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The fourth R: Improving reading, writing, arithmetic

To improve reading, writing and arithmetic, Lakeshore division decided -- with much success -- to be revolutionary

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Teacher Lauren Marshall (left) speaks to students Taylor Byron and Jessica Forsyth (right). The graduation rate in Lakeshore School Division has risen from 50% in 2009 to 92% in 2013.

EMILY CUMMING / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Teacher Lauren Marshall (left) speaks to students Taylor Byron and Jessica Forsyth (right). The graduation rate in Lakeshore School Division has risen from 50% in 2009 to 92% in 2013. Photo Store

LUNDAR -- Can you imagine a school of 1,195 students the size of Prince Edward Island?

A school in which the teachers all know your name, and know your needs and know your strengths and meet regularly to stay on top of your education?

A school in which teachers aren't afraid to try something new, a school in which it isn't done the way it's always been done?

A school in which the high school graduation rate went from 50 per cent five years ago to 92 per cent last June, and has averaged in the high 70s over those five years?

"The biggest thing we've looked at is the needs of the students," said Janet Martell, superintendent of the Lakeshore School Division and architect of reimagining education in Lakeshore.

The province's fifth-smallest school division is strung out along Highway 6, spread out over an area the size of P.E.I,, but the division treats its entire student body as though all those children, from Moosehorn and Lake Manitoba First Nation to Lundar, from Fisher Branch and Eriksdale and Ashern, over to Inwood and two Hutterite Colonies, as though they all attend one school -- sharing the resources, sharing the teachers, each as vital as everyone else.

"We, in fact, have a school of 1,200 students," declared assistant superintendent Leanne Peters.

Five years ago, in conjunction with the province and Brandon University, Lakeshore launched a "student success initiative" aimed at finding new ways to meet students' education needs -- a higher graduation rate being the ambitious overt symbol.

Then came a cold and snowy night on Dec. 17, 2012, when more than half the division's 100 teachers showed up to hear Martell challenge them to reimagine the education system -- to take risks on innovative ideas that could fail, to put classrooms and subjects together in multi-teacher settings, to undertake large group projects that covered the gamut of curricula.

Meanwhile, "We looked at early-warning-system data," said Martell.

Weekly in each school, monthly across the division, teachers gather to talk about their students -- red flags go up over attendance and absenteeism, behaviour, reading and numeracy weaknesses.

"Two or three weeks in, based on the data, we see students struggling and pull them out" for special attention, Martell said. "They discuss how the students are doing -- before the student considers dropping out, they're on top of it."

And where there are issues, Lakeshore sends in help, such as success coaches -- they're teachers able to float from class to class, maybe working with a handful of kids struggling with math, then on to another class to help readers, even working over lunch with high achievers looking for an extra challenge in pre-calculus.

"We stopped looking at ourselves individually," said Fisher Branch Collegiate principal Shaun Lindal. Her students had a higher graduation rate than students at Lundar School or Ashern Central School, but Lindal had no problem seeing resources concentrated where they were needed most.

Prior to that, "We didn't do a lot of sharing," she said.

"It really is kind of amazing," said Ashern Central principal Neil MacNeil.

If a high school student has a reading problem, there's nothing to be gained by blaming elementary school teachers and shrugging off any responsibility, MacNeil said. "We need to begin working with those kids as soon as we get them. Every teacher, it's their responsibility to inculcate those skills."

Lundar success coach Darlene Willetts may work with kids on their lunch hour, she may also go to their homes and work with the family.

That includes Lakeshore students from Lake Manitoba First Nation, where Willetts starts with a meeting in the band hall, then follows up with arranged home visits.

"We do home visits, in conjunction with the community liaison person," she explained. "We have coffee, we visit and make connections. We want to problem-solve together."

School board chairman Kris Vigfusson said trustees bought into the plan and supported it by providing teachers with resources. Though he was initially skeptical, Vigfusson enthused, "These teachers blew me away with how they interact with each other."

Said MacNeil: "We didn't have social workers in the division, yet we have a crying need for social workers; now we have two."

Peters said each school was asked to identify what it wanted to fix, then teachers formed into small research groups to figure out how to do it.

In Ashern, she said, Grade 9 students from four or five smaller communities felt isolated starting high school, so the language arts and social studies teachers put all their kids together into one large group.

It's a given that many young teachers in rural Manitoba have their resumés in at all the city school divisions.

Martell pointed out Lakeshore has bucked the rural trend of regular teacher turnover, younger teachers and specialists staying in the division thanks largely to the professional development support and the autonomy teachers enjoy along Highway 6 -- "This year, I hired one teacher," said Martell.

Lundar principal Susan Hayward said she's been able to recruit and retain a music teacher, a skill in enormous demand. "She has a five-year plan. She can grow something here," Hayward said.

Peters cited 77-student K-12 Inwood School, which put language arts, technology and art together for a group project: "They used Claymation to demonstrate the outcomes the teacher wanted," she said.

Martell emphasized teachers get a lunch hour every day, even though they may work with kids during the students' lunch period, and no one's required to work nights and weekends or pressured to do anything involuntarily -- Lakeshore follows its collective agreement while pursuing innovation, she said.

You can't succeed by putting children and teachers in boxes and labelling them, Martell said.

"We know a lot more about what motivates people -- it's autonomy," said MacNeil.

Lakeshore even asks students what they want.

That's why schools such as Lundar have transformed a stereotypical library into a learning commons with comfortable seating and computer terminals. They're trying out low seating, high seating and swivelling seating.

MacNeil said students told him they didn't like the colour scheme or the aged school logos on the walls of the multipurpose room in Ashern, so out came the paint. "We did that together one spring break, the kids and I."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 A6

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