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November, 2010:

Royal weddings, meh…

Warning: If you support having as our head of state a foreign monarch descended from a long line of inbreeding… well, you should probably stop reading this post now.

OK?

So. There is going to be a ROYAL WEDDING and monarchists (small case “m” intentional) are all a-flutter about the pomp and ceremony that will be sure to be present when Prince Willy and some rich chick (I forget her name, Katy… Delores… Maggie…??? Help me out here!) get hitched next April at Westminster Abbey.

Oh be still my heart!

C’mon peeps, why is this a big deal? It is a manufactured “event” designed to take attention away from all of the very bad economic problems in the UK. You think I’m wrong? Check this out. The key words here are : “Extraneous events can increase feelings of economic and other well-being,” says Professor Stephen Lea of Exeter University, who specializes in economic psychology.” Meaning, give the people circuses and they’ll back off a bit on the pitchfork brigade.

The sad part – from my eyes, is that this is entirely correct. The Romans were geniuses… give the citizenry gladiators fighting to the death and they will not as much begrudge you your tyranny. It worked damned well for centuries.

Modern leaders and pretenders have learned from this and know the shell game… distract the populace and you can get away with a lot.

And such is the case with this whole royal wedding fiasco.

Look, as much as I am completely not in favour of divinely designated omnipotence, I say let the Brits have their fun and drool all they want over these inbred nuptials! Who cares?

And oh yeah, it’ll cost 5 BILLION quid for the UK economy. So, uh, maybe the Brits should care!

But being here in the “colonies”, I say let them keep their Royal fam-damily on their side of the Atlantic! I am not a fan of our constitutional monarchy and think that one day some government or another will try to cut the ties with the UK and its dysfunctional royal family. Yet even the most optimistic among us know that this is not going to happen anytime soon…

In the meantime, we in Canada, monarchists or not, will be exposed to a frequent barrage of the banal from all types of media concerning the upcoming nuptials… oh, goody.

Do I really need to see this at the grocery store check-out?

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The OCDSB’s big challenges

The next four years promise to be an interesting time for the new School Board. There are some new Trustees in the seats as some were either defeated in the past election or chose not to run again. And this change in composition may herald a shift in influence and direction at the Board table.

What comes out of the inaugural meeting on December 1st will tell me a lot about the direction that we can expect this Board to take. This is the meeting where the Chair and Co-Chair is elected by the Trustees. The same goes for the Chairs of the various Board Committees. The choice of the Chairs is an important decision as they can control and direct debate on issues at the table and are arguably the most influential players when it comes to local education decision-making.

One person who quite impressed me in the way she managed the few meetings I have attended was the current Chair, Cathy Curry. Speaking from experience, it is quite a challenge to manage a group with differing and often conflicting agendas. She does this admirably and should be credited for this.

But, I think that the majority of Trustees on this new Board may want a change of direction and we’ll see a few changes in who is occupying most of the Chairs (musical Chairs? :)).

So. In this context, what are the challenges for this Board over the next 4 years? Here is my short list.

1. Full integration of the new Early Learning program into the Board’s schools. Already, some Boards are balking at the instructions that the Ministry of Education are issuing. Peel Board, for example, has scaled back the number of new Early Learning programs due to an absence of adequate funding flowing from the Province. It will be interesting to see how Queen’s Park replies as more Boards realize they simply do not have the resources to offer these programs at the level the Province is demanding while at the same time keeping the Boards” budgets balanced..

It is important that the OCDSB engage the existing pre-school education community in Ottawa. From what I have heard, there has been little or no consultation in the past when it came to decisions that directly impacted the non-Board pre-school community. We are all part of the broader Ottawa education “community”! Let’s work together more closely to try and address the issues raised by the early education community in the context of Board constraints and Provincial edicts.

