HALIFAX, TUESDAY, MAY 3, 2016
SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Keith Irving
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will now call to order the Subcommittee of the Whole on Supply. We will be continuing with the estimates for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Before we get into it, just a reminder that in our more informal process here in the Red Room, we will be just acknowledging the questioner and the minister and then a free question and answer can occur unless there is some dispute or some talking over each other. Then I will intervene and begin to acknowledge folks in the traditional manner. I understand the New Democratic Party is in the midst of their one hour, and there are 31 minutes remaining.
The honourable member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River.
MS. LENORE ZANN: Yes, we were in the middle of asking a few questions here of the minister. One of the questions I wanted to ask was, there seems to be a decrease in the budget for Personal Development and Wellness, which is Page 7.7. I was just wondering what specific services and programs might be affected by this. Is this, in fact, a cut, or has it been moved somewhere else?
HON. KAREN CASEY: Not unlike the discrepancies that we saw on earlier questions yesterday, that is the reflection of a transfer of dollars from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development out into the school boards so that the budget is closest to those we serve, that being our students.
MS. ZANN: Has there also been a decrease in the budget for French Language Grants, on Page 7.8, or is that a similar situation?
MS. CASEY: Again, yesterday, when we spoke about this, we recognized that we do get a lot of funding from the federal government. As negotiations continue, those numbers may fluctuate, but there is no decrease in our support provincially for French language.
MS. ZANN: Where it looks like a decrease in the budget, how do you explain that?
MS. CASEY: One of the ways in which we access the dollars from the federal government is through approvals of specific projects. As there is a project submitted and approved, the funding would flow from that. The difference between the $6.625 million and the $7.992 million is directly related to projects that have been approved. As new ones are approved, that number would change.
MS. ZANN: In the transfer of financial services and financial planning to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, has there been any loss of FTEs? That's on Page 7.8.
MS. CASEY: As we said, that was transfer of the FTEs out of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board with no loss of FTEs.
MS. ZANN: Okay, so no loss of jobs there.
On Page 7.9, it says there's about $300,000 more for school boards. Do they have discretion on how to use that? I'm sure they do. Is any of that going to teachers' salaries?
MS. CASEY: One of the things that we do when we provide funding to school boards is to give them global funding and also give them targeted funding, so there has been no decrease in funding to school boards. In fact, our funding to school boards - our grants to school boards - has increased by $11.6 million over last year.
MS. ZANN: I guess I was specifically asking though - there seems to be $300,000 more on Page 7.9 and I was just wondering if that particular amount was going to anything targeted.
MS. CASEY: You're referring to Page 7.9 and which line?
MS. ZANN: Sorry, I don't have the line there in front of me, but it was an amount of about $300,000.
MS. CASEY: There is nothing on that line that corresponds to $300,000.
MS. ZANN: All right. One thing I was going to ask you about was, is there a significant increase for non-formula program grants and what specific programs and services would be affected by this?
MS. CASEY: We did indicate that part of the increase to school boards was for the implementation of the action plan items, so that would be captured in that number.
MS. ZANN: The non-formula program grants - can you explain what that is exactly?
MS. CASEY: The funding to boards, some of it is by formula, some is not. I think the line that the member is looking at is the non-formula grants, which would be things that wouldn't be captured through the Hogg formula. They would be initiatives that we would be introducing and many of them are directly related to initiatives in the action plan. Class caps would be an example; math mentors would be an example.
MS. ZANN: Also, what assumptions were used to calculate the amount budgeted for school lease costs? That's Page 7.9 as well.
MS. CASEY: Those would be tied to the agreements that we currently have with our private partners.
MS. ZANN: So that's tied to the P3 school agreements?
MS. CASEY: That's right.
MS. ZANN: Also, I noticed that you mentioned yesterday - I thought you mentioned - that there are now 300 more teachers in the system. Did you say there have been 300 more teachers hired?
MS. CASEY: What I said yesterday was that between 2013 and 2015 we have hired 385 new teachers. Prior to that there was a reduction in the number of teachers under the NDP by 300 teachers.
MS. ZANN: Are there new teachers budgeted in this budget to hire new teachers?
MS. CASEY: Some of the particular initiatives that I mentioned yesterday - and I did talk about the numbers of teachers - teachers for the Grade 5 and Grade 6 class caps, the additional teachers for literacy support and the additional teachers for math support - in particular math mentors and math interventionists.
MS. ZANN: Do you have a number of how many extra teachers have been hired this year for those programs?
MS. CASEY: We did have that number. I gave that number yesterday.
MS. ZANN: I don't think you gave it to me. I think you must have given it to the Progressive Conservatives, because I don't remember talking about this.
MS. CASEY: Okay. I know we have it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just a note while the minister is looking for those numbers. I prefer if we could try as best we can through the free-flowing to refer to persons in the third as opposed to "you" in terms of our parliamentary decorum.
MS. ZANN: Sure.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you.
MS. CASEY: To be specific, I believe 381 was the number, and the class caps for Primary to Grade 2 is 195 teachers, and Grades 3 to 4, 81; math mentors, 52; Reading Recovery, 53; and mental health conditions, 23.
MS. ZANN: Are those numbers from the year 2013 to the year 2015? Or is it just this current budget year?
MS. CASEY: Those numbers would be up to the 2016-17 budget year. In 2016-17, we would be having additional teachers, new literacy leads. We have nine literacy mentors, we have 28 guidance, and we have seven for the Grade 5s and 6 cap. We have 88 - when you total all of that up, it comes to 570. The 381 is from 2013 to 2015, and the additional ones are in the 2016-17 budget.
MS. ZANN: How are they distributed across the province?
MS. CASEY: Schools work with their school boards to identify the teacher requirement. That's a practice that happens every year based on their enrolment and based on the courses and programs that they deliver. They work with the department once they've looked at their preliminary numbers, what they believe those to be, and the funding formula includes that as it determines what the grant to the board will be.
MS. ZANN: I actually have one more question about the budget right there. Could you explain the lower amount budgeted for furniture, fixtures, equipment, and technology in school capital services, Page 7.10?
MS. CASEY: I think the member is looking at FFE&T from $2.463 million to $1.697 million. That would be the depreciation of FFE&T that's currently in our schools. It has to be calculated into that.
MS. ZANN: Sorry; could you explain that a little more?
MS. CASEY: One of the rules of accounting that has to be followed is looking at depreciation of FFE&T, so that would be the depreciated value that is identified there.
MS. ZANN: It's the depreciation of the actual items, so there's no more money that has been spent on computers, iPads, things like that? Would that be on that budget line?
MS. CASEY: That's right. The depreciation that we're noting here is not related to new equipment that's purchased or with new capital construction, an FFE&T budget that goes with the new construction. This does not reflect new purchases that might have taken place for any particular furniture, fixture, or equipment.
MS. ZANN: I know that the school review process and closing of small schools has obviously been an issue that has been bringing a lot of concern to many parents that I've been talking to. Has the department actually done any analysis on outcomes for children who move from small community schools to larger regional facilities?
MS. CASEY: I would go back to comments that I made yesterday with respect to the whole school review process. For years in this province, there has been some form of legislation and some form of review process that allows school boards to look at the needs within their board, look at the facilities that they have, and look at how they feel they can best deliver programs and services to the students they have. Whenever that review process takes place, it's consistently a concern for communities if they believe that their school is up for review.
There are some communities that welcome it. Part of that welcoming the review and what might be the outcome of the review has to do with educational opportunities that they want for their children. In many small rural communities, in particular at the junior and senior high school level, the educational opportunities that can be afforded in another facility or in another community are something that parents do consider, and they do look at that.
When we recognized, and it came during the NDP Government, that there needed to be a second look at the school review process, Bob Fowler was engaged by the NDP to begin the consultation to find out what that process should look like, how communities felt about the process, and opportunities for the community to have input into the process. Through extensive consultation, Bob Fowler came up with a report and recommendations as to what the legislation and regulations should look like to guide us through a new school review process. That process very much focused on a positive relationship between community and school board because it is conducted by the school board in their school communities. It focused on the whole element of respect and trust between and among communities and the board. It also provided opportunities for parents to be more involved in the process.
One of the findings and one of the recommendations that came from the Fowler report and which was included in the school review process, which was accepted by all members in the Legislature, was to ensure that the decisions about the future of their school would be made by the level of government closest to the community. That is the elected school board. When those concerns of parents found their way into the review process, it said that we - at this time it was our government - respected those concerns and wanted the parents and the community to be actively involved.
The school options committee, which was something new in the process, was specific to that very concern about ensuring that community members had a voice and how the process could be structured so that that voice of the community could be heard. When the school options committee and the membership on it were identified, it was clear that there would be both voting and non-voting members. That was very important because one of the criticisms of review processes in the past had been that decisions about the future of schools or the recommendations to a board about the future of schools could be heavily influenced by elected board members or school board staff.
With the school options committee and the two different groups of members on that, voting and non-voting, it was made very clear that that would not happen. The voting members on the school options committee are school advisory council representatives on that committee and community and business leaders. Those are the voting members on the school options committee. The school board staff and the elected members do not have voting rights on that committee.
What we believe that did was, again, speak to what the community said they wanted. They wanted to make sure that their voices were heard, that their vote is the vote that comes from the school options committee. It is not a vote from a school board staff member or an elected school board. The school options committee is a very critical part of the school review process and, again, respects what communities and the public told Bob Fowler as he did his consultations.
The other thing that we heard and that Mr. Fowler heard, and we respected when we looked at the review process, was who leads. Who is the leader? Who takes control of the school options committee meetings? Again, some communities that didn't have a lot of trust in their elected board members did not want that to be an elected board member, and they did not want it to be a senior staff member.
What we put in the school review process was that we would have an external facilitator funded by the department to take on the role of leading the school options committee through the public meetings, with no vested interest in the school, the community, or the board, going in and making use of their facilitation skills. That again helped relieve the concern that communities had that somebody else was driving the boat here and that it wasn't the board superintendent, the board chair, or an elected board member.
We have a committee with a school advisory council and community members as the only ones who can vote on that committee, and we have a facilitator who is external to the whole process facilitating that. The intent there, as I said, was to try to ensure that parents' concerns that this is their community and that they want to have a say in what happened were respected.
The other thing that we wrote into the review, again, was that there had to be a minimum of three public meetings. One of the criticisms in the past was that there was no opportunity for the public. There was no public meeting, so we wrote into the review guidelines that there had to be a minimum of three public meetings. After the school options committee has their minimum of three meetings, facilitated by somebody external to the board and with decisions and recommendations voted on only by the community, then the school options committee presents that to the board.
That was a whole new process, which came as a result of what community members said they disliked about previous review processes and how they wanted their voices to be heard. They wanted it to be their process as far as what goes forward to the board for recommendations. Boards have followed that review process, and they have recognized that it does give the community the voice that they wanted as far as the recommendations that the options committee puts forward.
As with every school review, whether it's a review of one school, a family of schools, or a cluster of schools, there are different outcomes of a review. People often think that the only outcome of a school review is a school closure, and that is not necessarily the case. Whenever you start talking about a review, past history has suggested to communities that that means that their school is going to close. Again, we try to encourage that whole notion of trust and respect between and among communities and their school board. Once the school options committee brings their recommendations forward to the school board, then the decision about which of those recommendations will be accepted, what the final decision of the board will be, is based on a lot of information that the board has.
One critical piece of information is the school options committee report. Those decisions are made by the elected school board members, so they have to receive this report. And other information that they may have with respect to a family of schools or a school is all considered before the board members make their final decision.
The other thing that was made very clear is who is responsible for a school review and the outcomes of a school review. In order to dispel any notion that it would happen at the department or at the minister's office, it was clearly stated that the decision of the board is final. It cannot be overturned by the minister. Again, in stating that very clearly, I think we were clear to communities about the process, who can vote, who completes the report, and who makes the final decision. That information had to be clear because in some cases, it wasn't clear.
Now, having said all of that, the decisions that boards make are very difficult ones. In some cases, they are not the decisions that a community might want to hear, but the process is designed to allow the community to have their voice heard and to present their case to the elected board members. Board members have to look at a number of things when they are making their final decision. They have to look at how to deliver quality programming to the students for whom they have responsibility.
One of the important things to consider, in particular at junior and senior high school, is critical mass and what courses can be offered to the students in the facility that currently exists. There are some parents who transfer their students to a school where there are more course options. That is their choice, and they make that choice because they understand that the opportunities for their students may be greater when there are more students in a school. As I say, that critical mass allows schools to offer more programs.
I'm not suggesting that this should be a determining factor, but some parents make the decision to transfer their students because it fits into their own work schedule, and the school may be close to where they work. They can request a transfer. Maybe it's a music program. Maybe it's a sports program. There are a number of factors that parents consider when they ask for a transfer of their student. But those same factors also play into decisions that the boards make about how they can provide the best quality program for the students in their schools.
I commend the boards for making difficult decisions. I believe that the school review process provides an opportunity for them to have as much information in front of them for them to consider before they make any final decisions. We often hear, quite often, from people who don't like something. We do hear from people who do like things. We've heard from parents who said, I really didn't think I would like this, but now it's worked out for the best.
I will use an example of students who adapt much more quickly than their parents to change. I will use the two high schools in Pictou County, and we have a member from that community here. The member and I were both working for the school board at the time in different capacities. There was a review to look at consolidating five high schools in the towns in Pictou: Trenton, New Glasgow, Westville, Stellarton, East Pictou, and West Pictou - four towns, I guess, and two municipalities.
