Category: Strong Schools, Strong Communities

Can we open a Catholic Faith program within the public school system?

(For the EPSB Board Meeting Feb 14th, 2016) Request For Information: Could the Administration inform us whether or not the Minister of Education or (School Act) would permit a public school system to create a Catholic Faith Alternative Program or a Catholic School within the Public School System?
The issue of why we don’t have a Catholic program within our EPSB constellation of alternative and choice programs is a question I am frequently asked by my constituents and I have to admit I don’t have a clear answer.
Is a public school board permitted to open a Catholic Faith Alternative Program?
I informally asked the question when I was first elected trustee in 2010, and was told that previous governments and Ministers would not permit Public school boards to create Catholic programs, but puzzlingly they have allowed Catholic districts to offer duplicate programs that are also offered by Public and Francophone school boards.
Before the Board of Trustees directs staff time or dollars on program creation or policy amendments, we should ensure that the Minister of Education would allow us to create a Catholic Faith Alternative program. Edmonton Public would not be in a position to confirm demand for such a program until parents can be assured that such a program can be offered.  The first step in this journey would be understand the direction of the provincial legislature (our formal process for these inquiries is called a “Request for Information”
We are proud of our legacy as a district of choice, including our existing excellent faith program choices. EPSB offers more than 30 alternative programming options. Students enrolled in alternative programming receive instruction determined by Alberta Education, with a focus on artsathleticslanguage and culturefaith-based or teaching philosophy.
We have faith-based Christian programs such as Millwoods Christian or the Logos (Christian faith) Program. Talmud Torah offers an integrated program of Judaic and secular studies in a Hebrew bilingual setting. Sakinah Circle programming is based on a philosophy of education derived from the Qur’anic (Islam) worldview.
Currently, There are thousands of students who attend Catholic Schools who aren’t Catholic. In the past, attendance to Catholic School Districts were restricted to only students who were Catholic (baptism certificates were demanded) but this is no longer the case and families, regardless of faith, often move freely between districts. For example, Edmonton Catholic Schools own website states:
Non-Catholics and other non-resident students may enroll at Edmonton Catholic Schools given the adequate availability of resources such as space and suitability of program.

That means of the approximately 40,000 students going to Edmonton Catholic Schools, not all of them are Catholic but might be convinced with the right programming to be included in the 92,000 Edmonton Public Students. If even a few of them chose to return, that could be a significant influx of students and would be especially valuable in mature communities with lower-enrollment schools. Province wide, it could be even more significant especially for rural communities with dwindling populations.

For decades we have supported choices within public school districts. It is important to note that this initiative does not call for the abolition or defunding of the 17 Catholic School Boards in Alberta, but rather contemplates the potential for public school boards to grow and expand faith program offerings. This is no different than EPSB operating French Immersion programs which do not challenge the existence of the constitutionally protected Francophone School boards. The Edmonton Public School Board supports programs of choice where there is a demand and if anything this would mean more faith and more choice, not less!
If permitted by the provincial government, any public school district could create a new program of choice and offer greater selection to parents. This would be especially timely in areas where new schools are in high demand or in mature communities that may be contemplating requesting replacement schools. There may be huge operational and capital savings to the provincial government in future if this idea were further explored. That means more money for front-line education rather than duplicated administration or half-empty or aging schools.
Public school districts are funded on a per-pupil basis, and we need to remain competitive and continue to demonstrate efficiency through economies of scale and administrative effeciencies. As Trustees, we would demonstrate responsiveness to the interests of students, families, and communities. Picture a new Edmonton public school opening with a few classrooms set aside for a Catholic Faith Alternative program— we would be serving the needs of all Edmontonians and potentially saving the province millions of dollars! We would be able to save on capital costs by attracting more students whose only choice might be a distant bus trip to the ECSD system.

There would be significant cost savings to the Alberta government if public schools could offer a Public and Catholic program under one physical and metaphorical roof. If we were able to offer another program, we would be able to save on capital costs by attracting more students whose only choice might be the ECSD system.

What about a Catholic Faith course? If we weren’t able to offer a full Catholic program, maybe as a first step, we could consider the establishment of a Locally Developed “Catholic Faith” course that would provide more choice and welcome more Catholic families back into the Public school system?
What could this mean for the future of school construction? As we look ahead to submitting our annual capital planning request list for new schools, and I reflect on provincial commitments to transparency and sunshine lists, I look forward to exploring the idea of how decisions are made to allocate Public or Catholic schools to new communities and how evidence of parent intent is determined. With the archaic notion of directing one’s taxes to the Public or Catholic school system having no bearing anymore on funding (it’s all pooled and directed based on enrolment) it is time we got creative in finding innovative ways to improve program delivery while demonstrating innovation and efficiency in the use of our education dollars. But that is likely a inquiry for a later date when we discuss our capital planning process.
While we are engaged in a dialogue on curriculum redesign, maybe it’s time to have the bigger question about program or system redesign. To be clear, these are the questions and observations of one trustee, and until a formal vote is taken at the Board table, no program can be created.
So will we be allowed to proceed? Once I receive an answer I will report back.

