Home and School

Personally, I blame Wendy MacDonald…

Back when Oliver was in elementary school I resolved that if any member of our household was to become involved in the Home and School association it would be me; Catherine is an inveterate, dedicated volunteer and I was certain that, if she were to be the one, we would wake up shortly thereafter and she’d be running the whole show (believe me, it’s happened before).

I resolved that I would “take one for the team,” so to speak, and this is how I ended up sitting around a table in the staff room at Prince Street School with a bunch of strangers talking about how to raise money to buy window blinds for classrooms that didn’t have them.

One thing led to another and, irony of ironies, eventually I agreed to act as treasurer for the Prince Street Home and School and then, a series of horse trades later, as President.

Somewhere in there, Wendy MacDonald, then serving as Past-President of the provincial PEI Home and School Federation, and a dedicated former Prince Street home and schooler herself, casually asked me if I’d be willing to put my name forward as a candidate for regional directory for the provincial body.

Wendy is one of the smartest minds on PEI, and not someone whose requests you take lightly; she’s not pushy, she’s simply straightforward.

And so I said yes.

And one thing led to another and, irony of ironies, eventually I agreed to act as secretary for the PEIHSF and then, a series of horse trades later, as Vice-President.

Nobody is more surprised than I that I not only participate in home and school but that I actually enjoy it and have become a passionate believer in the power of home and school as an actor in the education system.

Which is how, I suppose, I ended up with my name put forward for the position of President yesterday. There being no contrary-minded, by the end of the day I joined a group of dedicated new and returning directors as part of a new board for the PEIHSF.

I’ve written in this space before why I find home and school so attractive; yesterday’s experience at our annual meeting was no different: we considered eight resolutions, each of which was developed and put forward by a local home and school, on topics ranging from lice to technology. There was vigorous discussion on each, and democracy was coursing through the air.

Later in the day there was a similarly-vigorous discussion with the Hon. Alan McIsaac, Minister of Education and his Deputy Minister Sandy MacDonald and with English Language School Board Chair Fred Osborne and the board’s Director of Curriculum, Doug MacDougall. While not everyone’s questions were answered, the transparency was, I think, appreciated by all (and something, I know from discussion with those from other jurisdictions, we are privileged to enjoy).

And so, for the next two year, when Kerry Campbell intros “for reaction from Island parents, I spoke to…” the name will be mine. I’m daunted by the prospect, but also excited: stickhandling a broad-based Island-side democratic organization with a long history is a great challenge and a great honour. I’ll try not to screw it up.

How the line on the CBC became “Home and School Federation also says it's time to look at adding more instructional time for students”

Here’s an interesting and somewhat cautionary tale of how things become “news” in Prince Edward Island.

On Tuesday I attended the launch of Prince Edward Island’s updated school calendar at Spring Park School on behalf of the PEI Home and School Federation. Along with Federation president Pam Montgomery, I represent English parents on the School Calendar Committee, and was invited in that capacity.

After the launch, which was well conducted and communicated the school calendar and the rationale behind it effectively, there was an opportunity for the media to ask questions and interview those present. Pam and I were interviewed by Ryan Ross from The Guardian, and that interview supported the story he published later, where Pam was quoted like this:

For Pam Montgomery, the P.E.I. Home and School Federation’s president, she said her organization had a lot of input in the calendar and expressing parents’ input on maintaining the amount of instructional time.

I think we’ve been very successful in doing that,” she said.

A large part of our interview with Ryan focused on the need to communicate to parents about professional development, about how every home and school meeting should include a discussion of what’s been happening on professional development days, and how it’s important that if we’re going to invest the sacrifice of instructional time in professional development it needs to be high quality and relevant. We obviously didn’t express that forcefully or creatively enough, as it didn’t make it into print.

Later that afternoon, after I’d returned to the office, I got a call from Sara Fraser at CBC. She was having difficulty connecting with Pam to do an on-camera interview and wondered whether I could pinch-hit for her. I agreed, and 30 minutes later Sara was in the basement of my office with a camera operator to do an interview. She cautioned me up front that they were only looking for a short clip, and that I should keep that in mind.

In my interview with Sara I talked, again, about the importance of communicating about professional development to parents, and about some of the challenges that the school calendar committee faced in its deliberations. One of those challenges, I mentioned, was that the structure of the school calendar is limited by two currently-immovable walls: September 1 and June 30, which are the negotiated start and end of the school year for teachers. I suggested that if we really want to get serious about adding instructional time and professional development time to the calendar, we were going to have to address that issue. And that’s the clip that made it to air:

Sara: PEI’s Home and School Federation would like the school year even longer.

Peter: …to really take professional learning and the school calendar out for a ride and get more instructional days and more professional learning days, we’ve got to address that issue and that’s sort of the next hill to climb.

Unfortunately what was missing from the clip was the sentence before in which I explained what “that issue” – the immovable start and end of the school year – was. Without that sentence for context, it seemed like our “message” was dissatisfaction with the school calendar modifications because the school year wasn’t lengthened.