There was a lot of resistance to that consolidation into two new modern high schools. We would hear things like, we've had this great band program in New Glasgow High, and we will lose it. We've had a great sports program in Westville, and we'll lose it - or something else. At the end of the day, the board made a decision to close those schools and to build two new modern high schools that could deliver and are delivering quality music programs and strong athletic programs. Nothing was lost.
I had an opportunity to go to the first graduation at the North Nova Education Centre. The whole sense of identity that parents were fearing their children would lose was alive and well. They saw themselves as graduates of that new high school. They didn't forget the good programming, the good experiences, or the happy times they had in their smaller high school, but they recognized that they were now part of something big. They had more opportunities than they would have had in their small high school, and they recognize it as their school.
Even though there was resistance from the parents to that particular move, the benefits to the student far exceeded that negative feeling that the parents had. So I think we can learn from those experiences, and we can recognize that even though it was a tough decision, I believe it was made for the right reasons, and that was how we can enhance and support programs for our students in a safe learning environment.
I will recall one more story for you. That was a little fellow whose mother was complaining bitterly about her child having to leave one school and go to another. We listened because parents are concerned, and they need to be heard. Even though we were trying to reassure the mother that this would not have a negative impact on the child, she had not yet been convinced of that. Ask the child how they felt about it, and they couldn't get to a new school fast enough because they would make new friends and because of all of the exciting things that they were looking forward to.
We certainly respect the concerns of families about moving their children to another school. But I think it's important, and it's an important role for the school board to play, to try to look at and to make sure that they believe this move will be in the best interests of students. Going back to that whole business of trust and respect between a school community, the parents in the community, and the elected board members, that's what needs to be strengthened.
It was at an all-time low, I believe, when the process began for looking at a new school review model. Part of the attempt here was to rebuild that and to make sure and demonstrate that parents had a voice in the process. There are all kinds of testimonies, but I do believe that the school boards pay attention to what is in the best interests of students when they're making their decisions.
I would just conclude this little conversation with the fact that, when a school board makes the final decision, it's clear that the decision is theirs and that the minister cannot change that decision or overrule that. So we have school board chairs who understand that and who will stand up and defend the decisions that they have made. We have had situations where they have not, and it demonstrates to me that they either don't understand the process, or they don't want to take responsibility for the outcome. We have to have strong school board chairs and school board members who will take the school review process seriously, who will recognize the importance of the decisions they make, who will have the information in front of them so they can make a good decision, and who will then be prepared to stand up and defend that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That concludes the one-hour allotment for questions from the New Democratic Party caucus. We will now move to the Progressive Conservative caucus for one hour of questions.
The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
HON. PAT DUNN: You had the opportunity to talk about a couple beautiful schools in Pictou County. I heard in the past that they had a really good hockey coach at North Nova, one of those new schools, but we won't spend much time talking about that.
I also had - I was going to call them munchkins, but I had better not - three children who graduated from New Glasgow High School and three from North Nova. It's funny to see them when they're together sometimes bantering about what school was the best.
I can remember the issues that surrounded the community at that particular time. Once the Grade 10, 11, and 12 students moved on and the new students were coming in, it was readily accepted that this was our high school. Everything was fine, great. Everything worked. There were some great programs and so on.
I have a lot of questions. Basically, it's probably something that we could be sitting in a couple sofas and talking about back and forth. You could take the Estimates Books and throw them away. These are just conversations I had with a lot of teachers. A lot of them are concerned, so I'll ask for comments on some and maybe answers to some others or whatever.
The first one, I can remember a teacher mentioning this to me, and I think they were referring to the educational system in Finland. I think that's where this was coming from. What they said was that children need more downtime. It is during this time that connections happen, that reflection happens, that thought and creativity happen, that discovery happens, and that brain development can occur. They were saying we probably should have more downtime in our daily routine. I have my own opinions on that, but I just wanted you to make a short comment on that.
MS. CASEY: I would suggest to the member that the classroom in which he began his teaching career and the one that I was in no longer exist in this province. That's probably a good thing in some respects because the structure of the classroom had historically been the teacher at the front of the room, the students lined up in desks, supposedly paying attention to the teacher, and the instruction coming from the teacher and them receiving information. That's what we believed was the right thing to do at that time.
But we've recognized over the years, through research and through best practices, that students need and want to be more engaged in the activity and more engaged in the learning process, recognizing that students all have different abilities. They bring different backgrounds and readiness to the class, and they bring different life experiences to the class. The best learning environment in a classroom is for them to have the opportunity to share all of that with others. Children learn well from others, from their peers. So they need opportunities to be working together, whether it's in pairs or in small groups or whether it's taking a leadership role with a larger group, but they need to have that opportunity. Not only does it help them share their learnings with others in the class, but it also builds that whole confidence in themselves. It develops some of their leadership skills. It develops some of their communication skills.
Whether that would be called downtime in this particular teacher's mind, I don't know, but I think that is more creative interacting kinds of experiences so that sharing can take place. Teachers can guide that learning, and they can set the stage for those conversations, for those experiments, and for those projects that students are working on and exploring. We want teachers to do that. They have to do that because they are bound by a set of outcomes in the curriculum that they have to help students achieve. But how they get to the end result does look a lot different.
The other thing that I think we've recognized is that schools are often a great place for socialization, for kids to share, to talk, to learn, and to laugh. We don't want chaos in the classroom, but there's nothing wrong with kids enjoying what they're doing in the classroom. I think it brings out the best.
If we've talked to Primary teachers, we know that a little Primary student who comes in and is very shy and doesn't want to speak and just withdraws, if you put a little puppet on their hand and put them behind a little theatre, the puppet's going, they're talking, and they don't even realize what they're doing. They need that opportunity to learn and grow in a social setting. That whole business of guided learning, interaction with others in small groups, students taking the lead, can and does lead to positive outcomes and constructive learning. It happens within a normal classroom. It's not a special class where they go to be creative. It's happening through the math, social studies, science, or whatever curriculum. I think when teachers are talking about maybe more discovery time or more downtime, they're looking at a different type of instruction and a different way of learning in the classroom.
MR. DUNN: There's some concerns about some current policies that I've heard from teachers. Two items that stand out are changes to the attendance policy and the policy of no zeroes in grading, if that happens to be accurate.
This question is really dealing with the policy of no zero marks and so on. I understand the value of focusing on meeting learning outcomes, but we need to ensure that we are still teaching our students accountability and personal responsibility. When a student graduates and attends university, it is common for professors to fail a student for not attending a certain number of classes. If the student does not do their work, they get zero. That is the reality in many universities, colleges, and workplaces.
The concern that I was hearing from some teachers is on the impact of attendance policies and not being able to give a zero. What happens to those students in the long term, when they get out into the real world? I guess I'm just looking for a comment on that. What is the rationale behind these policies if they still do exist?
MS. CASEY: One of the things that we recognized early on in our mandate was the inconsistencies around the province with respect to policies. Some were provincial policies, or guidelines rather than policies, open to interpretation. In some cases, there was a provincial policy, and then there would be a board policy, and then there would be a school policy. So teachers were often wondering, which policy do I follow? We recognized that and determined that we needed a provincial policy that would apply to all students and teachers in all schools.
We began that with the code of conduct. A good example: if you have a student who has unacceptable behaviour in the Yarmouth high school, and you have the same kind of behaviour in a high school in Sydney, then the consequences for that behaviour should be the same. But with different layers of codes of conduct, there were discrepancies, and there were inconsistencies. You would hear things like, well if that happened in that school, you wouldn't be suspended, but if it happened in that school, you would. We wanted to address that, so what we ended up doing was going out to schools and working with teachers and administrators to say, we are going to have one provincial code of conduct. We sought their input and developed a provincial code of conduct. It is the only code of conduct in the province, so it brings that consistency.
The next policy that we looked at was homework because we were all over the map on homework. In fact, I went to staff at the department and asked, what do we have here about homework? I was presented with a little booklet. I think there were nine pages in it, actually. It was a guide to homework. I read the nine pages, and if I had been a teacher in the classroom, I still would not have been sure what I should do about homework. It did not give any clear direction.
So again, we went out to work with teachers and asked them their thoughts on homework. They're the ones in the classroom. They're the ones who see the benefit of students doing some work, and they also see the benefit of building responsibility and all those kinds of things. Out of that came the provincial policy on homework.
The next area that we addressed was, as the member has mentioned, student attendance and student evaluation because, again, there were inconsistencies. Using teachers as our experts and our resource, we put together a document for discussion on attendance and evaluation. Out of that, we are getting close to a provincial policy on student attendance and student evaluation.
One of the things that we've done within the last year is look at - there was a Youth Advisory Council that advised the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development on issues related to youth. At that time, when that was an active advisory council, post-secondary education was part of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. It spanned the junior and senior high school age and off into university, and that captured the youth.
However, post-secondary education - community college and universities - is now under the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. So the Youth Advisory Council that we had was really kind of redundant because students in university were coming to advise the minister on public education, and it seemed more appropriate that they would be advising the minister who had responsibility for that. We transferred the Youth Advisory Council to the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.
In order for me to have an opportunity to hear the voices of students in our schools, we established a student advisory council that advises me as the minister. We looked at representation from one end of the province to the other and identified youth. Their names were submitted to us from their schools and from their school board as people who had an interest in and would be good participants on an advisory council and brought them together.
I've met with them. We've had good discussion, and the very first thing we discussed at our very first meeting was student attendance. We're using that information to help us guide our policy. It was interesting to hear their voices. Quite often, we don't listen to the people who will be most impacted by a decision we make.
I can tell you that they were very articulate about what works in their school to incent students to come to school and what deters them from coming to school. They were very honest and frank in their conversations. We asked them to go back to their schools and to meet with their student body, share those ideas with us. As I said, that will form the collection of information that we need to establish one policy for the province on student attendance and evaluation.
I do want to make it clear that there is no provincial policy that is a no-zero policy. There is no provincial policy that says no zeros. There is obviously some confusion amongst some teachers who I know have said they're not allowed to give a zero. I don't know where that's coming from. If there happens to be a board policy that says no zeros, or there happens to be a school policy that says no zeros, our one provincial policy will address that, and it will implemented in all our schools.
To the member's comments about what he's hearing from teachers, I would encourage you to please remind teachers that there is no provincial policy that says no zeroes.
MR. DUNN: Moving on and dealing with attendance, some teachers were mentioning they lost the ability, I think they said back in September 2015, to deal with students for missing classes and aren't allowed to take their credit away. They referred to students missing 22 or 25 classes in a particular course. They also mentioned the achievement levels. For example, I think one of the teachers mentioned advanced chemistry to me. It really took down the average of the class because some of these students who were missing so much time had single digits for their mark, causing lower averages for these classes. Anyway, I'm not going to ask a question on that particular area. I just wanted to throw it out there in the mix.
I do have a question about the following. I believe it's school board policy, and what some teachers are telling me is that there's a possibility they may take the exemption policy away. That's where students who are making very good marks can decide not to write one of their exams at the end of the year - with the exception, of course, of standardized math, English, and so on. As it stands right now, a student who misses seven classes, excused or unexcused, loses that particular right. In the particular school that I was in, you had maybe 500 students who are able to say they weren't going to write that particular exam. They're highly motivated students and so on.
If what they think is reality, that they're going to take this exemption policy away, then there's a lot of highly motivated students who will not have that opportunity. I just want to get you to perhaps comment on that. Again, I don't know if that's the school board. I think it's a school board policy, not provincial or departmental.
MS. CASEY: That example is exactly what we were hearing when we were talking to teachers out in the field about an attendance policy. What should an attendance policy look like? What should be included in that? We were getting different versions of what was happening in schools. Again, it goes back to inconsistency. There is no provincial policy that speaks to that, so I agree with you. It could be a board policy. It could be an individual school policy. I can tell you it may even be an individual teacher policy. What standards is that teacher setting in that classroom, what expectations? That's why, as I say, we really need to make sure that we have something that's consistent.
The very thing that you're talking about, being exempt from exams - if they have 90 per cent or more, in some cases, schools are exempting students because of high achievement through the course of the year. That came up when I was meeting with those students. Some of those students were saying it's an incentive to work hard, and then you get an exemption from the exam. They were saying they like this. Some other students were saying they don't have that in their school. There were as many inconsistencies around that table as there were students there.
Something that we also have to remember, too, is that we have to understand circumstances and what students bring from their home to school. They don't all come from an advantaged home. Some of them come from a disadvantaged home environment, out of no fault of their own, and the expectations for those students with respect to attendance may vary.
I think the policy that we put out, which will be provincial, has to have opportunities for professional judgment on the part of the teacher with respect to individual circumstances. We may not like to hear it, but there are young girls, in particular in high school, who may be caring for their child at home and still attending school. Their circumstances are not the same as some other girl in the same class. It has nothing to do with their ability. It has nothing to do with whether they're a high achiever or not. But there may be some reasons - legitimate reasons, based on that circumstance - why that young woman is absent from class or doesn't get a report in on time or whatever.
We need to make sure in this policy - and those are the circumstances that have been identified - that we have flexibility to have teachers use professional judgment in those cases.
MR. DUNN: I'm going to read a few comments from some of the teachers I was talking to. The question so you can reflect on it is, should Career Development 10 be a compulsory course?
That's the question, but here's the preliminary information. The government continues to talk about the importance of life management skills, but they are not giving us the resources and assistance to help students with these skills. You have to allow teachers time to form relationships with students. Too many things are getting in the way, and they made reference to paperwork. It's difficult to cultivate the relationship with a semester course when you have 120 students. Teachers are overcome by attempting to meet outcomes which are very time-consuming.
