who make the grade are being accepted prior to public students who don’t.  The question then becomes why we have 2 costly school systems if it really doesn’t matter whether the students attending are residents or non-residents.  Why have 2 similar systems duplicating administrations, boards of trustees, etc. if it really doesn’t matter whether you are a resident or non-resident?]   Archbishop MacDonald is the only school in our district with this anomaly and it is because it has entrance requirements that this anomaly exists.  It is time that we as a Board of Trustees– a Board of Governors –deals with this anomaly.  As you listen to my remarks this evening you will note that I am suggesting a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” solution.  I hope that through my comments it will become very clear that I am not suggesting that we get rid of the academic program, that we begin offering dash 2 and 3 courses, that we get rid of the entrance requirements.  I am suggesting a compromise. 

To begin with, my guess and the guess of some of my colleagues is that the number of students we expect to attend MAC if a catchment area is allowed is at the most 10.  It is hard to believe that 10 students out of 930 will have a huge negative impact on the “academic standards” of the school.  Now the reason we believe there will only be 10 is as follows:  First of all they will need to be Catholic and considering that Catholic students only make up 20% of the population, we are looking at a small number; secondly they will need to live in the catchment area; thirdly, they will have to have a desire to attend an academic school with the accompanying pressure and atmosphere that this brings. I have heard of 3 families since Friday whose honours students are choosing not to attend MAC because of the academic pressure of the school. Fourthly, they will have to be okay with the fact that MAC offers so few options.  Having a son who just went through the process of choosing a high school last year, I know of many students who chose not to attend MAC because of the paucity of options offered.   When I speak to students about MAC, they always comment that this is a major draw-back of the school.

In all honesty, I can’t imagine that there will be droves of students from nearby neighbourhoods clambering to get into MAC for these reasons.  I am talking about allowing Catholic students who live nearby, who wish to maintain the connection between their parish, school and home, who would be taking dash 1 courses anyway at another far away high school, who are wanting to attend university, but who missed getting the 75% requirement by a few percentage points.  I know of such students. These are Catholic students who have access to the nearby public high school Ross Sheppard within walking distance of their homes, which they could choose instead of Catholic education.  My fellow trustees have read a recent email from one such Catholic family who made this choice for their child for the upcoming school year.

At the March 18th school council meeting at MAC I heard many times that if neighbourhood Catholic students are admitted to the school, it will lower the standards of the school.  As I mentioned above, I find it hard to believe that 10 students who didn’t quite make the grade is going to have that big an influence on the standards of the school. The Fraser Institute has the Alberta Diploma Exam results for 2009 – 2012.  The information offered for Archbishop MacDonald is for a time in the school’s history prior to the introduction of the French Immersion program which accepts students with a 65% average.  The 5 year average on the Alberta Diploma Exam for MAC was 71%. Looking at the results from nearby Ross Sheppard, their students received a five year average of 67%.  It needs to be noted that neither school came anywhere close to “honours” level marks on the diploma exam.  Ross Sheppard which accepts students of all academic abilities and does not have entrance requirements did not score that much lower on their High School Diploma Exam than Archbishop MacDonald. So making an exception for 10 neighbourhood students, in my opinion, will not affect the standards of the school as some believe.

Another interesting point to make is that in the 2011 – 2012 school year —the year prior to the introduction of French Immersion — the Fraser Report shows the average diploma mark for Archbishop MacDonald grads was 67.9%.  That same school year, JH Picard students had a 67.7% average and Ross Sheppard students had a 66.1% average.  The reality is, Archbishop MacDonald which expects a 75% average in grade 9 for acceptance, has an average diploma mark very similar to other high schools which do not have any entrance requirements.

It is interesting to note that there was a distinct difference between MAC and Ross Sheppard in regards to how their teachers marked their course work.  The MAC teachers awarded their students an average of 8% more on their course work than they achieved on average on their diploma exams.  The teachers at Ross Sheppard awarded marks only 5% higher than their students achieved on their diploma exam.  Old Scona on the other hand had an average diploma exam result of 86% for this same 5 year period and the teachers marked their students’ course work an average of only 1 percentage point higher than they achieved on their diploma exams.  We need to ask ourselves why the course work mark at MAC is so much higher than what the students are achieving on their diploma exams.