What do you think? Is this a good idea to explore further? How can we make sure our education system is inclusive, responsive, and efficient?

Education of the head and the heart: THINKEQUAL and Edmonton Public Schools

As a Trustee I have the opportunity to attend many fantastic events and hear many fascinating speakers. One such example was the Mahatma Ghandi Canadian Foundation for World Peace who invited me as a guest to their awards banquet and to hear their guest speaker Leslee Udwin, the award-winning director of the film India’s Daughters and now the Founder and CEO of an organization called THINKEQUAL.

If you haven’t seen India’s Daughters, it is a powerful film that outlines the importance of education of not just the mind but the heart. This film is centred around the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh who was a physiotherapy student that sparked protests and debate across India.

Following the film, Leslee has dedicated her energy to her non-profit THINKEQUAL providing a spectrum of resources and supports to education around the world (for free):

We believe in a holistic approach to education to support a new generation of Global Citizens in the context of the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development goals. Our purpose is to add Social and Emotional Learning as a compulsory new subject on national curricula around the world. This education must start from the very beginning  of every child’s formal education. THINK EQUAL aims for a long overdue system change in education.

They outlined four goals:

  • Educate rounded, sensitive, empowered, respectful, more equitable and inclusive young men and women.
  • Provide children with the tools to succeed on a lifelong journey of learning, and equip them to promote these values in their communities.
  • Empower girls to unlock their potential, and to contribute to the development and the economy of countries.
  • Transform mind sets and create a new generation of human rights and equality advocates in all school-going youth over the next decade.

The Edmonton THINKEQUAL Delegation (comprised of many active Edmonton citizens such as

  • Robert Philp, Chief Commissioner Alberta Human Rights Commission and Chair, Think Equal Edmonton
  • Sarah Chan, Think Equal volunteer
  • Bev Park, Think Equal volunteer
  • Jan Fox, Think Equal volunteer
  • Judy Piercey, Think Equal volunteer
  • Satya Das, Think Equal volunteer
  • Liz O’Neil, Think Equal volunteer

presented to the Edmonton Public School Board in December and we are excited to learn more about the work that they will be doing as they move forward. They have partnered with NAIT and will be distributing digital lessons and content for dissemination beyond the classroom walls.

They have assembled a star list of supporters and advocates ranging from Celebrities to education thought-leaders like Ken Robinson.

Here is a speech Leslee Edwin gave at the United Nations General Assembly:


As we move ahead with discussions about Curriculum Redesign in Alberta it is important to consider how we will be teaching empathy and equity. Education is the reproduction of lessons and ideas from one generation to the next, and we have a unique opportunity to think about how we can produce a more thoughtful, caring, and compassionate society.

Bev Parks Executive Director of the Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre shared with the Board during her presentation:

“I am pleased to be here today on behalf of the C5 partnership which consists of Boyle Street Community Services, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society and Terra Centre for parenting teens   and ourselves; Norwood Child and Family Resources Centre.  We are excited to be entering into a partnership with THINK EQUAL.  We have reviewed the curriculum and even sent it to our friend Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and to Nancy Mannix at the Palix Foundation and the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative both working in the related areas of childhood development to improve global health by mobilizing science in this area. 

We believe that the THINK EQUAL early years curriculum supports the programming we do under the Government of Alberta’s early year’s framework.  It also aligns with the Government of Alberta Children’s Charter and of course the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

I truly believe we are being handed a gift that can position Edmonton as a “Human Rights City “and Alberta as a province that continues to lead the way for this country to ensure our children have optimal opportunities to develop their full potential – to freely express themselves and have their views respected; AND to respect one another and to live free of discrimination.  It is never too early to role model and support children to believe in themselves, respect what is different in each other and to celebrate that verses shying away from it.

Our children are our future and we all need to invest in them especially in those very early years.

Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre has agreed to be the first Alberta 3-5 year old demonstration site for THINK EQUAL through our Head Start programs and I believe we will see some great outcomes for our children’s social and emotional development. “

Minister of Indigenous Relations Richard Feehan also shared the following message:

As the MLA for Edmonton-Rutherford, I support the values and mission of Think Equal. I’ve witnessed structural inequality in Alberta, both in my decades as a social worker and in my role as Minister of Indigenous Relations. I can tell you how funding and infrastructure deficits affect Indigenous communities. But prejudice, discrimination and racism – overt and subtle – are also a daily reality.

Think Equal aims to “break the cycle of negative stereotypes.” This aligns with my Ministry’s goal of empowering Indigenous people through “effective relationships, legislation, policies and initiatives.” Our government is taking concrete steps to break problematic cycles, whether it’s through enhanced curriculum and training, implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or increased economic opportunities.

A comprehensive human rights curriculum would be another significant step forward, an opportunity to enhance learning and cultivate a fully inclusive society. As a way of addressing structural inequality, I urge you to consider implementing Think Equal”

THINKEQUAL is taking steps to further this conversation worldwide, and as your public school trustee, I am excited to be a part of the conversation.