Many of today's students are very anxious and often suffering from depression and are very dependent on their parents. They may be intellectually okay but definitely not independent. They have a lack of coping skills because they are depending so much on their parents. It appears to be getting progressively worse. I believe it is generational. They're not referring to all students, but some. Parents do not know how to respond and are not able to provide the necessities of these developmental stages. Career Development 10, in their opinion, should be a compulsory course. The students need these skills, but since it is an elective course, most do not choose it.
When I think back, this change may have occurred when they took the course PAL, Physically Active Lifestyles, and I think they made it a full year course. So students can take this instead of phys. ed. There is a diminishing reality with regard to parents providing proper guidance. Therefore, with a compulsory career development course, it would give the school the opportunity to give them insight into decision making. They really felt strongly that Career Development 10 should be a compulsory course.
MS. CASEY: One of the things that you'll find in the action plan is a focus on career development and career planning. I think we all recognize that these are major decisions for our students to be making about their future, sometimes with limited or no information, perhaps nobody to give them guidance or advice. So they are often confused about what courses they should take in particular and then what they would want to do with their life.
What we've included in the action plan is an introduction to career planning and career development. Early on in the junior high ages in particular is where we're focusing on introducing that so that students start thinking about careers in junior high. We know that they will change those plans many times before they graduate. We also know that it used to be a sign of failure if you started a program, a career, and you changed your mind and went somewhere else. Now if you get into a career, and you recognize that it's perhaps not for you, that it's not what you thought it was going to be, you have a chance and you are encouraged to switch to another program or another career.
That will still happen, but what we want to try to do is to get students thinking early on about what they might want to do and develop a plan or a path for themselves. We want that to include their parents as well. We also recognize that the role of guidance counsellors in a school has changed significantly. It used to be totally career guidance and sitting down with students to decide what university courses they take or what university they go to. Their scope of work has gone well beyond career guidance, and it's into personal guidance, so we need to make sure that we don't lose that focus on career planning.
One of the things that we've done in our schools, again, to give students more information so they can make an informed decision is expanded co-op education, focusing on skill trades, and our Options and Opportunities programs. Those are all designed to give students exposure, some limited experience in something that may become a career for them. Our number of O2 schools continues to grow. Our number of skill trade centres continues to grow.
We're hearing some students who are in O2, Options and Opportunities, or who are in skilled trades say, it was great because I decided I didn't want to be a carpenter or a plumber. But they needed that exposure to help them make that decision. We have others who say, I didn't know I was so good at being a carpenter, or I like the auto mechanics, or whatever. It helps them focus on their career path.
We get both, and that's exactly what we want. We don't expect every student who goes into a skilled trade to be a plumber or electrician for the rest of their life. They may be and they may be the best, and they'll make a darn good wage, and they'll be productive citizens in their community. But they don't take a skilled trade or an O2 because they know that's what they want to do. They take it because it gives them exposure, experience, and information that will help them make a wiser decision. The whole business of career development and exploring, thinking about what they want to do in life, is something we want to help kids start thinking about and focusing on earlier.
Another course that we're offering as a result of the action plan is entrepreneurship. Again, that's another career path. Some of the future leaders and entrepreneurs in our society are in our schools right now, and they need some exposure. They need to know more about being, how to become, and to be successful as an entrepreneur. We're giving them that exposure.
We also have - if I could just read this - a list of programs that explore careers, and these are in our high schools. We have the summer co-op, the skilled trades I've mentioned, and Junior Achievement. We've expanded our funding and support for Junior Achievement. When you're in a classroom with some of the business leaders who come in through Junior Achievement to work with our students, you can see the bright lights coming on.
I had an opportunity to be in a classroom a few months ago. A group of students were learning about financial literacy and financial management. It was pretty revealing to them and to those of us who were there that these kids didn't have much of an idea about how to manage finances.
One of the activities that the leaders were doing with the students was, assuming that you are on your own, you've graduated, you're in an apartment, and have a part-time job or a full-time job, what kind of a plan do you have for managing your money? They went through an exercise where they had to put down what they thought they would spend for rent and what they thought they would spend for food. Some of them had no idea. Some did. Some had gone to the grocery store and done some shopping, and they have an idea of the cost of food, but most of them didn't. Most of them didn't know what an apartment would cost because if they're in an apartment, their parents are paying for it now, so they wouldn't know - and the cost of a vehicle and so on. So they had to list all of these expenses that they would have if they were living independently.
Then in the next activity, the leaders gave them a copy of a stub of a cheque, the money that they would receive for a month, and they had to put the expenses down for a month. Then they said, okay, here's how much money you've earned this month. Here's your paycheque. They looked at the paycheque, and they looked at what they had listed that it was going to cost them to live. Guess what? They didn't have enough money to pay their bills. It was an awakening for them.
I was watching one girl work. She had that she was going to buy a car, and that would cost her $500 month, and she was going to do this and this. Well, her cheque wouldn't allow her to do that. Her comment was, I guess I'll be taking a taxi, or I'll be walking.
Those are the real-life lessons that these kids need to be exposed to as they're moving through. That is something that's happening with Junior Achievement.
There's Marine Emergency Duties training that students can have access to. There's Options and Opportunities. There are advanced placement exams. There are Red Seal teachers. There is Discovering 9, a class program that we have extended this year. We're trying to put information in front of students that will help them be more informed and make better - more informed decisions. I can't say better decisions, but more informed decisions.
We have involved parents as career coaches in our schools. What better way to learn about possibilities and what opportunities are out there than parents who can provide support, assistance, and coaching as students are making those decisions?
To go back to the concern of the teacher who raised that with you, we've heard that concern from teachers just like the one you've heard it from. We have tried to implement things that we believe will help address that problem. Students will have more information and more exposure, and will make better, more-informed career choices as they graduate.
MR. DUNN: Talking to another teacher, this particular teacher was not . . .
MS. CASEY: Do you have any other friends besides teachers? (Laughter)
MR. DUNN: This teacher wasn't an instructor for Global Geography 12, which is a compulsory course. But this particular person was referring to a policy. There was a recent incident where 10 to 12 students missed a class test - no excuse, no accountability. The person was saying that there's no policy that there can be any repercussions, so the teacher was forced to make some adaptations, have another test, or do something. They made reference to the department removing this policy. So I asked when they removed it, and they were not sure.
They thought the policy was that if you missed 20 per cent of your classes, you didn't get that credit. We are no longer allowed to do that. Therefore, it is taking away our lever to make them attend class. At some of the particular high schools that I've been in, they're having an awful time making students attend class.
You mentioned a code of conduct earlier going right across the province, a standard code of conduct, which I'm sure is going to alleviate a lot of that and help out and so on. But they have been really struggling to make students, in particular high school students, attend classes. Not all of them but many of them are passing their course. They show up on the day when there is a test, or they show up on a day when something has to be passed in. But they do miss a lot of time. Maybe you can perhaps comment on that.
MS. CASEY: I can sympathize with teachers who are experiencing that. All the more reason why we need to have something consistent across the province, all the more reason why we have to listen to what teachers are experiencing as we develop our provincial policy, and all the more reason why there has to be flexibility and some professional judgment on the part of the teacher that we allow for that.
I go back to the stories from the students who are on my advisory committee. They talked about some of the seasonal work or some of the industries in some parts of our province that take kids out of class, and it's acceptable. I use the fishing industry for an example, and the agricultural industry. This came from some of the fishing communities along southwest Nova Scotia. If it's dumping day, if there is something special in that industry on that particular day or that week, they have to leave and go help their parents in that initial part. They are excused from school because everyone in the school and the community understands that they're not goofing off. They're not skipping school. They're contributing to something that is a family industry and is a community industry.
That's where again that professional judgment has to be allowed for in the policy because that would not exist in many of our communities. But where it does, we need to respect it, and we need to make sure that is still allowed to happen.
MR. DUNN: The next question is dealing with report cards. The feeling of a few teachers in a few high schools - and I'm referring just to high schools here - is that they should do away with report cards, that all the information is in PowerSchool. Any parent, any student can go to PowerSchool and see the status of any student, any day, any week, at any time. They felt there would be reasonably good savings in getting rid of the report cards.
I realize that because of lack of technology in some families, they would have to make some changes to accommodate them. I just wanted a comment as far as what you think with regard to that. PowerSchool is up and running and doing its job. Do they really need report cards at that level?
MS. CASEY: Reporting student progress to parents is a priority. It has to be a priority because parents need to be well informed on the progress of their students. That can happen in a variety of ways.
Sometimes we hear people say, well, I didn't know Johnny wasn't doing well until I got the report card. You have to wonder what kind of home-to-school and school-to-home communication exists there. I would suggest that if there has been no contact between home and school before a report card goes home, there has been a breakdown somewhere.
Not all parents are comfortable coming into schools. Not all parents are comfortable calling a teacher. So we have to provide as many means of communication as possible. I always encourage that communication to happen long before a report card goes out. But in some circumstances, it doesn't.
The use of PowerSchool has been one way, and it's been evolving, to add to that means of communication. It still goes back to parents using PowerSchool. We can upload as much information as we want through PowerSchool, but parents have to be interested and prepared and have the technology available to access that information.
I would be reluctant to say that the only means of communication would be through PowerSchool or that the only means of communicating would be through a piece of paper, the report card, that goes home. I think we have to recognize all of the different means and make sure that we use whatever means best get the communication lines open to the parent so that they are well aware of the progress of their student. We encourage the use of PowerSchool. We know that it provides instant access to and updates on student progress. We will continue to promote that. But we have to recognize it's not the only means of communication and should not be.
MR. DUNN: I'm going to stay with report cards for just one more question. Again, talking to a few teachers, they were making reference to every report card having to have three areas covered by teachers for each student: a strength, a weakness, and a suggestion for improvement. The only exception would be the final report for Grade 12. At the end of the year, they don't have to do that. However, for Grades 9, 10, and 11, teachers still have to do this final report in June, which they find extremely time-consuming. The teachers I had been talking to on that particular day just didn't agree with having to go through all of that at the very end, when they're heading out for the summer. They could see doing it earlier in the school year with regard to identification of strength, weakness, and a suggestion for improvement. Maybe you could just comment on that.
MS. CASEY: Sure. I made some comments yesterday about the reason for doing assessment and the importance of using the data that you have from the assessment to determine programs, to determine areas of priority, and to make sure that we can use the data to improve student outcomes, student achievement. The component of the report card that talks about strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement should be seen as data that will be following the student. So the Grade 10 student, when they get their June report card which has those things on it, it follows that student. I would expect, and I think the intent is, that those comments would be of benefit to the teacher who's receiving the student in Grade 11 or from Grade 11 into Grade 12.
Obviously, it makes good sense not to do that for students in Grade 12, when they're leaving. But the intent of that information is to provide a link from one teacher to another and to make sure that, when teachers review the report cards of students they're receiving, they can learn something about the student. They will have a better idea of what areas they need to focus on and what areas where the student has a strength that they need to promote.
MR. DUNN: That is very similar to the answer that I gave, and they quickly said jokingly that I've been out of school too long. Anyway, it just makes sense what you're saying about the students moving on to the next level.
Just a quick comment: everywhere I went, when they brought up the new civics scores, it was very positive. The feedback I got back shows the people in the schools are very pleased that is going to be part of the curriculum from now on.
My next area is basically dealing with the SchoolsPlus program. Of course, we have three schools in my area that benefit from the SchoolsPlus program. I think it's a great program, a wonderful program. I would love to see that program all over the province.
Talking with some personnel in the high school that I just indirectly referenced, they were saying additional resources are needed to meet the needs of the students. I asked for an example. They mentioned a mental health expert. They said the mental health expert was paid for by the Nova Scotia Health Authority and spent two days at the school, but could only accommodate 18 students in their two-day schedule. The overflow who are trying to access mental health assistance are basically told to go to the hospital to seek help. So they felt that, more and more, there are significant mental health issues, and they are just not being addressed because the demand for additional service is not available. I know you have addressed that in the Chamber and here also, but I'll just maybe get you to comment.
MS. CASEY: I think the example that you've shared is what we've recognized and why we are continuing to expand our SchoolsPlus sites and continuing to increase the number of mental health clinicians that we have in our schools. The caseload is, I think you said, one to 18. As I said earlier today, we recognize that students bring a lot of anxieties to the schools, to the classrooms. They need someone to talk to. Quite often, it's not their parents. Sometimes it is their teacher, but sometimes it is not. It's important that we have a professional available for them, someone they feel comfortable with that they can sit down and speak with.
We recognize that teachers can - just from their knowledge of their students - sometimes identify when students are experiencing some anxiety or new behaviours. They can pick up on that, and they do. What they don't have is the professional training to respond to that student with any kind of professional advice with respect to mental health. That's not a criticism of teachers. They're educators, and they're asked to do things that go well beyond what they were trained to do.
What we need is to make sure that we have professionals available so the teacher can refer that student or the student can go to that person. The Department of Education funds the mental health clinicians that are available in our schools. We have now, with this budget, 29 mental health clinicians who are out in our schools. Is that enough? No, it isn't. Is it more than we had last year and more than the year before? Absolutely.
We are continuing to grow the program. We have over 200 schools that have access to a SchoolsPlus site. We are looking at communities because it's not just the mental health clinician who goes in and works in the SchoolsPlus site. It's looking at resources that are available in the community that can come to the site. The resources and the supports are for families. They're not just for an individual student. So we have to look at what resources are available in a community, identify the need, and then establish a hub site and the number of schools that will be served by that site.