Another issue is, if Archbishop MacDonald is our “academic school” what does this say about our other high schools?  Does it mean that the students graduating from our other high schools are not getting as superior an education to prepare them for university?  No, of course not.  What we have done is create a school which segregates our students from one another.  Some parents expressed that they liked this because their children were bullied for being academic achievers in their junior high and now finally, they have a refuge from this bullying.  But I would say, if our students are being bullied for this reason, we need to do something about the bullying, not segregate our students from one another.  We need to teach our students how to get along with one another regardless of their differences.  They will one day be working alongside people of varying abilities, levels of education, different socio-economic status, etc.  Public education provides an opportunity for our students to learn tolerance of the individual differences we encounter in our society.

We have to be careful that we are not creating a private school using public funds, which reduces the opportunity for our students to learn along- side students from a variety of walks of life.  Public funds generated from the taxes of the whole should not be used for the purposes of a few.  Students ought to have access to their publicly funded school down the street from where they live–especially when they are a resident student of that school.

Another question I have is, does MAC need to have entrance requirements in order for it to be considered by the public as an academic school? Again, I ask this question not because I am suggesting we get rid of the entrance requirements but simply for reflection.

I think everyone would agree that St. Rose Junior High is an academic school.  From what I hear it is bursting at the seams because parents want their children to learn in the academic atmosphere that the school provides.  There is an accelerated Science and Math program within the school which requires an exam but other than this, there are no entrance requirements. Because St. Rose has a catchment area, students of all abilities from the nearby neighbourhoods can attend.  The non-academic students from the neighbourhood are either not attending the school or if they are, they are not impacting the reputation of the school because despite their attendance, it’s still considered an academic school and it’s bursting at the seams.   All this without any entrance requirements.  It is conceivable that MAC high, even if it didn’t have entrance requirements would be known as an academic school—especially if it continued to offer only dash 1 courses.  Schools develop reputations based upon their strengths and the students they attract.  As I said already, I’m not suggesting we rid the school of entrance requirements but I just offer these thoughts for future consideration.

Another objection to my motion I heard at the March 18th  meeting was that if students with lower academic scores are allowed into the school, the enrolment will go down because the school won’t be known for its high academic standards.  I understand that the reason entrance requirements were introduced in 1984 was to boost enrolment because the district saw the possibility of MAC closing.  It is interesting to note that the enrolment of the school continued to decline for 3 years even after the entrance requirement was in place, until 1987 when the enrolment at MAC high reached its all- time low of 324 students.  Not until 1988 do we begin to see the enrolment climb.  And then in 2007 we again begin to see the enrolment start to decline until 2012 when the French Immersion program was introduced.  I recall at the time that parents were upset with the decision by the Board to bring in the French Immersion program.  And as a matter fact, at my recent visits to the school I again heard negative comments from the parents about the admission of French Immersion students.  MAC parents, prior to the introduction of the French Immersion program with its 65% average academic requirement, believed that the school’s enrolment would suffer because of this program and bring down the “standards of their school”.  The numbers show the contrary:  enrolment has only increased at MAC to the point that there are more students attending than ever before in its existence.  Similarly, I doubt the acceptance of 10 students, who missed the entrance requirement by a few percentage points is going to affect the “high standards” of the school.  As I have mentioned above, the scores on the diploma exams are not honours and are very similar to other high schools both public and Catholic.  And besides, the school has 50 empty spaces and so it is possible to accommodate the addition of a few local Catholic students.

In short, I believe that the reaction to my motion by the parents and students from this school can be characterized as a tempest in a tea pot.  This tempest is over a minority of Catholic students who live near Archbishop MacDonald, who wish to attend their local Catholic high school which happens to be academic in its focus, only offers dash 1 university entrance courses, offers few options and a pressured academic atmosphere.  Ten students will hardly have an impact on the academic nature of the school nor It’s “standards”.  My fellow trustees, I ask you to consider all these facts in your deliberations on whether to support my motion.

Comments:  Part 2 (Much of this section is based upon ECSD’s Mission Statement, Vision, 8 Characters of Catholic Education and our Inclusive Education Policy.

We state in our Mission Statement that we believe “in building inclusive Christ-centred communities for service to one another”.

Our Vision is that “our students will learn together, work together and pray together in answering the call to a faith-filled life of service”.

Our inclusive Education Programming policy states: “In keeping with our Catholic tradition of universal inclusivity, Thomas Groome reminds us that the word ‘catholic’ comes from the Greek word ‘Katholos’ which means ‘welcoming all’ – just as Jesus did.  Inclusion is one of the foundational tenets of Edmonton Catholic Schools.”