2. Funding shortfalls. The Board, like others in the Province, is going to have to get creative about how they will manage funding shortfalls and demands for new or enhanced programs – or simply the preservation of existing programs. And I suspect that this particular Board is going to have a very, very difficult time prioritizing directions.

At a minimum, I suggest the following:

a) Look at new revenue sources instead of always searching for areas to be cut. Generating energy by using solar panels – a new initiative by the Board – is a good idea. And I am sure there are more good ideas in our communities. Go and ask them.
b) Work with local communities and businesses to find synergies that can be used to preserve and enhance program delivery.
c) Actively and forcefully lobby the Province to re-visit the need for two separate school systems. Many of the under funding issues that are due to declining enrollment and aging infrastructure could be addressed by merging the separate with the public school systems.
d) Realizing that 3 above will not happen overnight, continue to look for ways that the two Boards – along with the two French language Boards – can use common facilities, resources, etc.

3) English versus French language demand. I addressed this a couple of posts back and I re-emphasize it here. I do think it is vital to offer a comprehensive English language program to whoever demands it – although this may result in some students having to change schools due to supply / demand dynamics.

The only way to intelligently analyse where the demand for both programs exists and what is driving this demand is to carefully research these questions using scientific methods and an unbiased analytical framework. This is very important and such an initiative should be discussed at the Board table at the same time as discussion about the strategic plan.

4) Maintaining relevance in the community. I am not going to expand on this too much because I talked about it over the course of the campaign. But suffice it to say that if issues around communication, responsiveness and transparency are not addressed, then the Board will find it increasingly difficult to get support from the community when the Province (not “if”, but “when”) takes more decision making powers from the local level.

Well, those are the “broad brush” issues as I see them. Over the next 4 years, I will be checking in on these issues from time to time to see if the current Board is up to the task of tackling them intelligently and creatively.

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French Immersion and the challenge of maintaining English programs

I read with some interest Matthew Pearson’s article in the Citizen yesterday on how the demand for French language education is now outstripping that for English education in the OCDSB.

The Ottawa Parents Education Network asked this question of Trustee candidates during the past election:

11. It can be a challenge to meet the demand for French Immersion while maintaining a strong, viable English program. How important do you think it is for the Board to respond to the ever-increasing demand for French Immersion in this region?

My answer:

It is important.

The OCDSB is home to some of the highest concentrations of francophone communities in Canada, outside Quebec. The City is also home to tens of thousands of public servants – many of whom are bilingual. As such,  day to day life requires a population that is bilingual to as great an extent as is possible. French Immersion is key.

But should the call for augmented and expended French Immersion programs be instituted to the detriment of other core English programs?

I am honestly not sure.

Not every student is well-suited to French Immersion programs and require a unilingual education in their mother tongue in order to attain their educational objectives.

We also must keep in mind the needs of the newcomer populations who require ESL or FSL training in order to integrate into and participate in their new communities.

There is lots of need for all types of education. while French Immersion is a priority, I am not certain that it should be an over-riding priority.

Saying this, I suggest that the Board acts on this quickly as population trends for the region necessitate fast action.

What kind of fast action?

First, as much sense as a unified education system for the province makes sense in almost every way imaginable, the truth is that is some time down the road. Until public Boards of education and the people of Ontario turn up the heat on Queen’s Park, we will have to live with the needless duplication of a parallel faith-based system.

So failing that kind of change, the Board must, as part of its strategic planning exercise that it is currently undertaking, broaden the scope of the exercise to review the viability of English language education in the City’s schools. I really do not think that the Board can afford to offer Early Immersion in all of its schools. And I also do not believe that there is sufficient demand in some communities. But a comprehensive study of the demand versus supply of the progrmas must be undertaken in order to make changes where warranted and as soon as possible. Schools like Hopewell are already overcrowded to the point of bursting.

What kind of changes might be made as a result of such a study?