We're very happy that it's growing the way it is. We recognize that it needs to continue to grow. Based on the success that we're hearing about, and based on the stories just like the one the teacher is sharing with you, it's not that it's not a good program, but we need more. I would concur that we do. That is what motivated us to invest this year and last year, and it will motivate us for next year.
MR. DUNN: How much time do I have left?
MR. CHAIRMAN: You're down to seven minutes.
MR. DUNN: This is just a statement. One of the guidance counsellors mentioned to me that presently, there is no provincial representative to oversee the guidance and counselling areas for our high schools. I don't need a comment or anything. I just wanted to throw that out there in the mix. Presently, there's no provincial representative to oversee the guidance and counselling areas in our high schools.
The question I'm going to ask is one dealing with Grade 9 math going into Grade 10. The information that I have here is that schools are not allowed to stream. If a student does not have a 65 per cent in Grade 9, schools would recommend that these students take the following math courses in Grade 10: Math at Work or Math Essentials. Schools are not allowed to do this anymore. As a result, students are going into the academic field, and they're not being successful. I'll get you to comment on that.
MS. CASEY: Again, this goes back to some of that counselling, support, direction, and help for students in choosing courses for which they have the ability and also balancing that off with what's compulsory in order for a graduation certificate. One of the biggest steps for kids is, exactly as the member has mentioned, going from Grade 9 to Grade 10 and the options that they have. Combining the interest and ability of the student with the essential graduation outcome, teachers often try to advise the students as to which course may be best suited for them, or which course they may be best suited for.
It's a critical time. There's no question. It's critical that those courses that are selected in Grade 10 - we talked about careers and what path kids might follow. We want to try, where possible, to make sure that as many options are left open for kids as possible, that they don't close the door, that they don't take a course that will not allow them to take the next level, or if there's a prerequisite, that they do take it so they can move up into the next level. In Grade 10, we have Math at Work, we have Math Essentials, and we have Academic Math. These are programs and courses that have been designed to respond to the variety of needs and abilities as students move from Grade 9 to Grade 10. No one ever wants to counsel a student into a course that is not going to leave options open for them. The particulars about 65 per cent and so on would be school policy, I would expect, rather than provincial policy.
MR. DUNN: Again, staying with the math curriculum, just one more question on that, and I can remember you talking about this actually last year in estimates. Grade 11 math is a full-year course, and a couple of teachers were saying that when they looked at Grade 11 and Grade 12, students were having difficulty getting their calculus course taken care of because of Grade 11 math being a full-year course in a semestered school. My understanding was if a student taking Grade 11 math wanted to take pre-calc and calculus, sometimes because of the scheduling and so on they were not getting the opportunity to take calculus. Is that something that you have heard about? Is it a concern that came across your desk? As a result of that, they were saying, it was hindering a student who was looking to go to post-secondary school or university, not having their calculus in the bank as one of their credits.
MS. CASEY: I think this speaks to the comment that I just made that we don't want to block any doors or prevent students from moving on and following the career path that they've chosen. What we're doing in Grade 11 is, there will be options for two courses. One will be two semesters, and one will be one. It's quite likely that the high achievers who want to go on to pre-calc and calc will be in the one-semester course, so we would not be blocking their opportunity to move on into calculus. There will be those options there, either two semesters or one semester, as they move forward. Again, that one semester gives them the block that they need to pick up their pre-calc.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. That concludes the one hour allotted to the Progressive Conservative caucus. We'll now move back to the NDP caucus for another hour of questions.
The honourable member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River.
MS. LENORE ZANN: Going back to what the minister was talking about just before my time got cut off, the minister mentioned Mr. Bob Fowler. Actually, it was our NDP Government that hired him to do a report on the school review process.
The minister didn't say anything about the fact that Mr. Fowler was also very supportive of exploring the hub school model, which we know that several schools have applied for, including River John, Maitland, and Wentworth. We also know that the parents were extremely frustrated by the process and by what they felt was a lack of support from either the school boards or government for their efforts, which went on for over two years. They felt that they were made to jump through hoops that were taken higher and higher. Finally, they were even told by the school board that they had to come up with $500,000 themselves to fix the roof of the school in River John, which is obviously an extremely difficult feat for a small community to do. In the end, they were denied, all three of them.
The communities felt extremely betrayed. They felt that they hadn't been listened to, that government wasn't really taking them seriously, that it was a foregone conclusion before they even started. In fact, we don't really hear too much from the minister or the department talking about hub schools and the hub school model or about Mr. Fowler's recommendations for that. Just recently there was a meeting in Halifax. The Halifax Regional School Board met for the North End Halifax school review and had a public gathering on April 21st at Highland Park Junior High. Many people came out to talk about whether their school was going to have to close or not.
One of the things I had mentioned to the minister while we were in Question Period one day was the fact that although the department has set up this new supposedly arms-length parents' group to sort of be between government and the school board so that it's now up to the parents' group to decide what to do, in fact, what I've been hearing is that the parents are not given much of a choice. As I said in Question Period, it's like they're between a rock and a hard place. What it does is, it kind of lets the school board off the hook so that everybody is not mad at the school board. They're now mad at the parents in this group.
It lets government off the hook as well. For instance, I know that while we were in government, the NDP put a moratorium on small school closures. In one of my earliest meetings with my school board, the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, the very first question they asked of me was to please take a message back to my government and to take the moratorium off small school closures because they wanted to be able to close these schools. That was back in 2009. It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that there was a number of these schools they wanted to close.
We as a government had been hearing from many families and many parents who preferred to have their kids in a small school. My father, as an educator and teacher of teachers, always preferred small schools. He said the kids get to know the principal. The teachers all know the kids' names. They seem to have better outcomes than when the kids are in a huge school where they feel anonymous, and the principal hardly ever knows anybody's name.
Just the other day on April 21st, at Highland Park Junior High School, the community conversations that were started there became very excited and very heated. The school board's options committee was headed by a parent, John Frost. They had the best of intentions, but the parameters that were set by the Halifax Regional School Board were very difficult. More than 120 local citizens attended this first public engagement session. They came out to discuss a new vision for the five-site family of schools. But the school board's senior staff liaison official clearly stated that the board's primary objective was to address the aging infrastructure and replacement of facilities.
The presentation was proposed as being open and transparent, but these suggested recommendations were really no different than under the old school closure paradigm. Four recommendations flashed up on the screen for parents to read. First of all was new capital funding for new builds or renovations. The second one was grade reconfiguration. The third one was consolidation of schools. The fourth choice was school closures. Three out of four of these recommendations proposed by the staff involved school reorganization, busing more students, and/or closing neighbourhood schools.
The startling part of this, too, was that the hub school option was not even mentioned. That is actually in clear violation of provincial rules because it's now law in Nova Scotia for school boards to consider local initiatives to repurpose parts of schools for community use before they're identified for closure.
I have a problem with this because, obviously, pursuing joint redevelopment of school sites with local developers - although that was a topic that generated discussion - lay far outside the pre-determined process guidelines. That indicates that local residents are far ahead of our school board officials, even our department, in our community-development thinking. You find this right across Nova Scotia. River John is a great example, with Sheree Fitch and many of these community parents and grandparents coming up with great ideas for how to use the River John Consolidated School in a way that really is outside of the box and would be good for the community and keep the school, with 70 students, right there in the community. A social enterprise is really something that we should be looking towards.
The other thing is that it's going to take far longer than the three months that they're given to develop a plan and secure community partners and develop a viable social enterprise model. The North End school review process is a good example. It just happened. It looks perhaps more hopeful than some of the other ones that have been done where they've just been told that they're going to be closed. For instance, in Cape Breton, as we know, 17 of 19 schools under review have been recommended for closure over the next five years.
The Strait Regional School Board school options committee process identified that Mulgrave Memorial Education Centre could possibly close. That is actually what happened in Port Hawkesbury. The hub school model was given really short shrift and never seriously considered until it was too late to do so. It seems like it was only when it became clear that negotiations to save Mulgrave school had gone off the rails that it actually surfaced to the public as an option. When it did, Superintendent Ford Rice was prepared, pointing to a "legal opinion" that the time period for such a proposal had lapsed.
I think that our citizens deserve more credit, and our citizens deserve to be given more options. Really, setting a tight timeline of three months around public engagement sends the wrong signals because then it becomes about aging facilities and closing schools, instead of being prepared to consider hub model plans, for instance, active transportation options and alternative funding possibilities. As I said, to tell a small town like River John that they have to come up with $500,000 to fix the roof is ridiculous. How can they do that? I think that genuine community redevelopment really does flourish when government agencies commit to far deeper and more democratic and truly transformative ventures.
Where are we now on the hub school idea? What is the department doing right now to explore the hub school concept, as Bob Fowler recommended?
MS. CASEY: I would really be anxious to have the member show me in the law where it says a hub school has to be considered.
MS. ZANN: Thank you, I will take that under advisement. But I would like to know what the department is doing right now to explore the hub school concept.
MS. CASEY: I think if the member really understood the law, really understood what the Education Act says, in particular what we're saying about hub schools, she would find that there's no law that says a hub school has to be part of the school review process. What it says is that a hub school, through a local initiative, can be a proposal that comes before a school board. There is a big difference.
I would like to share with the members here the importance of being factual. The recommendations in the Fowler report spoke to a hub model with no definition. No one knew what "hub model" meant. There were a number of speculations, conversations in the community, but there was no definition. This conversation had heated up prior to October 2013. Bob Fowler was completing the first phase of his consultation.
In 2013, when we formed government, we recognized that communities were talking about something that no one could define. In fact, prior to that, when the NDP Government was talking about hubs, the Minister of Education at the time could not define it, didn't know what a hub school was. Nobody at the department knew what a hub school was. School boards did not know.
When we came in, rather than have communities in such chaos and confusion, we determined that there needed to be a definition of "hub model," and there needed to be guidelines. If communities, on their own initiative, were going to talk about proposals that they would submit to the board, they needed to know what they were talking about. They didn't, and they needed direction, out of no fault of the community. But there were so many interpretations of what "hub school" or "hub model" meant.
The first thing that we needed to do, and we did, was to establish guidelines and criteria for a hub. I want to share those. We presented a document which went out to all schools and is available on the website.
"This document contains criteria and guidelines for school boards and communities in preparing and evaluating proposals for use of available space in public school buildings.
"The main function of public school buildings is to deliver the public school program, however the department supports the use of available space in public school buildings in a way that is appropriate, transparent, operationally and financially viable, sustainable, and most importantly, supportive of student learning and an appropriate school climate. It is expected that this document will be used when opportunities for use of available space in public school buildings are identified through such processes as long-range planning and family of schools reviews undertaken by school boards.
"The term Hub School is used in a variety of ways across the province and in jurisdictions outside Nova Scotia. For the purposes of these guidelines and criteria when the term Hub School is used it means:
"The reasonable and sustainable use of public school space that does not impede the delivery of the public school program, is financially and operationally viable, and is supported through a strong business case from the community."
It has to be driven by, originated in, and presented from the community. There is nothing in the law that says the school review process has to consider a hub. The initiative comes from the community.
"The primary purpose of a public school building is to provide the public school program to students. Any proposal for use of available space in a public school building must align with this purpose and ensure that the public school program will continue to be offered in a safe and secure learning environment. Within that context, any proposal brought forward by an organization, business or individual must demonstrate how it can support the following:
"An environment that is in the best interests of students;
"An environment that does not negatively impact student learning and engagement;
"A strong relationship between schools boards and, as applicable, community partners, business partners, municipalities and the public;
"Improved service delivery for families and communities; and
"Reasonable and appropriate use of public infrastructure through increased flexibility, accessibility and utilization.
"Any proposal for use of available space in a public school must also clearly demonstrate how it will:
"Result in no increase to capital or operational costs for the school board or the province, as compared to the board's plans regarding that school facility;
"Allow school boards to achieve cost savings; and
"Not create additional, unreasonable management responsibilities for the school board."
It's very clear what the proposal can and cannot, should and should not, include.
"School boards will ensure that use of available space in a public school is consistent with supporting student learning and is aligned with the culture and climate of the school and the school community. Proposals for use of available space in a public school that would not be acceptable include, but are not limited to" - so it's very clear what it can be, and it's very clear what it cannot be - "those that:
"Infringe on the delivery of the public school program and services to students;
"Provide competing education services or services that target public school students;
"Infringe unduly on the economic viability of local business enterprise;
"Could bring the school reputation into disrepute;
"Are likely to cause damage or risk to students, staff, school buildings or property;
"Create excessive noise or pose a nuisance to nearby residents;
The guidelines, as I'm reading them, were made very clear. Communities know them. They give the communities the direction that they need if they are going to consider putting forward a proposal for a hub school or a hub site.
It also speaks to the eligible partners. I think this is information that the member needs to be reminded of or to learn, who those eligible partners are.
"The success of a hub school model requires strong community leadership and a willingness by all partners to work toward an effective model for students, families, and the community. Although not intended to be a comprehensive list, the following is an initial list of potential partners, groups (for-profit and not-for-profit), businesses, or individuals from which a proposal for use of available school space could be generally acceptable."
These are some of the possible partners. It helps the community if they think, well maybe we should explore this. Let's look at who some of those possible partners might be.
"Federal, provincial or municipal government departments and agencies;
"Wrap-around education services (e.g. Early Years, Adult Learning, EAL);
"Organizations supporting culture and the arts;
"Local businesses providing services to families, students and children;
"Sport and recreation providers;
"Other groups as determined by the school board."
