Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Charter schools yes, native-only schools no

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Those of us tasked with responding to the needs of disadvantaged aboriginal students can easily fall into the trap of looking for easy solutions to complex problems.

This is why there is something dangerously compelling about Winnipeg's proposal to have a "native-only" school board developed as a means to fight growing crime rates in the city.

I was in a bit of an intellectual conundrum hearing of this proposal. I am against this initiative, but I passionately support native-focused charter schools.

What is the difference?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that have loosened regulatory oversight in exchange for clearly defined achievement and accountability outcomes attached to their mandate or "Charter." Their effectiveness drives their existence.

Winnipeggers should note the success of charter schools in the United States, in addressing the needs of disadvantaged students. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that researchers are finding education outcomes from U.S. charter schools are not only outpacing public schools, but that nearby public school results are being positively influenced. The option of having publicly funded charter schools open to all parents is influencing public schools to be more effective.

The Journal's commentary piece No Child Left Behind: New evidence that charter schools help even kids in other schools (Nov. 4) quotes Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby who found that, "poor urban children who attend a charter school from kindergarten through eight grade can close the learning gap with affluent suburban kids by 86 per cent in reading and 66 per cent in math."

They further cite Marcus Winters, who has found that when a public school loses a child to a charter school, the reading ability of those left behind increases by 0.02 standard deviations, which he called a small but significant number, given that the widespread worry was charter schools would hurt the overall academic performance scores of those left to the public schools. "Imagine that. Competition works," the newspaper concluded in its commentary.

This has everything to do with the "native-only" school issue in Winnipeg, as the current system is falling behind in meeting the educational needs of our disadvantaged students.

On-reserve, funding rates that are 20 per cent to 30 per cent below their provincial counterparts result in overcrowding and huge teacher-student ratios -- Canada's First Nation's schools are falling further and further behind. Off-reserve, provincial public systems are also fairing poorly when it comes to meeting the needs of aboriginal students.

Americans have met the challenge of closing the learning gap by increasing the standard and stimulating the evolutionary process in delivery through the charter school system. This is entirely opposite to the approach surmised by city hall in Winnipeg, which as the Free Press article states, will lower the standard with a pre-determined solution.

If the only goal is to decrease drop-out rates, with no set academic outcomes, then of course the easiest way to meet the goal is to lower the standard so no one can fail or drop-out. This is institutional racism.

In the U.S., parents can choose to send their child to a charter school at no cost to themselves. Many charter schools focus on themes or specialize in their programming. There are fine arts; science; theatre and culture based schools.

The culture-based charter schools, including the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School (Latino), the Hmong College Prep Academy, Kua O Ka La Public Charter School (Native Hawaiian) and numerous Native American equivalents, are demonstrating significant improvements in closing the gap between disadvantaged and mainstream students.

These culture-based charter schools include cultural learning outcomes in their school improvement plans. Parents of a wide variety of ethnicities, are choosing to send their children there.

Beyond the stand-alone importance of continuing cultural retention and transmission, the increased exposure to and inclusion of culture in the schools is increasing core academic outcomes.

Research conducted at the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii shows statistically significant increases for Hawaiian cultural charter school students in math and reading; school climate; parent involvement; teacher/parent expectations; responsibility; sense of community; and decreases in absenteeism.

So the difference between the "native-only" system and the charter system is based on standards

Public systems need to open themselves to competition and the increased cultural and academic results that this encourages. Charter schools need to be encouraged in Canada. Further, aboriginal parents, educators and students need to support the idea of locally driven collaborative schools, with accountability measures attached, in environments that stimulate experimentation and growth in learning outcomes.

Schools need to demonstrate their effectiveness at achieving both academic and cultural outcomes and parents need to be given the choice to send their kids where they will succeed.

In the words of the famous educator Albus Dumbledore: "It is not our abilities that define us; it is our choices." Lowering the standard, which is what the "native-only" system in Winnipeg, appears to be choosing, will do nothing but harm our students.

James B. Wilson is director of education,

Opaskwayak Educational Authority Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2009 A14

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