  • Perhaps school coverage areas will need to be change to reflect the demand for EFI. While they are at it, change the areas to also keep in mind that coverage zones and electoral zones do not always mesh.
  • There may be the need for new capital stock (expansions to schools) if the demand for French Immersion is very high and the demand for the English program is low.
  • Why not identify the reason why exactly parents are flocking to schools with EFI while simultaneously having the effect of – in some areas – gutting the population of another school or schools.

That final point brings up a serious question: why is this so? Why the big demand?

Some have spoken to the labour force characteristics of this town and the Public Service as its largest employer. As the PS is erroneously though of as a “unilinguals need not apply” game, some parents might think that they are setting up their children for a better shot at a PS job later in life.

But really? Does anyone actually think that this is “the” motivating factor? I cannot think of many parents who dream of a career as a public servant for their child. I’m not knocking the PS – I proudly work in it as well – but as an end goal from which to plan a 6 year old’s education path? It may be one factor among many, but surely not the overriding one.

It could also be argued that some parents prefer the schools with the immersion programs in an “elitist” way (pardon me, I am carrying my Starbucks here!). There is undeniably the perception out there that the “smarter” kids go to immersion schools and non-immersion schools are somehow one rung down the ladder.  While I personally think that this is rubbish, some parents would agree.

For my wife and I, the primary reason behind sending our child to an immersion school was simply because it just “made sense” in a town like Ottawa. French and English are heard side by side almost everywhere in the City. Francophone and Angl;ophone kids go to school together, play soccer together and are neighbours and friends on virtually every street in Ottawa. I cannot remember having any conversations with my wife about job prospects or looking down our noses at the non-immersion school.

It just made sense to us.

And I really think that this is the main reason why parents are choosing French language education over English.

It just makes sense.

But the Board should set out to prove me right or wrong, because unless we know the root causes of this phenomenon, it cannot be expected that any viable solutions will be arrived at in a timely way.

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Yeah – you just TRY to touch my kids…

Thanks to Warren Kinsella for posting this on his site.

As a father, he, um, takes a bit of issue with complete strangers touching his kids in what would ordinarily be a very inappropriate manner. He says:

I am a big, big Obama fan, as regular lurkers will know. But I think these new Transportation Security Administration rules – wherein they are permitted to paw your privates, in effect – are insane. And Obama is insane for letting them happen.

I don’t give a rat’s ass what the Fourth Amendment says. If some bureaucrat touches my kids, I’m drifting him

So yeah, travellers can go through one of those body scan machines (If they are available in the airport from which they are departing. I have no idea if these things are in each and every American airport.) – which I personally don’t have a big problem with – better than personal contact. But then, I read this:

According to information the T.S.A. has shared or published, the airport pat-downs are supposed to be conducted by officers the same sex as the traveler, and passengers can request a private screening and have a traveling companion present during the search. Agents are not permitted to look inside passengers’ underwear or reach inside a skirt, and children 12 and younger are supposed to receive a modified pat-down.

Even passengers who submit to the new body scanners may be subject to a pat-down if the machine detects an anomaly. In other cases, passengers may be randomly selected for a physical search.

Number one, more of a reason than ever to delay visits to the US of A until some measure of sanity has returned to that paranoid nation. Number two, if I do go to the States and if anyone touches my kids, well, I’d pull a “Warren”. And yes, there will be a scene.

Big deal that under-12s get a modified pat-down. Yeah, right. Just try.

Hmmm… just realising that even writing this will put me on some sort of “watch” list.

Too bad.

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The perspective that comes with age…

After 4 dozen years of human-hood, there are some things I have noticed:

  1. Nothing matters more than the your own health and that of your family. Nothing. Full stop.
  2. As children make the turn into adulthood, they are capable of, and do learn and accept #1.
  3. As crappy as my body may seem some days, there are those that feel worse. A lot worse.
  4. Grab the present by the gonads and run with it like your life depended on it. Don’t delay.
  5. Play to your strengths but understand your weaknesses well.
  6. Eat, drink and be merry, for sure! But know your body and the signals it sends when it needs to be nurtured.
  7. It is always more important to cuddle with your kids before bed than check Twitter / fold laundry / watch the game.
  8. It is always more important to listen to your kids than check Twitter / fold laundry / watch the game.
  9. Work to live and don’t live to work… but do not take work for granted because people are counting on you.
  10. It is good medicine to make lists like these once in a while.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, all!

