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Public urged to back change in education

Jamie Vollmer

Public education advocate Jamie Vollmer started a conversation last week designed to lead to change in Livingstone Range School Division

The president of a U.S. firm that advocates public support to improve education last week laid out a plan for Livingstone Range School Division.
Jamie Vollmer said the school division must build understanding and trust and then get each community’s permission and support for change.
“The conditions are right for you to create schools that unleash the full potential of all of the students,” said Vollmer, president of Vollmer Inc. who wrote “Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools.”
Vollmer spoke Aug. 29 to about 200 members of the public, students and school staff at Fort Macleod and District Community Hall.
The school division hired Vollmer to spark a process of change in Livingstone Range.
“This is the beginning of a great conversation,” Livingstone Range School Board chairman Dick Peterson said. “A conversation about taking our schools into the future.”
Livingstone Range superintendent Ellie Elliott said the board set four priorities.
“One of those priorities was to improve student, teacher and community involvement in education,” Elliott said.
The school board decided to bring Vollmer for a session as a way to meet that goal.
Following Vollmer’s presentation 10 people from each school community met in the community hall to prepare a report.
Members of the group will then present that report to 10 community groups between October and January.
Those reports and feedback from the communities will help shape the school division’s new three-year plan.
Vollmer told the group there are all kinds of forces today pulling people away from public schools.
“We’ve never needed public schools more,” Vollmer said. “Never.”
Vollmer gave a lesson on the development of public education in North America,
“We realized we benefit from an educated population,” Vollmer said of the efforts of Thomas Jefferson when he was Governor of Virginia to establish a school within 2 1/2 miles of every child.
Jefferson never intended to educate all children to high levels, however.
It was expected that only the best and brightest students would get a higher education, with the other children eventually filtering into jobs that involved unskilled labour.
“The schools were set up as a selecting and sorting mechanism,” Vollmer said. “We have school divisions designed to select and sort kids, the ones who go on to higher education, and everybody else.”
While that system served society then, the world has changed and continues to change rapidly. A more highly educated and skilled population is needed to fill jobs today.
“We need a much bigger percentage of kids who graduate and they must graduate with the kind of educational portfolio that has historically been open only to the top third of the class.”
In order to achieve that, Vollmer said, public schools have to change. The necessary changes can’t happen unless the communities around them will permit and support that change.
“That’s what makes school reform so darn hard,” Vollmer said. “You have to change more than your schools. You have to change the communities in Livingstone Range.”
Vollmer said that is difficult to do because people have their own ideas about eduction.
“Everybody’s got an idea of what a school should look like,” Vollmer said. “And it’s the school they went to.”
The reality is that to create the educated work force Canada needs, people have to rethink what is taught and the way in which education is delivered.
For example, Vollmer said, in order for Livingstone Range to do a better job educating more students to a higher level, it has to change the school calendar.
The idea of delivering lessons to all students in the same time frame is badly outdated, Vollmer said.
“Some kids take longer to learn than others,” Vollmer said. “Some kids need more time.”
One child might arrive at Grade 1 having been read to every night. The student sitting next to her may never have even seen a book.
Vollmer cited examples of people being allowed to learn at their own speed, including undergraduate studies and flight school.
“A high school diploma is the only certificate in which time is a constant,” Vollmer said.
People have to be willing to let go of their own beliefs about the education system in order for the necessary changes to take place.
“We’ve never needed the public more,” Vollmer said. “And just when we get to this point, we find the public is turning away.”
People are less engaged in schools today for a variety of reasons, including a vastly different family structure than when the first public systems were created.
To get the public to support change, people must understand they will benefit from a population that has a higher education. Research shows that crime rates drop, emergency room admissions decline, there are fewer teen pregnancies and the tax base rises as young people are better educated.
Vollmer said community members must first begin to understand the need for change in public schools.
A stronger level of trust between educators and the public must develop.
“Folks used to trust their schools,” Vollmer said. “Now, for all sorts of reasons, they don’t.”
Once understanding and trust is in place, the school division must get the community’s permission to change, and its support.
“We need every child to be prepared for education after high school,” Vollmer said. “Every single one.”

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