It's important to remember that any of these partners that are coming in as part of a proposal will be in a building whose primary purpose is to educate students and provide public schooling. So the school board and the community that's looking at a proposal have to be very cognizant of the fact that the primary purpose of that building is for public education.
It also goes on to talk about eligibility criteria, what it is that needs to be considered so that the proposal does respect various items here. The proposal must pay attention to and respect the following:
"The health and safety of students and staff is not at risk." That's the very first one that's listed.
"The proposal will not compromise the school's ability to deliver the public school program.
"The proposal is appropriate for the school setting and respects the mission and vision of the school board.
"The proposal aligns with the policies and long-range planning of the school board.
"The proposal does not interfere with the school board's strategy for student achievement.
"All proposed uses of available space in a public school building must be in accordance with the Education Act and Regulations, ministerial and school board policies, any other relevant legislation, and relevant processes and policies respecting the construction and management of school facilities."
Building use criteria: when a group in a community is looking at what they might want to include in their proposal, it's important that they know what the building use criteria are so that they have the guidelines, they have the direction, and they can work within those guidelines. "Proposals must outline anticipated facility requirements. This would include things such as the location, the size and type of space required, methods of access to the school building (entrance and egress), and required facility amenities." Whenever a proposal is being considered, the use of the building and what it has have to be considered and respected. "Facility requirements as outlined in the proposal will be considered based on the following criteria:
"How student and school staff safety will be maintained, including confirmation of criminal reference and child abuse registry checks for any employee or volunteer associated with alternate use" - again, students and staff and their safety in the delivery of public education are absolutely the priority for our schools.
"Condition of the facility;
"Configuration of space;
"Separation of space between educational and non-educational uses of the facility;
"Zoning and site use restrictions," which would be particular to the municipalities;
"Anticipated vehicle and pedestrian traffic, including required parking;
Then it's important to talk, and it does very clearly identify them, about the roles and responsibilities of not only the school board but also the proposed applicant. There should be no misunderstanding of those roles. The community that is putting together a proposal needs to understand their role and the school board's role. The school board, in return, needs to understand the roles and responsibilities of the applicant if it happens to be a community group.
"School boards have authority to make a variety of decisions regarding the use of school facilities. These guidelines and criteria are intended to support boards in considering proposals for use of available space in public school buildings, within the authority provided to them under the Education Act." The Act will help guide the board in their decisions about the use of the building.
"In following these criteria and guidelines, school boards are required to evaluate proposals received to ensure they are aligned with legislation and regulations."
The proposed applicant, this being folks in the community who are looking at a proposal, may be "a group, business, public service, or individual; or a coordinating body officially representing groups, businesses, public services or individuals.
"In either case, the applicant may only proceed with a proposal where they believe they meet all of the eligibility requirements outlined in this document."
I go back to the intent for putting together these guidelines and criteria. It's because there were none. There was no direction. There was nothing for a group in any community to follow or respect if they decided they wanted to put together a proposal. It was absolutely critical that communities that were considering - or that may not be considering at this time but may have at another time or in the future - know what the guidelines are, what their role is, what responsibilities they have, and what the responsibilities of the board would be, and that they recognize and accept that the board has to operate within the guidelines of the Education Act.
It also goes on to give some direction to a community, any community, direction they needed and wanted and didn't have. It is direction about what is actually included in the proposal. It's very clear so that when communities ask themselves, what do we do, how do we do it, what do we need, and what should we include? This document answers those questions.
"A comprehensive proposal would include, at a minimum, the following elements:
"An executive summary;
"A background section providing context and the rationale for the application, as well as an overview of the applicant (e.g. group, business, individual);"
I made this comment yesterday, and I will make it again today. Interest on the part of a community to put together a proposal for a hub model in their community school should not be driven by the fear that a school will close. It should be driven by what the community feels they can do to enhance what's going on in the school and in the community. But unfortunately, people look at it as a way to save our school.
I think it's unfortunate that that feeling is out there because I believe we can have hub schools or hub models in schools and in communities that are thriving. I mentioned yesterday the situation that we have at Rockingstone Heights, where we have a medical clinic, medical professionals, in that school and a space where parents can come to a central site and access a resource and a service. That wasn't established because there was a fear that the school would close. It was established because there was a belief that it could enhance the services in that facility and for the families in that community.
I think it's important that we switch the dial here a little bit and not see a hub school as salvation for a school to be closed. It is a positive and absolutely wonderful opportunity for a community and a school board to come together on if they're doing it for the right reasons.
The summary also should include:
"A project description . . .
"A cost/benefit analysis . . .
"A financial plan . . .
"An analysis of financial risks;
"An analysis of non-financial risks (e.g. health and safety, security)" - Who is coming in and out of the buildings? How is that monitored? How is that controlled? Is there a risk? It's not a financial risk, but is it a risk to security, safety, and health?
"An analysis of impacts on stakeholders (including the school and the school community)" - this is going to be a partnership, and everyone who is part of that partnership needs to have an analysis of what the impact will be on themselves and the others;
"An acknowledgement that the proposed use would occur with the appropriate insurance requirements, as determined by the board (i.e. School Insurance Program)" - it is the school board that has full responsibility for that building;
"An implementation strategy;
"An operating model."
When a proposal is submitted, these are the items that those who review the proposal would need to ensure are part of what was submitted. By giving it to the communities in advance in this, then they can be sure - they can do their own checklist, and they will - that their proposal responds to and respects the things that are in that list.
There was a concern, and sometimes there are concerns about the timeline. It's very clear.
"School boards must provide adequate time for communities to prepare a proposal for submission to a school board and for the board to review the proposal." They even go on to suggest some timelines. The comprehensive and complete proposal needs to be developed and presented at a public board meeting within at least an eight-month period. That is eight months that the community has to look at how they can put together a proposal that respects the guidelines and allows them to have that proposal taken before the school board. The school board, after it receives a proposal, has a timeline of at least two months to consider the proposal.
There's also an opportunity: "Boards may choose to extend these timeframes depending on the associated processes. Boards will identify if there is a potential for space to become available. This notification from the board will serve to initiate the timeframes noted above." So there's a little bit of flexibility there, again, going back to that whole relationship between school and community, one that is positive, one that is trusting, and one that is respectful. Once the proposal has been accepted, then there is another set of guidelines for the agreement on the use of a building. But the important thing is for communities to know that there are criteria, there's a definition, and there is respect for the school as a building to provide public education to the students in the community.
I would like to just make mention of something that the member suggested. I believe she was saying that no schools closed under the NDP. I would like to correct that because we have a history of school closures here. It's my recollection that the NDP were in government from 2009 to 2013. I would suggest that some of the schools that closed during that period would certainly have closed under the NDP watch. They're here by board, and there are a number of schools.
In fact, in Annapolis Valley, there is one school that closed during that period of time. In Cape Breton, there are six schools that closed during that period. In Chignecto, there are two schools that closed during that time. In Halifax, there are six schools that closed during that period. In the South Shore, there are four schools that closed during that period. In the Strait, there are two schools that closed during that time. In Tri-County, there are two schools that closed during that time. I think that needs to be in the record.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Minister, I would ask you to table the documents - there are two or three, I believe - that you referred to during your speaking points.
The honourable member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River has the floor.
MS. ZANN: How much longer have I got at this particular time?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Twenty minutes.
MS. ZANN: We're covering a lot of material here.
Actually, what I had said was, in 2009, when we came into government, one of my very first meetings with Chignecto school board was with the superintendent and several members of the staff at the school board. They asked me to take a message back to the government asking to stop the moratorium on small school closures because we had heard from a number of people that they were very pained by the small school closures and that communities were being hurt. That's what I said about that.
I have to say, it sounds to me like the minister is saying that the communities of River John, Wentworth, and Maitland, none of them had all of the criteria that she's talking about and were therefore turned down for their proposals for hub school models. It's interesting because I know the community of River John very well, and I know they put their heart and soul and time into this. They told me that for the last two years before last summer, which was 2015 - that's 2013 to 2015, when the Liberals were in government, I know they met with the minister a couple of times. I also know they met with the Premier. I also know they met with the school board.
I also know that they were sent from one to the other to the other. In particular, on one day when we were at a protest at the minister's office, she told the parents to go over to the school board and talk to the new gentleman who was in charge of the school board who had replaced the old superintendent. These are older ladies, too, grandmothers and grandfathers and parents and little children. They trudged across town to that school board, and I knew that once they got there, they would be told, oh, no, this isn't our decision; this is a government decision. Sure enough, that's exactly what we were told, and back and forth and back and forth. It just seemed like a hot potato that just kept being passed back and forth with nobody taking responsibility for the actual decisions that were being made.
In the end, they were told, no, your plea, your application, is being denied. Meanwhile, they actually received a Lieutenant Governor's Award for all the work that they had done on their hub school model and on trying to save their school.
The reason they wanted to save their school was because they wanted to keep that school open in their community with those 70 students whose backpacks did adorn the River John bridge for most of the summer. I would say that most of these places where they want to keep their schools open are already schools, obviously. They're schools, and these parents have just as much of a desire to have their children and the staff healthy and safe. In fact, the teacher who was there at River John was dying to stay there and would have been very, very glad to have the school remain in the community.
It's been very sad to observe how various different amenities in that community have gone by the wayside one by one by one - the bank, the co-op. Right now, there's still a post office, there's still a drugstore, and there's still a liquor store. But now they have lost their grocery store, and they've lost their school. What people in that area are saying is, who's going to move to this beautiful little community without a school there?
Many of the people in that community are artistic, and they are business-minded. They did everything they could to come up with really creative ideas to keep that place open. I believe it would have been an incredible poster child for the government of whatever stripe for a hub school. I'm sure that the River John folks are going to be quite interested to find out that it sounds like the minister is saying that they were just not up to par for this hub model.
I believe that there are many other communities around Nova Scotia that would like to have a hub model as well. I think we should be encouraging them rather than dissuading them from trying to fit the criteria and come up with these ideas that will hopefully be accepted.
The other thing I wanted to mention was, the minister mentioned something about being factual. I just have to say that it's quite interesting that one thing I've observed since coming into government is that the government right now in power keeps spinning numbers. In every single sector, they spin the numbers to suit themselves. I find that that is not factual at all. In fact, it's the opposite. To hear somebody talking about being factual while they're spinning out numbers that are not factual over and over again, I find that rather interesting.
One of the numbers that keeps being spun out and has been spun out now for the last few years is the $65 million figure. Now, $65 million NDP cuts is the way it's usually presented. It's interesting because I was there when that figure first started floating out. In fact, it first came out from a school board - my school board, actually. Chignecto-Central Regional School Board started talking about these 22 per cent cuts to education, and this $65 million figure started to come out. The Liberals jumped on that. Actually, at the time, the Teachers Union did as well. That then became the figure that they kept repeating over and over and over again.
I would really love to know sometime how they came up with that figure, although I believe it was come up with by the minister herself in estimates. I asked her two years ago, I believe it was, how much exactly had been cut by the NDP from the education budget. I seem to recall that her response was actually 13 per cent. It was 13 per cent plus cost pressures that was being looked at, but cost pressures going on into the future aren't exactly cuts at the time. So 13 per cent plus cost pressures that were estimated into the future is how this figure came up. I have to say that I find that that is just not believable, and it's not true, yet they continue to repeat it.
Now, when we look through the budget, I find that a lot of the budget for Education and Early Childhood Development and Health and Wellness as well has been moved around. So there have been cuts in some areas, and then they're moved to somewhere else.
I know with education, a lot of jobs were still being created in the school board area. A lot of the people who were being paid at the higher end of the scale were not laid off but, in fact, given a different job. So what was intended by the NDP Government - I was never in favour of education cuts at all personally, and I made that very clear, and I always did. But what they were trying to do was to try to cut some of the fat off the top and get them to put it more down on to the bottom, into the actual classrooms. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to happen. The administration seemed to stay as plump as it had been. They started cutting programs and started cutting teachers and blamed the NDP.
As I mentioned yesterday, there was one point in time where they tried to cut the music teacher from Truro Junior High School. I found out about it that very night and immediately went on to Facebook and alerted people. If anybody knows Truro, they know we are a music-loving town, and we have a huge band program that has won awards right across Canada. We have school musicals. We have one of the oldest music festivals in North America. People are very proud of our music. I found out on a Thursday. I put it out on Facebook on Thursday night, and I said, this needs to change. We need to get the school board to change their tactic on this. By Monday, they had actually changed their mind and reinstated the music teacher and the program. That goes to show you what the power of the people can do.
Also, it highlights how sometimes the school board has a certain degree of power, but in fact, the government also has a degree of power. At one point, the school board tried to cut all librarians. I went to the Premier at that time, and I said, they're trying to cut the librarians now. First of all, they tried to cut music, and that didn't work, so now they're trying to cut all the librarians. I just thought how terrible that was. The Premier went to the school board and said, no, you can't cut all the librarians. We're going to override that decision, and we're going to send in a senior financial expert to look at the books and see where you can find other savings. And they did. In fact, what happened there was, they still cut some librarians, but they didn't cut all librarians. This is an example of how government can actually step in and do something when they choose to.
One of the other things that I would like to talk about and ask about today is the fact that in the House the other day, I was asking a question after being at Public Accounts. It's with regard to home schooling. In fact, when I asked the minister why she wasn't planning on implementing the six recommendations from the Auditor General, she said something about perhaps the member not understanding that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development actually has a responsibility to protect the rights of parents to choose the type of education that their children have.
Yet the Auditor General said that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is failing in its responsibility to protect the education rights of children enrolled in the home schooling program. I would just like to flag that as well, that there seems to be a discrepancy there when it comes to rights, the right to education and also the right of parents to choose what type of education their children receive.