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Post election reflections

The election was October 25.

I caught a flight to Beijing via Vancouver at 7 am the next day.

Not a lot of time to reflect.

But now I have finally had a bit of time to reflect on the campaign and the results. It has been a whirlwind few months for my family and me. The campaign monopolized most evenings and weekends and then, to make things even busier, I was assigned to a 12 day business trip to Beijing… with the flight leaving at 7 am on October 26th – the morning after the election.

While finishing second in the election was never my aim, it was a strong second. And this indicates to me that at least a sizable portion of the voters in Zone 6 were either unhappy with the current Trustee or liked what they heard from me. I hope it was more the latter than the former.

And we did get to about 4000 doorsteps, and that has to count for something, right?

What we did not have was an opportunity to address a large group or two to tell my story. Community associations and the like organise all-candidates meetings for the Mayoral and Council candidates, but the most the Trustee candidates can hope for is the offer of a table upon which to place campaign literature. But hey, that is better than nothing at all!

Unseating an incumbent is difficult at the best of times. But unseating him or her when one really does not have many or any opportunity to address the broad community makes it almost impossible. We did try to reach out in many ways. A Facebook fan page was set up, I Twittered like a fiend, and this site was regularly updated.

We had coverage in the EMC Ottawa South edition., the Riverview Park Review and the Manor Park Chronicle.

I filled out at least a dozen surveys sent to us by different groups and answered any and all questions from individual voters in an expedient way.

We even had a campaign ad! Unfortunately, the newspaper made an error and the ad went to into the Nepean edition and not the Ottawa South edition. Not many Zone 6 voters to be found in Nepean!

But at the end of it all, my family and I had quite an adventure – though my 6 year old told us that she doesn’t want to hear the word “election” for a while.

We gave it a go, fought the good fight and all that. I made a lot of new friends and found that the fire in the belly is still burning strong.

So, what’s next and will I run again in 2014?

Over the next few years I am going to engage even more in my community. You will see my name popping up here and there giving my opinion on local education issues or other education-related matters. I will be posting regularly on this blog and Tweeting frequently (@baldjam). This campaign has reminded me that I live in a very special community and just because the election is over, I want to continue to get involved where I can.

I will be holding Trustee Funiciello to what she said in her campaign literature about being accessible to all parents in the Zone. For the sake of all parents in the community, I do sincerely hope she meant it.

I’m not doing this to set myself up for another run at the Trustee seat. I want to become more involved in my community because I have rediscovered how special and fulfilling it is to be engaged. I want to contribute on one level or another, even if 2014 approaches and I am not inclined to try again.

And I encourage each of you in the Alta Vista and Rideau-Rockcliffe communities to stay involved as well.  It is important that we make the Board aware that our community is indeed watching and judging the decisions that they make over the next while. With funding uncertainties, the introduction of the early learning programs, the new strategic plan, the future of special programs and numerous other issues on the horizon, they have much work to do.

Like I said: what an adventure!

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The OCDSB questionnaire – good intentions, but…

There has been much a-flutter in Ottawa over a survey that is being sent to all students in the Public School Board. There are actually two different questionnaires – one sent to K – Grade 6 and another to Grade 7-12.

As someone who knows very well the value of good information and how it can be used to inform decisions on policies and programs, I initially thought, OK… why not? After all, if the data that are to be collected are relevant to the design of policies and programs at the Board level and if they are collected and analysed using scientific methodologies, then this may be a step forward.

But wait a minute?

