Are Alberta's schools keeping their promise?

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

Surely, the promise of an effective education system is that all of Alberta's children -regardless of their personal or family challenges -will acquire the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies and go on to live a happy and productive adult life. But, is Alberta's school system keeping its promise?

Certainly there are some signs that things are going well. For example, Alberta consistently ranks among the top-performing countries in international testing and routinely bests the other Canadian provinces in reading, math, and science assessments. But there is another side to the story and it is disturbing.

The Report Card on Alberta's Elementary Schools provides the objective memory that allows us to see if schools are doing better over time in basic skills like reading and math. For example, it identifies schools here in Calgary -13 of them -at which the academic performance of its students has placed it near the bottom of the rankings year after year for more than a decade with little or no sign of improvement.

All of these poor-performing schools serve students from families with incomes well below average.

They serve students with personal learning challenges including a variety of special needs and a poor command of English. But these are challenges that must be overcome if the kids are going to learn and thrive in the years ahead.

Yet, over the last decade their academic results show no sign of improvement. Are these schools doing the best they can?

Undoubtedly, the executives of the Calgary Board of Education -it operates 11 of the 13 schools -and those of the Calgary Catholic School District would state that improvement is always possible. But, if that's the case, why is there no evidence of improvement at these schools over the last 10 years?

When I have asked such questions of educators privately, the common response has been that the staff at these poor-performing schools is highly skilled; each teacher entirely dedicated to the kids. They work extraordinarily hard every day, often supplementing the school's resources with their own money. In short, they are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.

And yet, year after year, the results remain the same.

So in the end, as far as the educators are considered, given the students, family and personal circumstances, while improvement at these schools is possible, it is highly unlikely.

But what if, in Alberta, or in Ontario, or in the United States, or in India, there are school operators who have developed more successful ways of teaching kids who have equally challenging personal and family characteristics? Shouldn't the Calgary boards be rolling out the red carpet and inviting these successful school models to establish themselves in Calgary.

That's what the Regina Catholic School Division did recently. In September 2011, Mother Teresa Middle School, the first potential NativityMiguel School in Canada, will open its doors as an associate school of RCSD. According to its website, the U.S.-based, NativityMiguel Network of Schools was established in 2006, to guide and strengthen the development of a growing network of schools across the country that are designed to provide families struggling in impoverished neighbourhoods with a high-quality education. The Network notes that their schools' rate of graduation and post-secondary enrolment is roughly 20 per cent better than the national average for schools serving similar student populations.

The network serves 64 schools in 27 states.

Are there other such networks or school chains that could make a contribution to better education for all of Calgary's kids and for kids across Alberta? There well may be. After all, NativityMiquel is just one of 106 school chains profiled on the Fraser Institute's School Chain Showcase. Each of them focuses on defined groups of students and each is successful enough to have expanded to multiple locations and become a school chain.

It's time for the government to make Alberta an attractive expansion destination for successful school chains elsewhere in the world. By doing so, it will give hope to the families of kids attending those 13 schools in Calgary, and others like them around the province, that cannot seem to find their way toward success.

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