Under the heading “Standards for Special Education” it states that “inclusion, by definition, refers not merely to setting but to neighbourhood schools” (emphasis added)

The Catholic Education Symposium Report we accepted as information tonight, makes similar comments regarding inclusion.  We learn in the Report that the Symposium delegates see Christian anthropology applied in our Catholic districts through “policies and procedures found in our schools and school districts to express the dignity of each child … It is faith permeation throughout the curriculum and a commitment to inclusive education that the dignity of every person as a child of God is enhanced”.  (p.5) (emphasis added)

How are we living out our Mission Statement, our Vision, our Catholic tradition of universal inclusivity, and expressing the principal of Christian anthropology if our special needs students must integrate into the regular classroom but our Advanced Placement students have their own classrooms and our “academic” students have their own high school? How are our children learning together, working together and praying together if those who achieve over 75% go to one school and those who achieve less than 75% go to another school.  You need to know that I have spoken to many principals, teachers, parents, students and community members who are very concerned about this lack of consistency in our policies. They have encouraged me in bringing this motion forward.

On our website, we list 8 characters of Catholic Education some of which include community, justice, and hospitality.  How are we promoting community when we do not allow Catholic students who live near their community high school to attend it?  How can local Catholic students maintain the connection between their home, their parish and their school if they are travelling to far away schools?  How are they able to make social connections to the students in their neighbourhood if they are attending a high school far away? I would like to read a letter I received today from the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues suggesting the importance of these social connections: [Letter to the Edmonton Catholic School Board]  It behooves us to take seriously EFCL’s suggestion to “take measures that help students attend the school that is closest to them”.

Another character of Catholic Education is justice.  How do we practice justice when we know that 11 out of 14 neighbourhoods around Archbishop MacDonald have an average household income $14,000 lower than the city average and yet we expect local Catholic students who don’t make the grade to pay $550 per year for a bus pass to attend a Catholic high school far away? When I mentioned this to the Archbishop MacDonald school council, the parents commented that students with lower socio economic status have just as much chance to attend MAC.  They can work hard to get in just like their child did.  They don’t seem to know that the relationship between socio economic status and academic achievement is well documented.  How are we as a Catholic school district supporting these families when we ignore this fact?

Another character of Catholic education according to our website is hospitality.  How are we being hospitable to our local Catholic students when we say to them that if we allow their attendance at MAC without the requisite grade 9 average, they will bring down the standards of the school?  Again and again I heard this comment from parents.

Turning to our list of Core Values we say that we believe in fairness, dignity and respect.  How is it fair and how does it promote a student’s dignity and respect when if they miss MAC’s entrance requirement by a few percentage points, they have to take 2 buses to attend another Catholic high school far from their home and their parish? Some may respond that it can be good thing for a student to fail. Let them learn from the “school of hard knocks”.  Life is like that – you speed, you get a speeding ticket, you steal you go to jail.  You don’t make the grade, you don’t get into the school.  This is life, better learn it now than later.

I would respond that this doesn’t seem to be the values Jesus was promoting.  In fact, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Pope’s theologian, suggests that the essence of the Gospel is mercy.  According to Kasper, “Mercy has become the theme of the Pope’s pontificate”. (NCR Online). Our superintendent earlier in this meeting quoted from Pope Francis’ encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel” section 114 stating “The Catholic school must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the gospel”.

From listening to parents speak at 2 school council meetings, I heard again and again that they see MAC as a refuge for their high achieving children. Paraphrasing Matthew 18:33 “And you who have had mercy shown to you, will you not now show mercy to others?”  Mercy has been shown the students of Archbishop MacDonald, can they now offer mercy to a few Catholic students from nearby neighbourhoods?

I find it difficult that though we know the essence of the Gospel is mercy, and our district is founded on Gospel values, we don’t have an appeal process in place for those students who miss the entrance requirement by a small margin.