Um, why is Q 18 collecting information on religion? These are public schools, after all?

OK – maybe this is a bit of a profiling exercise….

Wait – and what about this:

25. In general, how do you feel that you are treated by school staff in your school?

26 b) Do you feel you school expectations have been applied to you in a fair manner?

Seriously? Is there a teenager on the planet who feels that they have been treated “fairly” by their school or the staff? I sure haven’t met one!

And why this?

29 b) If you have been threatened, bullied or harmed by anyone at your current school do you think it is because of any of the following? (Please check all that apply.)

What follows in a who list of reasons why the Board thinks someone may have been subjected to bullying (e.g., sexual orientation, physical appearance). It also asks where and how often the bullying took place.

I get the reason for this question – it is to identify the motivations behind intimidation and harassment and to put into place school-specific programs that may help to mitigate bullying. Bullying sucks and those who bully are basically cowards. This is a given and schools should work toward eliminating it to the greatest extent possible.

BUT, the statistical side of my brain says that there will be no way to use this information at the school level – the only geographic unit where it would be useful – because there will be an insufficient numbers of respondents to each of these categories to publish and interpret the results and still preserve confidentiality. Any results will be unusable at the level of aggregation needed . So why ask these questions at all in a survey like this one?

Finally – sigh – the survey is voluntary. According to Randall Denley’s column:

Then there is the issue of the quality of the information and how it will be used. There are a couple of real problems here. This is not a study that is in any way scientific. Hammond says the board hopes to get a response rate of between 60 and 70 per cent and will be pleased if it does.

Here we go again.

Let me be clear. There will be groups of families who will not complete this questionnaire. Newcomers to Canada, those families of lower income and or education, those who have serious problems at home and are worried that school officials may learn about them. These are families who are much less likely to complete the questionnaire fully and truthfully.

And what about those families with children who may be gay, lesbian, bullied, harassed or otherwise marginalized? Well, they are not very likely to complete it either for a myriad of personal reasons. Some of the content of the survey is about very deep and personal matters and I cannot imagine that students will be at all comfortable expressing themselves openly and truthfully.

So, the reporting population will be skewed and the results will be unrepresentative, unreliable and essentially useless at the school level. And this is too bad because there are some questions on the survey whose answers may have been useful (e.g., Part V, Learning Support, Tools and Resources).

My advice would have been that, for the 120K spent on this survey, the OCDSB would have been better served hiring an experienced external consultant to administer a series of targeted questionnaires combined with some well-designed focus groups and cognitive interviews.

But hey, that’s just me.

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Trashy in China, 3.0 – a walk along the street

Went for a nice long-ish walk at lunch yesterday. It would have been nicer to have taken a longer walk than long-ish, but we really wanted to finish up the day as soon as was practicable. The beautiful weather here won’t last forever. As well, we Canucks know what the weather is like back home – where we’ll be heading toward tomorrow evening – and we want to squeeze in a little more time denying that the crappy weather will soon be de rigeur

On my walk, I took some pics.

I start in the cafeteria where we have our lunch each day. Decorative, isn’t it?

This is the hotel is the site where Richard Nixon’s famous 1968 trip to China took place.

It is located beside a beautiful forest on ginkgo trees is their full yellow fall colours… breath taking! I love the reds of the maple, but these yellows were brilliant!

Who’s that dapper young guy?

Common way to get around in these parts… but even in the short time I have been coming to China, I notice that there are fewer of these and more cars.

So what could this poor guy be carting on this bike? Styrofoam!

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Trashy in China, 3.0 – How about that full employment, eh?

China, being a centrally controlled economy that is big on international stature and status, pursues a policy of full employment – jobs for all! This would be almost impossible to pull off in a state that does not have central control mechanisms that micromanages the finest aspects of the Chinese economy. This is not a judgement, but a fact. In Canada, for example, the unemployment rate (the percentage of those who were actively looking for work but not yet employed) has been in the high single digits / low double digits for quite a few years. There is a “natural” level of unemployment in a western-style economy. For example, there are those who are in between jobs – folks who have found jobs but not yet started. Plus there are those who enter the work force (e.g., graduates) and who have yet to find employment.