"The Education Act outlines the need for and right of children to develop their potential and acquire knowledge and skills. The department has the responsibility to see that the means to accomplish this is provided. The department has established expected learning outcomes for the public school system. These could also be used for the home schooling program and revised as necessary, or the department could create new ones specifically for home schooling. The department cannot effectively assess the adequacy of home school programs and ensure home schooled children are receiving a suitable education if learning expectations and outcomes are not clearly defined, and periodic, independent assessment of the children is not carried out." That is in the performance audits, on Page 12, from 2012.
I know that our government had agreed to ". . . move forward with a two-step strategy to respond to identified concerns and to develop a rigorous, accountable, and clear framework for home-schooling in Nova Scotia." That was the response from the department. "The strategy will comprise short-term actions to address areas that must be addressed immediately and longer-term strategic actions to revise the legislative and policy framework for students who are home schooled in Nova Scotia."
I still wonder why the minister doesn't feel that it's necessary to implement these recommendations by the Auditor General. He will be coming back into Public Accounts again tomorrow, I believe, so it should be interesting to find out what he thinks about that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: You have five minutes remaining.
MS. ZANN: Finally, the other question that I am thinking about and wondering about is with regard to the families in Cape Breton that are facing the closure of 17 schools. The responsibility for a lot of these aging buildings has been downloaded on to municipalities. But two of those schools built using the P3 model have actually been well maintained using public funds, which will basically leave the keys being handed over to private developers. So I'm curious to know why we are leaving municipalities with bills for unwanted buildings while private developers are just walking away with a tidy profit. It seems to me that there's something wrong with this picture. Where are the children from these 17 schools going to go? That's my last question.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would ask that the honourable member table the document that she was referencing.
The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MS. CASEY: I'm just going to have a few comments here. Everything that the member has suggested has not been done has been.
For example, it was very clear where the $65 million came from, and that was tabled in the House. If the member has failed to look at that, I would suggest she could go and get a copy of that because it has been tabled. It was also shared in this room yesterday with the reinvestment of the $65 million back into our public education.
It's important that the member is suggesting that when the River John folks came to protest at my office - obviously somebody led them there. Somebody felt they could influence a decision but, unfortunately, took them to the wrong office. The member should know, if the member understands the Education Act and the school review process, that the decision to close a school or the decision to not accept a proposal from a community is the decision of the school board. So to mislead those parents or to bring them to my office with the expectation that I could change the decision of the school board, I think was a bit disingenuous.
I felt badly for the parents and the families who were there. I brought some of them into the office and explained to them that the decisions about the proposal for a hub school, the decisions about school closure, were decisions made by the school board. It very clearly states that the decision of the board is final, cannot be overturned by the minister.
Once those folks from River John understood that, they realized they had been dragged to the wrong office. They asked me where they should go and what they should do. I suggested to them that they should go to the body that made the decision, and that would be the school board. I contacted the school board to let them know that these folks were in my office and on my doorstep and that they could be, should be, and might be going to the board office. The superintendent of the day welcomed that call and welcomed them when they got there.
To suggest that those people had to trudge across town because they were at the wrong office, the fault for them being at the wrong office lies clearly in the hands of the member who brought them to the office and should have told them in the first place that the decision they were looking to have reversed was not made by the minister and cannot be overturned by the minister. I would suggest that when MLAs are out in the community, they give accurate information to the community, that they respond to the community, and that they give them clear direction and tell the community exactly who makes the decisions and, if they want to have it reversed, where they should go to express their concerns.
I certainly enjoyed speaking with the group that came in. I went to the doorstep and spoke to all of them. I understand their concerns. I also felt badly for them, that they thought that the decision could be reversed on the doorstep of my office. Clearly, they were not given the right information because if they had been, they would have gone to the school board office, and they would have asked to speak with representatives of the board or the superintendent. Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, that did not happen without me explaining to them who made the decision and where they needed to go.
To suggest that I turned them away and I made them trudge across town, I think is very misleading and inaccurate. The responsibility for why they were on my doorstep rests clearly with the MLA for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Time has expired. We will now move back to the Progressive Conservative caucus for one hour of questions.
The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: Thank you to the minister and the staff. I felt like I got a pretty good answer this afternoon from the minister. I hope I don't push my luck here today with some other stuff.
My questions are more around kind of where education is going, where the minister would like to see it go. When I talk to teachers, especially elementary teachers, they talk about a kind of culture of disrespect that they feel they face. Some of them would say, Tim, you should come to my classroom. You might see a child swear at me or hit me. Then we'll go to the office, we'll call home, and somebody will say, well what did you do? Why is that happening?
It has caused me to think about whether kids are ready to learn when they come to school. That's what I wanted to focus on with the minister. I have been doing a bit of reading, and there are some experts - I read some John Hattie stuff. He would raise the point that curriculum really doesn't matter. He would say curriculum plays a role in how kids learn, but maybe it's only 40 or 50 per cent, 30 or 40 per cent is the teacher, and some is their peers. There's all kinds of environmental factors.
With that in mind, I'm wondering about how we can address these kinds of issues. I did want to talk through a couple of things on the action plan and maybe ask a couple of specific questions about the minister's views on things.
Pillar No. 1 of the action plan talks about establishing a "Centre for Excellence within the department, dedicated to advancing student achievement, Nova Scotia-specific school research, high-quality teaching, and strong leadership." I was very curious about the Nova Scotia-specific research element of that. I wondered what that looks like. Does that mean there are areas of the province that we can model for other parts of the province?
As an example, I've heard about something done on the South Shore that the school board does there. They embed time in the day for collaborative learning. I think it's like seven minutes a day, and it adds up to 90 minutes every few weeks that they can dedicate to collaborative learning. I've heard this is a real success story, and I'm wondering if that is the type of thing that this is talking about when it talks about Nova Scotia-specific school research.
Are those the types of pilot projects that we would see rolled out across the province? Maybe if the minister can just kind of speak to that element a little bit, I would appreciate it.
MS. CASEY: To the member, if I could go back and just make a comment about some of your earlier statements about the classroom of today and teachers expressing their anxiety or concern about the classroom, that whole business of mutual respect, I would suggest, appears to be waning.
I think what we need to recognize is what we have in public education. I think I mentioned to your colleague beside you that when he and I were in classrooms, a few years ago, they looked differently than they do now. Children are bringing more complex issues to the classroom. The challenge we have as teachers is first, to be able to identify what some of the root causes of those are and then to be able to provide the supports to help children with those complexities. Teachers need to, and do a very good job of identifying some complexity.
In some cases, they have strategies they can use to help overcome the behaviours if it is a behavioural issue. But they are not experts in providing mental health support, for example. They are very good at identifying issues. But they need, and we need as a government and as a province, to make sure the experts are available to provide support for those students.
I did speak earlier about the importance of mental health clinicians. We recognize that we have more needs than we are able to meet. That's why we have invested more money this year into mental health clinicians and why we have expanded the number of schools that have access to mental health services through SchoolsPlus. Are we there? No, but we are moving in that direction.
To go back to the complexities in the classroom, identifying them and providing the supports, we work closely and have an autism specialist in each board. They, in turn, are specialists in that area. They can provide support for students with autism or for the families. Or they can connect them to other resources, organizations, that may be able to provide that support.
One of the things that teachers have also said to me and to others is that not only is it the complexities in the classroom, but it is also the number of students in the classroom. We've taken major steps in Primary through to Grade 6 to cap those class sizes. But we recognize that we have to do more than that, so we will be looking at junior high and high school because we all know that sometimes those classes are pretty large in junior highs and high schools. We've done the first block, the elementary, and we will move forward with the upper, junior and senior high school ages. A manageable number of students in a class, with or without complexities there, is something teachers asked for, and it's something we want to work on with them.
The other thing that teachers have mentioned, in addition to the number of students in the class and the complex issues that are there, is the breadth of the curriculum they have been asked to deliver and the huge number of outcomes. What we've done is bring teachers in to help us streamline the curriculum so that there's a manageable curriculum, a manageable number of students in the class, and supports for those students with special needs or complex issues.
Ideally, we would have all of that in place. That would be the ideal classroom. We recognize that that's where we want to be. We believe, and we're comfortable as a government and as the minister, that the manageable size of the curriculum and the number of students, we've been able to adequately respond to that. We're working on the complex issues.
The member made reference to the action plan. We did identify a centre of excellence. We did talk about Nova Scotia research and what we call best practices in Nova Scotia. You used the example of PLCs or collaborative learning models, which does exist in the Valley board. They've done their research; they've got a model there that works. We need to learn from that, rather than going out and doing research that is going to give us the same information. Why would we do that if we have a model that has been researched, implemented and is working well? That is our reference to Nova Scotia research.
MR. HOUSTON: I did hear a lot of good things about that model that they are using there. I just want to touch on a couple of things you mentioned there. It is part of the action plan to "Continue to partner with other government departments, community agencies and businesses. They will work together to develop partnerships that serve students better."
We often hear about families interacting with maybe Justice, Health and Wellness, or Education and Early Childhood Development. The same family may have various touchpoints within the government. I was wondering what those types of government partnerships might look like at a time when we know Education and Early Childhood Development is kind of being reformed. Health and Wellness is as well, and Community Services is. So maybe that's a good time to look at how we integrate those services.
I know in Pictou County, we had a cancer navigator for people navigating the health system when they have a family member who is impacted by cancer. I'm wondering, do we need something like that, a family navigator, to help families that have children who are involved in the justice system, involved in the health system, involved in the education system? I wonder if that's the type of cross-government partnerships that you discuss in the meetings when you're looking at how we do things better. Maybe you can just comment a little bit on that type of an idea.
MS. CASEY: I appreciate the question because it does give me an opportunity to speak a little bit about interdepartmental co-operation. Three areas in particular would be with our SchoolsPlus. In the SchoolsPlus sites, we have social workers, we have mental health clinicians, and we have family resources in that model. If you're looking at departmental co-operation, the mental health clinicians are funded by the Department of Education, but they are hired through the Department of Health because they have the expertise and are able to hire the mental health clinicians. We provide the money, and they do the hiring, so that's a bit of co-operation there.
Social workers that are coming into SchoolsPlus, many of them are under the auspices of the Department of Community Services. We see that as a living model of departmental co-operation because, in many cases, it's the same families that are accessing services, whether they're mental health or whether they're from Community Services or Education and Early Childhood Development, so rather than those parents wondering where they should go and being bounced from one office to another or one department to another, bringing those services together.
Another place where we're working closely with Justice is the whole notion of restorative justice in our schools. We have I think about 140 schools where teachers are now getting training on how to use the restorative justice model in their schools. Again, that is a partnership with Justice. Actually, some of the funding comes from Justice to do that. Those would be examples.
The other one is, there are four departments that come together on responding to the recommendations around autism: Labour and Advanced Education, Community Services, Health and Wellness, and Education and Early Childhood Development. There are a number of recommendations that we are responding to, but it's not one department alone.
For years, I think we would all agree and recognize, government departments operated in silos. I go back to the Nunn report. I happened to be minister at that time. There were five ministers there receiving the recommendations of the Nunn report, and every one of them had a responsibility, but everyone went back to their own department. What really needed to happen was for all of them to come together in a joint effort to resolve it.
I think we have demonstrated that. Those are just some of the examples, but no longer can we operate independently.
MR. HOUSTON: I do think SchoolsPlus is a good initiative for sure. I believe it has been expanded this year. I'm wondering if you know what kind of coverage we are getting on SchoolsPlus. Obviously, not every school - well what is the ideal? Is the ideal that every school is a SchoolsPlus environment at some point? Where are we right now in coverage? Where would we try to go ultimately?
MS. CASEY: When we are looking at where we will establish a new hub as part of the SchoolsPlus program, we look at what resources are currently in communities that could be pulled together easily because they already exist scattered about a community. Then we also look at the needs within that community. The direction as to where the site will be, the hub site, is really driven by the resources available there. We bring them together and house them.
We have expanded that. We have 208 schools this year that are part of that network. This year, a couple of weeks ago, we announced our four new hub sites. One of them was in Riverside Education Centre in Milford, and that captures all the schools along the corridor: Enfield, Elmsdale, Lantz, Milford, and Hants East. We also announced one in Lake Echo, which captures the schools in that area. A third one was in Yarmouth. Then the fourth thing we did - because the schools in the CSAP, the French board, are scattered all across the province - is a slightly different model, but all of these CSAP schools have now been brought into that initiative.
We believe it's a good thing, and we want to expand it. The conditions in the community are what will make it successful. That's why we look at what's existing there now. Can we build on that? It would be our desire, my desire, to continue to expand that.
MR. HOUSTON: I'm just thinking of some of the schools in my constituency in Pictou East, like Frank H. MacDonald, like W.A. MacLeod school. Those aren't SchoolsPlus sites, and I don't know if they would be eligible at any time or when they would be. So between now and then, would the concept of a kind of family navigator, some additional resources, be something to meet the need where conditions aren't set up for a SchoolsPlus? Where do those schools go? I guess that's what I'm wondering.
MS. CASEY: Do we want all schools to be part of that network? Absolutely. We have 208 now, and we have about 100-plus to go. In Chignecto, for example, New Glasgow is a hub site, A.G. Baillie, in North Nova Scotia. It seems that is a good place to look at what services can be brought together into another site.
I can't make a commitment to that now because I need to get the input from the community. We try to spread it across the province. That is the only one in Pictou County at this point, so we'll certainly be looking at Pictou County.