How are we truly a Catholic school district called to live Gospel values if we operate our schools no differently than a private or secular school?  We say on our website that we believe that Catholic education “includes spiritual growth and fulfillment” not just marks.  In fact, nowhere in our mission statement, our 8 characters, and 5 core values did I read anything that stated that we even valued marks or academic achievement, or even academic excellence.  Our mission states that we believe

  • That learning is a lifelong journey
  • That all can learn and develop their gifts
  • That Catholic education is a shared responsibility in which parents are the primary role

But nowhere did I read that our school district has a major focus on academic achievement.  If it is a major focus, then I would suggest we re-write our mission and vision statements to reflect this focus.  I would suggest that we not do this however since we have just received as information the Report from the Catholic Education Forum in which Archbishop Miller asserts,

“If we get it wrong about who students really are, that is persons created in God’s image and likeness and given life in Christ through the Holy Spirit, then, from the outset, our Catholic schools go off track.  A belief that we are destined for the Kingdom is a central aspect of Christian anthropology and has enormous consequences for Catholic schools in that it sets them apart from an ‘educational utilitarianism” in which the sole purpose of formal education is economic.  Yes we prepare our students to contribute to society, but they have a greater, eternal destiny.  At their best, Catholic schools prepare their students, in the words of Benedict XVI, ‘to be saints’”.

I’m sorry to say but at my 2 visits to MAC High this year, I heard many comments from MAC parents which expressed this educational utilitarianism.  The parents seemed more concerned about how the admittance of local Catholic students would impact their child’s academic future than how their child’s school could help them become saints through learning, working and praying alongside other students to whom they could be of service.  As Bishop Henry commented in the Catholic Education Report, “the principal work of our schools … is to evangelize”.  And Tony Sykora comments that our schools need “to be authentic witnesses and communities of evangelization”.  Yes, it is important for our students to receive a good education for the sake of their future careers, but the purpose of our schools goes beyond this.

I need to emphasize that as a Catholic district we need to operate differently than a private or secular school district.  Having 2 very expensive identical systems at a time of fiscal restraint could spell the end of Catholic education in our province.  Having beautifully crafted statements on our website and an inspiring Catholic Education Symposium Report on our shelf is not enough – we need to live out in action what we say we believe.  We need to do this to ensure our very existence.

Conclusion:

I believe that the sky will not fall if we offer a welcoming and hospitable hand to a small number of nearby Catholic students who wish to remain in their community to attend their local high school. I also believe that we can continue to offer the academic program at MAC while also offering a place for local students who don’t quite make the grade. It is conceivable that the students who come into the school with a lower average will be inspired by the academic atmosphere of the school and improve their marks.

My motion includes other high schools because I want to encourage students to attend their nearby high school

  1. to maintaining the connection between their home, parish and school.
  2. to encourage use of active transportation benefiting students’ health
  3. to encourage social connections within neighbourhoods. As we heard in the supportive letter from the EFCL, students who meet at their local high school build social capital in the community—those connections create supportive relationships close to home.
  4. And fourthly, my hope is that through my motion, we as a district will support those students who cannot afford to take ETS to far away high schools.

As the Symposium Report states: “At their core, Catholic schools view the human person as having inherent dignity as a child of God”. Through my motion, I am attempting to align our district with this view.  By allowing students to attend their neighbouhood schools we are respecting their dignity as children of God.

Finally, in the words of the Symposium Report:

“Modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses…Our world hungers for truth. Truth can be found most genuinely in authentic witnesses, witnesses who in their love for Christ and his Church are open, welcoming and servant disciples”.  Let the trustees witness authentically to the truth of the Gospel – the essence of the Gospel which is mercy – and offer a merciful, hospitable and welcoming hand to Catholic students who desire to attend their local Catholic high school.

Footnote #1:  The Archbishop MacDonald Application for Admittance states the following: “One of the entrance requirements at Archbishop MacDonald is a minimum of 75% in each of the following: Religion, Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science”. I have had it confirmed by ECSD administration that if a student is applying for admittance from EPSB, the school waives the requirement for a 75% in Religion because of course EPSB does not teach religion classes. So what happens in practice is that students coming from ECSD junior highs (resident and non-resident) have higher requirements placed on them than those coming from EPSB–certainly it is more work to get a 75% average in 5 subjects than 4. Here is another example of how entrance requirements at this school create troublesome contradictions and inconsistencies for our district.

Footnote #2: A transcript of the remarks made by those present at the March 18, 2015 meeting at Archbishop Macdonald was made available.  Just for the public record, I need to note that our Chair Debbie Engel who was present at this meeting stated that her second daughter was sent to Oscar Romero High School and “she dropped out of engineering because she didn’t have the academic training that she would have got at MAC.  And in hindsight I see the value of this school [MAC] because she would have been prepared for engineering.  Now it’s going to cost me an extra $6,000 to get her prepared for it”.  This is the level of confidence that our Chair (who is also the school trustee for Oscar Romero) has in the staff and students of Oscar Romero High School.  I believe that if Archbishop MacDonald is the only high school in our district capable of preparing our students properly for university, we have a big problem!

