Friday, May 28, 2010

Water Woes

This recent news item on the state of water on Aboriginal reserves caught my attention because I can certainly relate to it. I once lived in a northern Manitoba community that was on a "boil water" for much of the time I was there. There are times (particularly in the spring) where I know some communities will issue an advisory simply because of spring run off, a common thing that usually doesn't last all that long. Fort Smith is an examply of this and if I recall correctly the advisory lasted for perhaps a week. No big deal.

The situation I faced in northern Manitoba was much different. The water problems were brought on primarily due to changed water levels in the lake resulting from damming projects courtesy of Manitoba Hydro and an ageing water plant that couldn't keep up with demand.* I spent a good chunk of time and energy boiling my water in a big pot on the stove which sadly became routine. By the time winter rolled around (and we got a great deal of snow that year), I was so tired of using boiled water for my morning coffee that I resorted to boiling snow on occassion (being very careful to avoid yellow or other discoloured areas when collecting snow for my pot of course.) Other than being a pain in the butt, the water aggrevated my skin over time. I developed a couple rashes and it didn't do any favours for my psoriasis either.

I'm feel fortunate looking back that at least my house had pipes and a flush toilet. About half of the community didn't. In fact, most of the students I taught that year had their only exposure to flush toilets at either the school or the adjacent nursing station. For the most part their houses had honey buckets, foul contraptions I would use out of necessity when camping but not something I would want to have to deal with on a daily basis.

All this is to say that this whole issue is not just an Aboriginal issue, a white issue, a black issue or a purple issue or whatever issue certain political ideologues on either side of the spectrum try to make it out to be. This is quite simply a human rights issue and its high time it was dealt with.

*Its my understanding that in the meantime, a new water treatment plant was constructed, but it brings little comfort to me now when I think back on all I had to endure that year.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Education Train Wreck Coming Through

As I've hinted on my other blog, I know longer work for my current employer. As promised, I've decided to post my reasons here on this blog rather than sully my other blog with mention of my former employer's ineptitude. I've thought long and hard about what I am about to say. Something needs to be said.

When I moved to Janvier it was with the clear intention of staying awhile and putting down some roots. Sadly, this was not to be. While I had close to a decade of experience under my belt, the majority of it in Nunavut, I still found myself unprepared for my new work environment. I taught in one school (not in Nunavut, I should add) that was so horrid in terms of enforcing discipline that I felt it impossible to encounter a comparable situation in my career. How wrong I was.

Northland School Division is truly not a place I would recommend to any aspiring teacher to apply to. Understand that during my career I have suffered black eyes, broken bones, racism, vandalism and have had my house broken into. But at least I always felt supported and I always managed to find a way to get through. Not so for Northland School Division. And while I freely admit I've made my fair share of mistakes, I find it absolutely disgusting that I was never supported in my discipline efforts at my former "school".

Rather than enforce the school discipline policy, which was agreed to by all teaching staff, I should add, my former principal merely gave them a "talking to" before cycling them back into my class or worse yet, did nothing. Always, I was made to feel like I was the bad guy. I had a decade of northern experience under my belt. I felt like I could be a real asset to my school and the board. Each day became a struggle. When a student kicks at you and then returns the next day and announces to everyone that they can do whatever they please because they know there is nothing you can do to get them suspended, you know you're in for a long year. Emails to higher-ups expressing my concerns went unanswered. Clearly then, it was only a matter of time until I hit a very rough week. I ended up raising my voice too many times and parents complained. I was asked to take some time off by my board while they investigated things. After languishing for 3 weeks, during which time emails asking for more information on when I might hear a response went unanswered, I had had enough. I resigned. I can only lay the blame for this at the feet of Superintendent Pier de Paola, Assistant Superintendent Shelly Willier and F.R. Perin School Principal John Proctor. Computers, internet, SMART Boards and video conferencing are all wonderful gadgets to have and can have a real positive impact on the learning environment. But it is all for naught when that learning environment is poisoned by students who clearly shouldn't be in a "normal" classroom setting.