But that does not seem to be the case in China. Almost everyone has a paying job.

But how?

For one, the Chinese impose mandatory military service that takes care of a good chunk of the younger portion of the population. Plus, their standing military is another huge job bank. You can see this on the streets of Beijing. Groups of military personnel are often seen in formation on the streets, performing guard duty outside government installations and in numerous other roles around the urban area.

The police force as well is a huge source of jobs. Police officers are pretty much omnipresent. On every major corner, in and around stores and markets, doing a sidewalk beat – they are a very visible presence here. And I suppose that is why this City is one of the safest – if not the safest outright – large cities on the planet. I as a foreigner am rarely ill at ease on almost any street in night-time Beijing.

But where else are jobs created in order to achieve the goal of full employment? Some of the common jobs are a bit surprising and are not found in Canada. For example:

  • The vast army of street sweepers, garden tenders, waste collectors… just as omnipresent as the police force
  • You want service at a restaurant? How about anywhere from 3-6 servers assigned to your table of 6 diners? Usually all that is needed is a nod and instant presto! Anything you need is brought to the table! And don’t worry about tipping – not allowed here.
  • The traffic and bus herders… men and women wearing orange hats stand guard at street corners directing pedestrians and at bus stops ensuring that transit riders board their buses in an orderly fashion… nice straight and orderly queues!
  • Stores in Canada are often the subject of criticism due to their lack of staff on the floor… not here! Go into a supermarket and show an interest in something on the shelf and watch how fast someone comes running to see if you need any help. Canadian Tire, eat your heart out!

Plus there are the masses employed in the stalls of the markets, selling DVDs or socks on street corners (the Sock Lady is actually as real pain for us), the girls serving us tea in the meetings, the lady who pours us a Coke at lunch… I could go on…

There IS the odd instance of an impoverished person – presumably unemployed. But it seems staged by the authorities as if to say: “Look… we have social problems too!” This person – or sometimes a family – can sometimes be seen sitting or kneeling on a sidewalk, eyes cast downward as if in shame, with sometimes a written plea for (presumably) help in front of them.

All in all – interesting to see from a Westerner’s perspective!

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Trashy in China 3.0 – around the ‘hood…

An interesting thing about Beijing is that no matter where you may be, there is an oasis of relative tranquility nearby. The neighbourhood around the Jianguo Hotel is a good example.

The hotel is located directly on Beijing’s main thoroughfare, Jianguomenwai Da Jie. The 8 lane “street” bisects the city on the east/west axis. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are smack in the middle while our hotel lies about 5 km to the west. Five kilometers =40 minutes travel time in this car-loving city (I read in the China Daily yesterday that an average of 1,900 new cars are sold every day in the City!).

All along Jianguomenwai are huge skyscrapers.  Yeah, huge. The footprint of one of these complexes would approximate the same footprint made by all of the towers on Ottawa’s Queen Street.

And it’s crazy busy. Tens of thousands of bikes, cars, trucks, buses and bodies. You have to see it to believe it. And you have to be VERY careful crossing the street. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way and a car will NOT stop for you. Ever. Picture Stephen King’s “Christine”.  Now picture 10,000 Audis, Mercedes, rickshaws, motorcycles and bikes. Get the image?

But away from all of this is a little place called Ritan Park within which is the temple of the Sun. I was commenting to a colleague on the weekend about the lack of children in the area. Well, I found them. They were all at the park playing games or spending a quiet Sunday afternoon with their parents or grandparents.

There were old men playing cards or some ilk of a checkers game. Others were playing musical instruments and others were practicing Tai Chi. All very refreshing for the mind and the mood.

Oh, and the last one is for Torii.

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