Footnote #3:  The links to ECSD website’s Mission Statement, Vision, and Inclusive Education Policy seem to have been updated recently so what I quote in this blog may be different from what is currently on the ECSD website.

2015 Update

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am unable to visit the schools in Ward 71 without the express invitation of principals or the Parent Advisory Council chair.  According to our current Board policies, if I were to contact the principal directly, I could be sanctioned.  Our Board is in the midst of updating these policies but at the rate we are going, they may finally be updated by the time the next election roles around in 2017!  So I may have to abide by this old, restrictive policy for the rest of my time as your school trustee.

I have however, been offered a warm welcome by some chairs and some principals and had an opportunity to share with parents in person, my 2015 Update.  Those who heard my presentation, told me they found it very informative and appreciated the effort I made to come out to their school in person.  I wish I could give this presentation to more parents as I take my role as a school trustee seriously and believe that one of my responsibilities is to communicate to constituents some of the happenings in our district. We have many wonderful things going on in our district!  I feel badly that I cannot bring you this good news in person.

Because I am limited in my abilities to communicate with parents, I made up a brochure which I have been handing out at Open Houses, being careful to remain on the public sidewalk at the front entrance of the schools.  For those of you I have not had an opportunity to connect with, I have copied the content of my brochure below.

  • We had an $8 million surplus due to the retirement of a large number of older teachers and hiring of new teachers at a lower pay scale. This surplus will be dedicated to repairing roofs and boilers.
  • NAIT Collegiate: ECSD, EPSB and NAIT are working together to build a grade 9 –12 collegiate for  students with an aptitude and passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).  The high school will be located on the Blatchford Lands near NAIT.  The hope is that the school would open in September 2018.
  • The student population of our metro schools has become increasingly complex due to the fact that our cities provide access to many specialized services. The Metro Boards of Edmonton Public and Catholic and Calgary Public and Catholic have noticed however that funding for our vulnerable students has either remained stagnant or decreased. The per student funding for English Language Learners for example, has decreased from $10,077 per student to $9,806 per student.  The Metro Boards are working together to bring this issue to the attention of the provincial government.
  •  We have 8 new schools and 1 expansion which are funded and in the planning stages and will be built in areas of greatest growth.
  • During the last round of teacher negotiations, a committee was struck called the “C2 Committee” to research how best to reduce teacher work load in the areas of inclusion, supervision, teacher time, and report cards.
    • Inclusion:  In response to feedback from teachers, our district is dedicating an additional $3.5 million for inclusion and $0.5 million for English Language Learners.
    • Supervision: Each site is considering different ways that teacher supervision during lunch hours can be lightened so more teachers can have an actual lunch break.
    • Teacher Time:  Each site is finding creative ways that teacher tasks can be accomplished within the school day. One Thursday afternoon per month for example, is being   dedicated to tasks of the teacher’s choosing e.g. report cards, planning.
    • Report Cards: Efforts are being made to reduce teacher work load in regards to report cards.  The use of drop down menus for comments, using Power School for ongoing reporting for Junior and Senior High are some ways the district is addressing this concern.
  • Annual Numeracy Week: March 9-13, 2015.  This week which is the brain child of Trustee Thibert, Ward 77 (Millwoods) is similar to Read In Week but promotes and celebrates numeracy using fun and engaging activities.  The week will lead up to Pi Day which is on March 14, 2015 (Pi is 3.1415  so Pi Day is the 3rd month, 14th day, 2015)

On Providing Day Cares in our Schools

It has become evident that if we are to provide 21st century learning, our schools must provide day care services to our families.  Though our mature neighbourhood schools have the space for day cares and after school care services, our new schools in the suburbs do not.  Though we have lobbied for it, the government of Alberta will not pay the capital costs to provide this service in our new schools.  Our board therefore voted recently to use money from the sale of our older schools and properties to pay for portables which would be used for day cares in 4 new schools in our new suburbs.  The cost of providing one wet (complete with bathrooms) and one dry unit per school would have been $900,000, bringing the total cost to $3.6 million.  If we were to go ahead and supply portables for day cares, we would retrieve the full cost of them after 26 years through leases to our day care providers.  So we would eventually recover the cost of them but after many, many years.  I voted against this motion because I believed it was outside our mandate and because I felt that this money was needed for our own purposes now — especially to repair our current inventory of schools–new and old.  It has happened that even new/newer schools have had need of emergency repairs due to floods, water seepage, mold etc. Because we have been receiving fewer and fewer dollars for maintenance, I voted to keep the money from the sale of our properties for these types of emergencies.  I understand that being able to make one trip to one location to drop off the young ones at day care and the older ones to school on the way to work is a big plus for busy families.  I do get this!  But we are not a rich organization and so we are limited to looking after the students we are mandated to care for first.