MR. HOUSTON: I'm pleased to hear that. I just want to put it into context of what it means on a broader scale. When you have a site like in New Glasgow, where there's three schools in that SchoolsPlus family, for lack of a better word, is it the case that it then kind of creeps out to pick up other schools? Is that how it works? They would share resources almost and all become SchoolsPlus?
MS. CASEY: Yes, the fact that we have New Glasgow itself, the Academy, and two other schools means the logical thing would be to bring other schools into that network. Some of the hub sites have six, seven, or eight schools that are part of that network. So looking at bringing other schools into that hub is certainly something that, without creating a new hub, could happen. It's not unreasonable to think that that will.
MR. HOUSTON: I might circle back to that later and see if I can get a firm commitment.
But in the action plan, Pillar 2 is where it talks about curriculum. There's a lot of discussion about reading and math. Then there's this one bullet on social emotional learning, which is where we started, so I want to go back to that.
The bullet talks about incorporating "character development into subjects such as health, social studies, and family studies in order to teach students about important personal qualities such as honesty, empathy, respect, responsibility, and consideration for others." Obviously, we do know that those are important characteristics.
First I would ask maybe if the minister agrees with this on any level, but the sense seems to be that many students are starting school lacking those basic foundations towards those very important social characteristics. So if they come to school that way, we're always trying to play catch-up. I wonder if you get that sense from talking to teachers, that the kids are coming to school not really prepared to learn, right from the very beginning. Is that kind of your sense from what you're seeing and hearing?
MS. CASEY: I have spoken about what we call the EDI, the early development instrument, which is an instrument that is administered in our Primary classes. It gives us a sense of the vulnerabilities that children bring when they come to school. What we're finding in our results is that about 25 per cent of the children who enter school have some level of vulnerability, and some of it is social or emotional. I've said this before: once we have some data, it's important to do something with it and do something about it. That's what we're getting for our data.
That's why we look at early years centres. We have continued to expand the early years centres. That gives children an opportunity to be in a social environment to learn those kinds of things like respect and sharing and co-operation. As we expand the early years centres, we capture more students in that environment.
The other thing that we're doing is because children come from a variety of backgrounds. In the child care review, one of the things that we identified, that came in the findings, was the whole business of preschool children who don't have access to daycare. It's not because the parents don't want them to be in daycare. It's because they can't afford it, or there's nothing in their area. Our whole review of that was revealing.
We believe that the children we can get into regulated daycare and then in to the early years centres will be in a much better state of readiness when they come to Primary. It's going to take a couple of years of EDI data to show if that's working or not, but that's what we believe will make the difference. When children come to Primary, and they're not ready, then it delays their moving on with the prescribed curriculum.
Daycare, solid curriculum in daycare, more accessibility, more opportunities for families to get their children there, and early years centres are all done for the readiness part for Primary.
MR. HOUSTON: I just have a couple questions that I think are relatively quick, and then I'll pass to my colleague, the member for Pictou Centre.
I did want to talk about IPPs and the use of IPPs and stuff. I was wondering if the department has any sense as to the degree to which teachers are currently using differentiated learning in their classrooms. We often hear from teachers about the number of things that they have to do in the run of a day, and maybe differentiated learning might be something that's kind of fallen back. I was wondering, has the department considered the idea of doing a simple survey of teachers, asking, do you use differentiated learning in your classroom, and how much?
I wonder, first off, do you have the expectation of how much differentiated learning is happening in classrooms, and then do you have a sense of how you may get better statistics on it and information you can use to change things? Anything you can add to that would be great.
MS. CASEY: I would just like to go back to where we were, it would be probably close to two years ago now, when we received information about the number of students in our schools who were on IPPs and the trend. There were more students on IPPs, even though we have fewer kids in our schools. I was disturbed by that because I didn't know why that was happening, and I needed to know before I formed an opinion or before we took steps to try to address it.
We immediately began to do a review of IPPs, to work with teachers, and to get input from parents about the use of IPPs. When is a student provided with an IPP? What's the criteria? What steps have been taken before the child is given the IPP? How do they transition off of an IPP? All of those questions needed to be answered to satisfy in my mind that every student who was on an IPP should be on an IPP. What was happening, we found, was that the steps about the differential learning, using adaptations, and all of those steps leading up to it were steps that we needed to make sure teachers were following.
I believe that teachers do a good job of adapting the teaching method to the learning style of the student. I believe they do that, but we needed to make sure that teachers understood and followed the criteria for placing a student on an IPP. So we put together the criteria. Teachers were part of that. They helped us, and the administrators in the schools helped us do that. It's important to note the role of parents in developing the IPP too.
The IPP as I said, is not a life sentence. Many students would move on to an IPP for some particular area for development or support, but once that gap was closed, they could move off the IPP. That's the goal. I believe IPPs serve a valuable purpose. We need to know that the purpose they're serving is the one for which they were intended.
So, I guess that's my way of saying that teachers are using a variety of strategies. They understand very clearly the abilities and the needs of their students and are adapting the instruction to meet that need.
MR. HOUSTON: If you asked teachers in a survey or otherwise, are you able to get to the students you need to get to in the run of a day, you're saying that that's a multi-pronged question. Some of those students might have IPPs that maybe aren't appropriate, and some of them may have IPPs that are appropriate. You would have the high-end students and the people who need to come up and stuff like that.
If I were to ask teachers, are you able to get to the students you need to get to in the run of a day, what do you think they would say?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just a reminder to the honourable member not to direct questions directly to the minister but through the Chair, in terms of referring to the minister.
The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development has the floor.
MS. CASEY: I believe that teachers would recognize some of the steps that have been taken to give them a more manageable group of students, a more manageable curriculum to cover, and more supports. Whether it's Reading Recovery, which we have reinstated, or whether it's increasing the math mentors, I believe teachers would recognize that.
Is it ever enough? It may not be. I would say to you, and I said earlier, that the supports that we have been able to put in place and the changes we've made in Primary to Grade 6, teachers were part of that, so I know that they believe it is the right thing to do.
We will now be working with teachers in the Grades 7 to 9 area. It's a different picture there. I'm hoping that after we implement our caps, our curriculum changes, and our supports, we will be able to change the landscape there as well.
I would say that I commend teachers who do the best they can in the environment that they are in, that their concerns have reached the department and the minister's desk, and that the results of their concerns are what we are seeing in our classrooms.
Whether it's our homework policy, our code of conduct policy, our student attendance policy, whatever we are doing for provincial policy, when we do that, we do need and ask for the opinions and the voices of teachers. So to ask the question, do teachers feel they have all the supports they need, I think we would get a variety of answers. But what I would say is, when we've heard their concerns, we have tried to respond to them.
MR. HOUSTON: The last question I would ask, I really don't know how to phrase it delicately, so I'm just going to ask it. I do hear people who say, on IPPs and students with special needs, that over time the implementation of programs for them has become subpar. People would say that to me, and I don't know if it's just the sample size that I'm speaking with or not. In situations where those types of implementations and things become subpar, how do we determine who is accountable? Are there consequences for that?
Without being specific, I would ask, is there a role for the department in holding people accountable for instances where there's a failure to deliver to students what they need? It's kind of a general question. It's a tough question, I realize, but I'm just wondering if the minister can shed some light on how that works within the department, between the department and the board and the administration at the school and stuff.
MS. CASEY: If I could, I'll break that question up into two parts. With respect to the implementation of curriculum and the implementation of actions in the action plan, we at the department keep a very close watch on that implementation. It has to go out to the boards for implementation, but we need to monitor that and make sure that the implementation is going as we anticipated it would. With respect to teacher performance and holding teachers accountable, as you would know, it is a responsibility of the administrator and the school to do the evaluations of their teachers.
There's two parts here. I think if we believe that the criteria for IPPs need to be followed, we have to give that responsibility to somebody who is on site, i.e. the principal. But we need to go back, and they need to give us updates about how that is unfolding in their school.
For a number of years, the gap between what's happening in the schools and what's happening at the department appeared to get wider. I'm not sure that schools had a lot of respect for what was happening at the department. They felt disengaged. They weren't asked for their input. They sometimes became quite critical of what was happening at the department. We're trying to close that gap.
One of the things we've done in particular is to use a model where teachers come in to work with us at the department. I don't suggest for one minute that we have all the expertise. The people in the classroom have the expertise. When we were doing our curriculum streamlining, we brought teachers in, according to their grade level, to work on the curriculum. They felt honoured to be asked because some of them, nobody had ever asked for their opinion before. They felt respected because they sat down with staff in the department, and it was not the staff in the department telling them what to do. It was staff in the department asking them what we should do, and there's a big, big difference. That's the model that we're trying to follow. That's the environment we're trying to create.
I think it leads me into the question you have about implementation. When teachers can see their fingerprints on the streamlined curriculum, the homework policy, or whatever, they have that sense of ownership and are more likely, I believe, to embrace it and sell it to their fellow teachers than if it was imposed on them. So it's a different way of doing things. At the end of the day, I think we have a better product. I think we have a greater likelihood that there will be implementation and that, at the end of the day, students' achievement will reflect that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would like to recognize the honourable member with 21 minutes remaining in the hour and 42 minutes remaining in our four hours today.
The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
HON. PAT DUNN: Dealing with students with severe mental issues, personnel in the schools will say they are not trained to deal with them. It's very difficult to accomplish anything in class when students with these issues are part of these classes.
There's cases where a Primary class may have 26 in the classroom, and they'll put in an educational assistant to help out. This sentence or phrase was thrown at me, and I'm just going to get you to comment on it: class dynamics is the real issue, not class cap. I just want to know if you could comment on that and get your opinion.
MS. CASEY: Could I ask the member to clarify the question? The comparison of class cap to what?
MR. DUNN: This particular teacher mentioned the class dynamics to me. The configuration of the classroom is the real issue, and it's not the class cap.
MS. CASEY: Thanks for clarifying that. It goes back to my comments about complexities in the classroom, how we support those children who have complex needs, and how we support the teacher who has those students in their class.
I will make reference to the class caps because I think it makes a difference. If you have 30 Grade 2 students in your class and two or three with complex issues, or you have 20 students in your class and two have complex issues, I think just manageable numbers would suggest that there's more opportunity for one-on-one intervention and contact from the classroom teacher in the case where there are 10 fewer kids in the class. So I think class sizes do make a difference.
The other thing that goes along with that is the breadth of the curriculum, the amount of outcomes that teachers have to achieve. I think it's down to a more manageable number. They have a class size that they can manage, and they have a curriculum that they can manage. It gives them more time to focus on those children with special needs or complex issues.
However, that's not to say that some of the professional expertise that we need in our schools to provide supports for those children does not need to be reviewed. For example, there is a ratio that we use for those supports, whether it's for education assistants, whether it's for speech-language pathologists, whether it's for school psychologists, or whether it's for guidance counsellors. There are ratios that have been set. The funding that goes to a board is based on that ratio, and then the board uses that to hire up to that ratio. Some boards take money that they have to enhance that, to increase the numbers and go beyond the ratio.
What I've asked staff to do is look at how appropriate those ratios still are because they've been in place for a while. Is it enough to have one speech-language pathologist for 1,500 students? Is it enough to have one school psychologist for 800 students? These are the ratios that are in place, but I need to know, and I've asked staff to find out, is that ratio appropriate? We need to review that and determine if it's working or if it's not.
We have other supports that have been added since these ratios were ever set, for example, the mental health clinicians in the SchoolsPlus. Those were not in place in our schools when these ratios were set. We have one autism specialist in every board who is an adviser/consultant, does professional development, does teacher training, or whatever. Is that enough?
I'm suggesting to the member that the supports that we have to help the teacher understand how to work with a child with special needs and the expertise that's available for her or him to access need to be reviewed.
We know that we have children coming to school who have needs beyond the training of a teacher to address. Some of them are health care needs that these children are bringing to the classroom. Because we have free public education for every student in the province, and because we respect inclusion, we can expect that those complexities and those disabilities or diagnoses that children may bring to the classroom are ones we had not seen 10, 15, 20 years ago. What we're looking at and what we've asked staff to do is make sure those ratios are appropriate and whether there are other speciality areas that we need to have so teachers can rely on those for supports and students can benefit from those supports.
MR. DUNN: It's something I hear often, and I'm sure members of your department also. Because of the complexity of the classroom, many teachers feel overwhelmed. At the same time, they realize that due to financial restraints, you can't have the dollars they need for every classroom in every school in the province. That is such a common conversation when you are talking with teachers, when they start talking about the complexity of the classroom. I agree with you. It certainly is very, very different from a few years ago. Again, they feel they need more resources, more support. At times, they feel very overwhelmed.
In the Fall when they have professional development day, teachers go to a variety of worthwhile workshops, some of them I'm sure tied into initiatives with the action plan and so on. Let me back up for a second. Teachers continue to say they don't have training to deal with students who are suffering from some mental issues. Would that be a good day to target some professional workshops to have our teachers train, or at least receive some training, so that they can carry that forward in their daily work in the schools?
MS. CASEY: We look at every possible opportunity to provide professional development for teachers. I want to go back to a conversation we had yesterday about teacher training institutions and what is in their program to help their prospective teachers be knowledgeable about and understand some of those complexities. We believe those conversations will translate into the B.Ed. programs in our universities changing a bit. We're trying to paint a picture with the universities and with the B.Ed. program directors of what it is like to be in a classroom and what teachers need to know before they come to the classroom.