Now, fortunately, the notion that the school year should be longer reflects almost all of the feedback we’ve had from local home and schools on this issue: parents, in general, want their children to be spending more time in the classroom, not less.  So it’s not like I was quoted as saying something untrue or not reflective of parents’ collective feelings.

What has happened next, however is that that comment that went to air has been quoted in another CBC story, held up beside an opposition call for more instructional time that you probably heard on the local news this morning:

The Home and School Federation also says it’s time to look at adding more instructional time for students.

Well, yes, that’s, in essence, what I said. But is it what I meant?

Is it an effective distillation, in a single sentence, of what “parents of PEI feel about the school calendar”?

No.

Presumably this is why people who speak in public take “media training”: to understand that it’s about what you say and don’t say and how you say it that will determine what appears on TV and what the public hears. If I hadn’t made an honest but, in the grander scheme of things, “off message” comment about why making a school calendar is hard, then the CBC headline might have been “Parents say communication is key to implementing school calendar changes.”

Lesson learned.

Oh, and I need a hair cut.

Understanding StudentsAchieve through Code

I’ve been hearing about the StudentsAchieve system used by Prince Edward Island schools since I first started working with the PEI Home and School Federation. In elementary grades StudentsAchieve is only used for tracking attendance, and there’s no provision for parent access to the system, so although I’ve been actively engaged in advocating for improved access to and use of StudentsAchieve it wasn’t until today that I actually got to use it myself.

Oliver’s in intermediate school now, and starting at grade 7 the system is used to record marks and share information about homework in additional to tracking attendance, and there’s provision for online access by parents through a web system. We got our username and password for Birchwood’s StudentAchieve system this afternoon, and so, at long last, I got to take it out for a ride.

The system was first implemented on PEI in 2006, and its design and usability make it clear that it has its roots in an era in web history not particularly concerned with the niceties of either. It works, yes, but its ugly and confusing and makes me feel sad.

Fortunately all is not lost: the web is open, and web systems, by their very nature, are open to reinterpretation through code. The data, in other words, is there: if I want it to be beautiful, I can do so myself.

By way of starting this process, I’ve started to code a PHP class for automated interaction with StudentsAchieve. All this code does is to mimic the same actions that a parent takes using a web browser – logging in, clicking on things, etc. – it just does it all automatically and takes the information it finds and makes it available in “machine readable” form that can then be reimagined.

The code is primitive right now: all it does is “login” to StudentsAchieve using your parent username and password and retrieve a list of classes, teachers and email addresses (and even then it only works, as far as I know, for households with a single student).

But the heavy lifting of getting a script to login to StudentsAchieve is done, and as a sort of “proof of concept” I used the code to create a PHP script to create a vCard file of all of Oliver’s teachers. Using the script I can do this:

php get-teacher-vcard.php username password

(substituting my actual parent username and password) and then this happens:

Logging in to StudentsAchieve...
Making a vCard file...
Saved a vCard file called 'BirchwoodIntermediateSchool.vcf'.
Load this into your address book.

And, sure enough, when I open that BirchwoodIntermediateSchool.vcf file in the Contacts app on my Mac and then search for “Teacher”, I see all of Oliver’s teachers:

Contacts App Screen Shot

Given the hullabaloo last year about unauthorized student access to StudentsAchieve it’s important to note that this code doesn’t take advantage of any capability of StudentsAchieve not exposed to the web: you still have to be an authorized parent with a username and password to use it, and you only have access to the same information about your child that you have in an interactive web browser.

Art Auction at Home and School Anniversary Concert

At the PEI Home and School Federation’s 60th Anniversary Concert this Saturday night, March 2, 2013, there will a silent auction of artworks from invited guests. These original works have all been created from a single sheet of bristol board and crayons, and are on the general topic of “memories of public school.” Here’s the contribution from Catherine:

The FIrst Day of School

If you’re a longtime reader you may recall part of this image from a photo I took on Oliver’s first day of school:

The King of Prince Street

Catherine took Oliver, and added me. My own galpumphy presence notwithstanding, it’s a beautiful piece, crafted from Japanese paper ripped and glued to the bristol board (Catherine’s never been one for following the rules).

Limited tickets are still available for the event; call the Confederation Centre Box Office to reserve yours soon!

PEI Home and School Federation 60th Anniversary Concert

The PEI Home and School Federation is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2013, and a big part of this celebrating involves a fantastic concert coming up on March 2, 2013 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Featuring current students in the Prince Edward Island public school system as well as a collection of talented alumni, it promises to be a great night; see the full line-up here.

You can get tickets for $14 ($10 plus their fees) online or over the phone from Confederation Centre of the Arts box office, or if you’d like to get them “wholesale” without those fees you can order them from me (or any local home and school) for only $11.

PEIHSF Concert Poster