After the motion passed, we sent a letter to the Minister of Education requesting that we be able to use our funds for the purpose of providing day cares, and the reply from the Minister was an unequivocal “no” due to the fact that providing this service was outside of our mandate.

We immediately established an ad hoc committee to advocate for providing a variety of wrap around services within our schools.  I am a member of this committee and am committed to advocating to all levels of government for needed wrap around services and finding ways that we can work with private day care providers to bring their services to our schools in our new suburbs.

I want my constituents to know that though I voted against using our own funds for building day cares, I do see the value in having these services available at each of our schools. If we are truly focused on providing 21st century learning, we need to address the needs of the whole child and their families.

Faith Development Day 2015

On February 3, 2015 ECSD hosted a Faith Development Day for all their staff and trustees.  I was very impressed with the talks given by Fr. Carey and wished that all my constituents could have been there to hear him.  The theme of our district this year is “Life of Grace, Journey of Shalom”.  So Fr. Carey spoke on Catholic schools as places of “shalom”.  You may know the word to be the Hebrew word for “peace” but it also means wholeness and perfection.  These concepts are all related though:  when we help one another be whole, we offer one another peace/shalom.  I highly recommend that you take a look at his presentations because they are very inspiring and really get at an important purpose for Catholic schools—to bring wholeness to all our students so that they can experience peace in their lives.

To access his talks, click on the link below and it will bring you directly to the site where you key in the password provided. The video is of the whole Faith Development Day which is at least 3 hours in length.  If you just want to hear Fr. Carey’s talks they are at 0:32:13, 2:31, and 3:26.  Here is the link:  https://vimeo.com/119139607 and password: fdd2015.  I hope you find his presentations as insightful and meaningful as I did!

If you are short on time, here is my brief summary of his talks:

The 4 key ways to experience Shalom:

1.  We experience shalom in the core of our being when we accept ourselves as unique persons created in God’s image.  Our teachers can bring shalom or a sense of wholeness to our students when they help our students to accept themselves as they are, point out their self worth, add to their self esteem, and help them develop a sense of “self-efficacy”.  Self-efficacy is the sense of being able to accomplish tasks.  Teachers can bring shalom to their students when they remember their students’ names, when they reverence and respect their students, when they encourage students by pointing out their abilities.  All these suggestions for teachers can be applied to everyone as we experience others — we can bring shalom to others by helping them see their wholeness.

2.  We experience shalom with our neighbour, with others.  Fr. Carey suggests that if anyone is suffering, it is everyone’s business.  We are called to offer shalom to our neighbour when we respect them, when we lead them to see their value.

3.  We experience shalom in the physical, spiritual and emotional environment we create around us. We create an atmosphere of welcome/shalom in our schools for example, when we deal with bullies, victims and bystanders, racism, and when we provide support for students struggling with a variety of personal issues.

4.  We experience shalom in our relationship with God.  When we accept God’s offer of mercy, respect and dignity, we live connected to God.  Being connected to God we experience integrity and therefore shalom.

Joy and gratitude are signs that we have shalom in our lives.  We are called to live our lives with generosity–generosity is a skill we need to develop throughout our lives.

There are 4 things that Jesus expected from his disciples and were the characteristics of his followers :

1.  Radical belief that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is sent by God.

2.  A personal relationship with Jesus.  No rabbi previous to Jesus expected this of their disciples.

3. Jesus required that his disciples be inclusive.  Jesus wanted his disciples to teach that everyone can be saved, everyone is welcome into the “bosom of Abraham”.  This was a very unique teaching of a rabbi.

4.  Jesus required that his disciples love without limit, have mercy without measure, love their enemies.  No other rabbi taught this.

An Addendum to the Discussion of GSAs

As many of you are aware, Alberta’s bishops have written to the Catholic parishes this weekend to let people know that they are concerned for the welfare of LGBTQ students in our Catholic schools–as they are concerned for the welfare of all students who are bullied.  How our schools minister to LGBTQ students though, is something they want left up to school boards rather than government legislation.