At the end of the day, students suffer. Kids that are keen to learn are handicapped by peers who couldn't care less about whether any learning takes place and by administrators who are more concerned about squeezing one more year in before retirement than with actually making a difference. Not only did I work at this school, but I had two children of my own in the school. Therefore, a healthy learning environment is very important to me. Unlike many families with kids at schools in Northland, at least I have the luxury of pulling my kids out and enrolling them in a real school in Fort McMurray, which we now obviously have.

Northland School Division has a hard time retaining staff. It's 4-year retention rate is less than half of the provincial average. With that kind of turn over, you know you're in trouble. (Visit this popular website advertising positions Canada-wide for any length of time and you begin to notice, the division always has a lot of positions to fill at the end of every school year.) Had I known this one simply fact, I quite likely would never have moved my family there. I also wish I had been told prior to coming here that during the previous year the school went through 3 principals and my class had 4 teachers. But I suppose the school board would be a little sensitive about THAT little detail raising its little head.

Initially I felt fortunate that we would be getting a nice board-supplied teacherage as not all communities within the board have them. It was one of the few 3-bedroom units the board had so we felt spoiled. I was told upon being hired that it was newly renovated and ready for us to move in. At 1700 square feet, it was downright palatial compared to some of the housing units I lived in in other northern communities when I was single. Of course, the housing office failed to mention a host of underlying issues with the house. Issues that became apparent within weeks of moving in. It started with major sewage issues, which I've mentioned on my Alberta blog. Our house was the only one with water and sewage tanks and a cracked sewage pipe meant that we had raw sewage backing up into the basement in the fall. Clearly, if you have 3 children in your house under the age of 6, this is not a good environment. Getting the problem resolved was a huge headache. As a result of this and also because the hamlet was inept when it came to filling our water tank and emptying our sewage tank, we went a span of two to three weeks when we couldn't use water in our house. Either we had no water or we did but we were getting sewage backup. I had to resort to buying some large plastic containers and filling them with water at the school so we could have water.

We put no small effort into turning the basement into a play area for the kids and in the event they couldn't even use it because of our fears of mold and bacterial contamination in the dry wall. It angers me beyond belief that the kids had to endure this because some idiot somewhere within the colossus of the school board failed to do their job properly. Also, our fridge went, our washing machine died on us and our furnace blew in February while I was out for a meeting in Edmonton. The school board has a very small crew for housing maintenance that is responsible for some 23 schools and 140 teacherages covering a massive chunk of Alberta. Of course these people do their best but that doesn't offer much comfort when it takes a few days to get hold of anyone and a few more days waiting for the problem to be dealt with.

Northland School Division, for those who may be unaware, has plenty of other problems to deal with. I like to think that the inquiry team's recommendations will lead to real change. I AM an optimist after all.

I read some of the problems Northland School Division faces in this news item here though and I have to admit to having serious doubts.

Logically, it makes little sense to have 23 small school schools spread out over a huge geographical area. Maintenance and communication are major issues. In mind there are only two real solutions. You could create a number of smaller boards with local control of education. This is already the case in many isolated communities in Northern Ontario. Local communities have a much better understanding and appreciation of students culture and needs than bureaucrats hundreds of kilometers away.

You could also split up the board and fold schools into surrounding school divisions. The communities of Fort MacKay, Anzac, Janvier and Conklin all lie within a 90 minute of drive of Fort McMurray. If you want more efficient service, communication and appreciation for what its like "on the ground", it makes more sense to make them part of the Fort McMurray School Board than have them under a board headquartered an 8-9 hour drive away in Peace River.

I know there are people out there that will simply dismiss my rant as sour grapes. The one thing I've always tried to stick to in life, though, is telling the truth. And frankly, if this makes some people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, then so be it.