Universities have quite often focused on the theory more than the practice. I did mention earlier that at one point, I was doing some supervising of teachers and working with Acadia. This is not a criticism of Acadia; it's an observation. I learned from one of those practising teachers that she was able to get a B.Ed. degree without ever having to take a course in special education. I was alarmed at that. That was a number of years ago, and I would expect - I would hope - that the demand from the teachers to their program director is, we need to know something about this. The course was offered, but it wasn't compulsory, so they didn't have to take it.
My point was, for every aspiring teacher who's going to walk across the stage and go out into our classrooms, it should not be a choice whether they take it. And they wanted it. Once they got out into the classrooms and realized what they didn't know, they were critical of themselves for not having selected that as a course. But I don't think there was any expectation that this is what they're going to face when they go out into a school, so they had better take this course and be prepared. It was, if you want to take the course and be prepared, that's your choice.
I think we can start there with B.Ed. programs to focus on special needs and to help teachers understand some of the complexities. A little PD with a group of teachers usually happens if you have a special needs child who comes to your school. Then the teachers who don't understand that diagnosis want to learn more, so they learn it because of necessity sometimes. But I think it's important that those professional development opportunities be made available to all teachers.
The October conference day, which I think is what you're referring to, is a great opportunity for the Teachers Union to show some leadership in making sure that their teachers have exposure to workshops, presentations, or whatever on issues that are facing their teachers every day. I would encourage those who are planning the agenda for October conference day to include that.
We also recognize that even on October conference day, teachers don't have to go to that conference. They can put together their own in-service program and stay in their own school. Many of them do that because it allows them to have a professional development day that is relevant to what they're doing, and it responds to the needs that they have identified.
Having it included in the conference day is a wonderful idea, and school staff being allowed to stay back and put together their own professional development on that day or, again, working with individuals.
When the situation presents itself, and everybody needs to know more, it's by necessity, as I said. It would be kind of nice to do a little pre-planning so that they don't have to do it out of necessity.
MR. DUNN: Perhaps just to stay on that theme for a minute, I remember talking to a few teachers and also reading some material where the feeling was that Canadian educators were not impressed with the American education standards. But it is my understanding that we have the occasional American educator that comes up to give presentations during these professional development days or opportunities.
I can remember one teacher saying one particular American educator had some really radical ideas. I jotted a couple of them down. Some of them were the abolition of all grades for students, the removal of virtually all direct instruction, and prohibiting teachers from praising students when they do something good or correcting them when they get an answer wrong. I guess I'll word my question this way: do you have any opinion on American educators of this nature coming and providing PD to our teachers in the province?
MS. CASEY: I would not limit it to American educators. I think the decisions made as to who is going to come and provide professional development for our teachers is an important one. Maybe there needs to be more screening. Maybe there needs to be a better review of the academic accomplishments and the message that that presenter wants to present. Some people do a very good job of selling themselves, but I think those who are inviting any presenter to come need to do a little bit of homework so that they know that that kind of risk will not present itself when someone is in front of 500 teachers.
It's a huge risk. Unfortunately, in that situation, and I think we may have had some others, teachers went to that particular session believing they would get some good ideas about how they could improve their teaching and their classroom instruction. It's unfair to the teachers to be exposed to that. It's really a lesson for the organizers to make sure they do more scrutiny and more background research before they expose their teachers to a presenter who may not have a message they want to hear.
MR. DUNN: If I can remember the conversation, I believe it was a couple of teachers saying this was initiated through the union for those PD presentations.
I don't know if it was yesterday or today, but earlier you were mentioning the department promoting relationships with the business community. In the Halifax Regional School Board, I believe Entrepreneurial Adventure is offered. Is the department looking at perhaps introducing this to other school boards in the province? It's Entrepreneurial Adventure in the Halifax school board.
MS. CASEY: One of the things we have learned over the years is that we need to engage and partner with business and industry to help give our students a better picture of life outside of school because that's where they're going to be after 13 years. We have a lot of businesses that want to take part and provide support, human resources, and expertise so that we can broaden the horizon for students in our schools.
One of the things we've done is to establish a Business-Education Council, and that came out of the action plan. We invited business leaders to come in and meet with us to look, in particular, at what knowledge base and skill sets businesses look for when our young people graduate or go looking for employment. We also learned from them what we need to do better because they are receiving the graduates, either from high school as their summer employment, or they go there for full-time employment. If they don't believe that our graduates have what they need, then we need to hear that. We need to hear where we're doing a good job and where we're not.
We have established that council. That is a two-way street because they need to understand what we're doing, and we need to understand what it is they need from our students. That can be a positive working relationship. As I said, that is something that came out of the action plan.
Entrepreneurship 11 is a course that we are developing and will be implementing. This gives students an opportunity to explore and be creative and let their entrepreneurial spirit run wild, so to speak, and to have that in a controlled environment, i.e. in the classroom or out in the community, with some guidelines and some expectations but also with some freedom. We all know that those who become entrepreneurs experiment. They try, they fail, and they try again. They need to build up the confidence and that initiative to be creative and to understand that segment because that may become a career for them. The exposure to that is something we encourage and why we have introduced Entrepreneurship 11 into our curriculum.
With respect to the specifics of Halifax, can you just explain that again to me? Something with the Halifax board?
MR. DUNN: Yes, it is my understanding that the Halifax Regional School Board has Entrepreneurial Adventure, I think it's called. My question was, if that is the case, is the department looking at perhaps introducing that to maybe another school board somewhere in the province eventually?
MS. CASEY: I'm not familiar with that particular program, but we will look at it. Again, to go back to comments I made earlier, we like to focus on best practices. So if there's an initiative within a board that has been researched and is being implemented and having positive results, then we would want to make sure that all school boards were aware of that. It would be their choice whether they wanted to implement that or not or try that as an initiative. We can certainly follow up on that and get some more information.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The allotted time has expired for questions.
We have no more questions from the New Democratic Party, leaving us with about 18 minutes left. I understand all Parties are interested in concluding the review of the estimates for the Department of Education. I would like to offer the remaining 15 minutes or so back to the Progressive Conservative Party, leaving a couple of minutes for the minister to make closing comments. Is that agreeable?
The honourable member for Argyle-Barrington.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D'ENTREMONT: I have a couple of questions I wanted to ask. We met a couple of months ago, and I thank the minister for the meeting. I was able to meet with her and a representative of the community of Wedgeport, Blair Boudreau. We were talking about where Wedgeport School was on the school construction list.
As the budget has been rolling up, funding is available. The Conseil scolaire acadien provincial presented their list of construction projects. I'm just wondering if it's there. What's the possibility of seeing some work on that maybe in the next year or so?
MS. CASEY: I did have an opportunity, as the member said, to meet with representatives. I understand their concern and why the school was being put forward by the community. I did tell them at the time that each school board is asked to submit their priorities for capital construction to the department, whether that's new schools or additions and alterations.
Those submissions have come in from the school boards. The TCA - tangible capital assets - budget is not part of this budget. Normally, these announcements out of the tangible capital assets are later on in the year. Sometimes it's October, November, or December when those decisions will be announced. But I can tell the member that the school board did submit that school as one of their priorities for capital construction.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: That's all I can expect, that at least the work is being done and that it's there on the list. Hopefully, as the magic happens, something like that will come forward.
As Critic for Acadian Affairs, I do have to ask you a question around French immersion. I'm just wondering, how are we doing with French immersion across the province? Maybe this is something that you can provide later on. What is the subscription rate? How many people are applying? What kind of wait-lists are there across the province? We do know that, in some parts of the province, it's very difficult to access. I think metropolitan Halifax is one of them, where there aren't really enough classrooms available to provide French immersion. I'm just wondering, more of a general issue, how is French immersion doing? Are we able to meet the demand for French immersion across the province?
MS. CASEY: As the member would know, we have growing demand for French immersion. In fact, it's so great that some boards, in recent weeks, have had to make a decision about whether they would have one immersion class or two because of the numbers of students whose families were interested. I understand that initially they were going to have one, and not every child would be chosen to be in that class. We reminded the board of the fact that, through the minority language funding, there would be funding to allow them to establish an additional French immersion class and that that funding would include one FTE for start-up. As a result of that, the decision that the board made was to have two immersion classes.
I think that speaks to two things. It speaks to the increasing demand. It also speaks to the co-operation between the federal government and the provincial government to support the language development.
It's not unique just to that board. I can't give you the numbers, but I can say to you that there is growing demand. As with any increase in enrolment or increase in class programs, we have to look at the facilities and whether they can accommodate them. So it may not be as complete an answer as you would like, but we can certainly get the information for you about the numbers and maybe a bit of history, what the French immersion numbers would have been like over the last two or three years. We'll get some data for you.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Yes, anything that can show the growth. I appreciate that.
I'll let the member for Pictou Centre finish up the last couple of minutes, and then we're good.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
MR. DUNN: This is a question surrounding the challenges of technology in the classroom. I know you're familiar with this. Often when I talk to teachers, they talk about lack of support - I assume they're referring to tech support - lack of professional development, lack of up-to-date software, lack of newer equipment. Perhaps I'll get you to comment on the statement that teachers feel they have received insufficient support to use new technology to meet curricular goals.
MS. CASEY: How much time do I have?
MR. CHAIRMAN: We have a total of 11 minutes, nine minutes to complete our questioning and a couple of minutes for your wrap-up.
MS. CASEY: Thank you. I mentioned earlier, I guess perhaps yesterday, the importance of technology and how it is part of everyone's life, especially when our young children are coming to school - even before they are in school they have a device in their hands. They're very comfortable and they're very familiar with technology. School boards in general have not been able to keep up with the advances in technology. The refresh of the technology, the capital outlay it takes, in some cases, has been deferred by the boards.
What has happened is some boards and some schools in particular have initiated bring your own device to the school. What that means, of course, is that the kids are allowed to bring their electronic device in the classroom and use it in a constructive way. Where that has been tried and in the schools it has been tried in, it has been successful.
The limitation with that of course is that not every child has that device to bring to school, but it does allow a significant reduction in the demand for new capital dollars and new equipment. If there are 25 kids in a class, and 20 of them can bring their own device, then you are looking at providing technology for five kids rather than 25. It is something that works, and it's something that we would not have thought of 10 years ago, maybe not even five years ago, partly because not every child was attached to a device at that time, and also because we believed that we had to do everything ourselves. I think it's a demonstration of the fact that communities and families work with us. There are some businesses that have donated a class set of iPads. We are trying to get the technology in the hands of the students but not denying any child an opportunity to have that.
With respect to support for technology, that is certainly a board responsibility. They would have technicians who would be hired to provide the support. I think, again, that level of support is changing because they are not sitting down in a computer lab, putting new software on all the computers there. They are servicing and responding to the needs that develop, depending on the devices that are there.
MR. DUNN: I have probably about 10 questions surrounding this theme, but I'll just ask one. It is dealing with LGBTQ students with regard to improving the quality of resources provided to teachers in order to provide them in addressing their needs and so on. The question is, is there a set of policies that is applied across all Nova Scotia schools? Is there a set of policies applied right from one end to the other?
MS. CASEY: One of the things we have done, again it's showing progression, is to establish a set of guidelines which have gone out to all our schools with respect to the population. We've also, with our new school construction, had to look at designing change rooms and washrooms and other spaces to accommodate everyone's needs. We are well aware of that, and we recognize, accept, and want to support all students in our schools.
MR. DUNN: Through the action plan, there was a number of things you were going to tackle. One of them was looking at the number of teaching days in the school year. Any comment on that?
MS. CASEY: There are 117 actions in the action plan. When we reviewed those, we recognized that there were some that would require either co-operation or negotiation with the Teachers Union. We recognized they were important because they are things that Nova Scotians told us they wanted to see changed, so that translated into an action.
However, without that co-operation or negotiation, they will remain in the action plan. I'm still optimistic that we will get one or the other of those, and I believe the one of which the member speaks was one of those that is still there. That may be resolved through co-operation, or it may be resolved through negotiation. But it's there to ensure we capture what 19,000-plus Nova Scotians were suggesting to us needed to be part of a change.
MR. DUNN: The answer may be similar to the other ones I have here. I'll go through them very quickly. They're about teachers' certification and evaluation, removing administrators from the union, and reclaiming a few of the PD days and activities.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development with three minutes to respond to the question and two minutes to wrap up.
MS. CASEY: The list the member is referring to is that list of - I think there were eight - actions that were in that category of requiring co-operation or negotiation. As I said, we know that the two sides are back together. Immediately after the vote in January where the agreement was not ratified, the union came back to us and said, we want to begin talking again. We were quite happy with that, so the sides came together.
There have been ongoing discussions. There are dates set in May. I am hopeful that some of the things in that list may be resolved. They may be on somebody's asking package. I am not part of that, but we do believe, and I strongly believe, that teachers do need and want a contract. As the employer, we want them to have that, so we're quite anxious to work co-operatively with the Teachers Union and pleased they are at the table and have invited us back, and that the conversations have been positive to date. I'm optimistic that will unfold as we would all like.
My concluding comments, Mr. Chairman?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, please.
MS. CASEY: First of all, I want to thank the staff who are here to provide support during the eight hours that we have been here, and the members of all caucuses who came in to participate for taking us through what I believe are some really important issues and really important advancements in public education in the province.
We have invested $1,279,532,000 in this budget. That is an increase of about 2.8 per cent over last year, and that shows we do want to move forward.
My apologies - can I go back and start thanking again? To the member for Pictou Centre, it's nice to share stories of when we were both teachers.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E5 stand?
Resolution E5 stands.
I would like to adjourn this meeting for this evening. Thank you all.
[The subcommittee adjourned at 6:59 p.m.]