I had a good conversation with a spokesman from the Edmonton Archdiocese today.  He suggested that our district has been working quietly for years to help our LGBTQ students while adding more recently, workshops for teachers on pastoral care of LGBTQ students.  He wanted me to know that the archdiocese wants to work with trustees and the district to provide the best possible resources to our LGBTQ students–some of these resources may include but are not limited to offering safe groups for students to gather.  I know that for me, education of the student body, teachers, administration, support staff on LGBTQ issues is very much needed in our schools and know that this educational component has been added to Edmonton Catholic School’s Inclusive Communities policy.  Going forward, I will continue to advocate for groups especially for our LGBTQ students, working with our bishops to provide the best possible support we can give as Catholic schools.  I will remind them of the 2014 study out of the University of Victoria published in the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies that showed that “LGB students had lower odds of past year discrimination, suicidal thoughts and attempts, mostly when policies and GSAs had been in place for 3+ years;  policies had a less consistent effect than GSAs” (go to:  http://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ijcyfs/article/view/12856 for the abstract).

I will also will discuss with them, the study published in The Lancet which states the following:

“42% of the LGBTQ group reported seeking medical help for depression and anxiety compared with 29% of heterosexual non-transgender youth. More than half of LGBTQ respondents reported self-harming now or in the past compared with 35% of heterosexual non-trans youth. And 44% of LGBTQ reported ever having thought about suicide compared with 26% of heterosexual non-trans respondents. The survey also found that schools in particular were fearful and hostile environments for LGBTQ youth and failed badly in educational, emotional, and health information and support.”

The study goes on to recommend that “Young people, however, might not seek help for mental health problems from the medical profession. Schools should be places where young people can find information and support, but they are not for LGBTQ youth. Remedying this situation requires urgent review by schools about their policies and services for this vulnerable group.” For more information go to:  http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60089-1/fulltext?rss=yes.

In Catholic schools, our groups for LGBTQ may not be called “GSAs” but that is a matter for the bishops to decide.  I recently learned that the bishops are the ecclesiastical authority who determine whether Catholic schools are Catholic or not.   This is from Canon Law 803, #3 which states:  “No school, even if it is in fact catholic, may bear the title ‘catholic school’ except by the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority”.  So we as Catholic trustees must work with our bishops to resolve the issues that arise within our schools in such a manner that meets the needs of our students but also preserves the Catholic nature of our schools as defined by our bishops.

Without our bishops we do not have Catholic schools and so we must follow their lead as our shepherds when we are ministering to all our vulnerable students.  As a trustee who believes in publicly funded Catholic education I will work with our bishops to address the concerns of LGBTQ students as well as those 38% of students who are bullied for their appearance and those 17% who are bullied for their marks.  We need school environments where students love and accept one another as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

If you want to express your opinion on this issue to your MLA go to http://streetkey.elections.ab.ca/ and enter your postal code to get their contact information.

What is a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA)?

I believe that there are some misconceptions about Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) that need to be discussed given Bill 202 and Bill 10. From my research and speaking to experts in the field, I learned that though the word “alliance” is in the name, they are not political groups or groups that promote a gay lifestyle.  The word “alliance” is related to the fact that these groups bring straight and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) students together as allies.  I also learned that they are not sex groups or dating clubs but “identity clubs” for students who identify as LGBTQ and their straight friends. To put this in language that Catholics can understand:  they are pastoral care groups for LGBTQ students.  Another misconception is that they meet during school hours.  In actual fact, they meet after school on school property.

Do our LGBTQ students need pastoral care in our Catholic schools?  Absolutely!  I have learned that though 5% of youth are LGBTQ, they make up 25-40% of homeless youth (go to homeless hub). (A reader has informed me that according to Statistics Canada 2.4% of the population identifies as LGBTQ.  There are 40,000 students at ECSD so 1,000 of our students would identify as LGBTQ).  LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers (go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org/).  I also know from both first-hand experience and hearing the stories of parents with gay children, that homophobia is alive and well in our schools–both Catholic and public.  A 2006 Toronto District School Board Research Report concurs (http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/AboutUs/Research/StudentCensusReport-SchoolExperiencesFinal.pdf):

  • Sixty-nine percent (69%) of heterosexual Grade 9-12 students indicated they feel comfortable with the overall school environment all the time or often, compared with 52% of LGBTQ students. There are also 12% more LGBTQ students indicating they rarely or never feel comfortable with school.
  • In terms of relationships with other students and with school adults, 17% more heterosexual students indicated they feel comfortable all the time or often than LGBTQ students.
  • With regard to school safety, 71% of LGBTQ students reported they feel safe at school all the time or often, which is 12% lower than heterosexual students. On the other hand, 10% more LGBTQ students indicated they do not feel safe at school (p. 46)

Some have raised the issue that there are many reasons why students feel discriminated at school and some of these reasons far outweigh being discriminated because of being LGBTQ.  This is in fact true.  The Toronto District School Board 2006 Student Census System Overview  gives the following reasons why students most often are bullied:  (go to  http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/aboutus/research/2006studentcensussystemoverview1.pdf)

Reasons for Being Bullied Grade 7-8 Grade 9-12
Body image 38% 27%
Grades or marks 17% 12%
Cultural or racial background 11% 14%
Language 7% 7%
Gender 6% 4%
Religion 5% 5%
Income 5% 5%

That body image and marks are top of the list for being bullied does not surprise me — these were the same top 2 issues listed by the students attending our recent District Wide Student Council meeting.  I believe that our schools need to address these issues through groups and through the curriculum just as we need to address any reasons why students would be bullied.  And our district does try to address the listed reasons for being bullied.  In regards to body image, I was recently visiting a Catholic junior high in our district which offers an onsite after school care program just for girls ages 11-15 led by the YWCA called GirlSpace.  The flyer states the following:

“Come join YWCA Edmonton’s GirlSpace Empowerment and Leadership Program.  Activites and Discussion led by female mentors from your community.  Themes:  Healthy Relationships, physical, mental, and sexual health, body image and media analysis, decision making, budgeting, bullying, your rights, and more!”

So this is an after school care group specifically for girls offered in a Catholic school to help girls become empowered.  It addresses body image and other factors that contribute to their self esteem.

In regards to being bullied on the basis of marks, our district has a whole high school dedicated to high achieving students so that they can be with other like minded students who enjoy studying and learning.  At a recent parent council meeting at this high school, parents shared how much more comfortable their high achieving child was at the school since they no longer had to deal with discrimination and bullying due to being high achievers.

In regards to being discriminated against due to culture and racial background, our district offers a wide array of special programming and groups for our First Nations, Metis and Inuit students (FNMI).  If you go to https://www.ecsd.net/Programs/Overview/AboriginalLearning/Pages/Aboriginal-Learning.aspx you will see the myriad of supports we offer to these students — everything from culturally relevant counselling and support, to connections to elders, to programming that is permeated with the aboriginal culture.  Ben Calf Robe school is a whole school dedicated to supporting the FNMI student. Certainly there are students from other racial backgrounds who would be suffering from discrimination so we need to address their concerns as well–we can always do more.

So as a Catholic school district we offer specific pastoral care and programming to specifically vulnerable students.  We do this because we are followers of Jesus who in Matthew 25 tells us that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, we do all these things to him. He did not suggest that we give drink to the hungry and clothe the sick – he said that we needed to meet each group’s specific needs.  So I believe that we should continue as we have already been doing in providing specific support for specific students in regards to our LGBTQ students.  This in no way goes against what we are already doing for our vulnerable students.

I also have a concern that if we do not have pastoral care groups for our LGBTQ students in our schools, our Catholic students will go to public school groups.  I have learned that this is already the case. I am very concerned about what this says about our district–it shows that our students who need support are not getting it from a Christian institution whose mission it is to support vulnerable people.  I am also concerned that in going outside our schools for support, our students will miss out on learning through our Christian lens the Christian view of the human body and sexuality.

At a recent Alberta Catholic School Trustees meeting I learned of a video called “The Third Way” which features 3 adult gay Catholics describing what it was like for them to grow up Catholic and gay (go to http://www.blackstonefilms.org/films.html). They suffered greatly because they didn’t receive any support from their school, their parents or their parish.  In actual fact, they experienced quite the opposite — homophobia, rejection, and isolation.  The 3 people featured in the film, in the end did find their way back to the church with the help of caring Christian people. Once given support they chose to lead celibate lives as a way to live with their sexual orientation.  Whether you agree or disagree with their final decision of how they chose to live with their sexual orientation, the video is valuable in understanding better the struggles  LGBTQ students have with understanding their sexual identity and being accepted by others for who they are.  It is my view that we need to provide a pastoral response specific to their particular situation just as we provide a pastoral response to our girls, our FNMI students, our special needs students, our English Language Learners and so on.  We are Catholic schools – let’s witness to Jesus’ love for all people and be cognizant of Mother Teresa’s wise words:  “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”.

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