Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thompson's beleaguered school system can only go up

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THOMPSON -- In years past, someone like Joanie Blackmore would have been difficult to find.

Back then, it seemed like everyone had a bone to pick with Thompson's beleaguered Mystery Lake School Division as controversies piled up like textbooks in a locker.

"I don't have any complaints about their schooling at all," says Blackmore, referring to her four children. "I don't have any issues with anything that goes on in the schools."

While not everyone feels that way, and while the district still faces some steep hurdles, education in northern Manitoba's largest city is emerging from some very troubled times.

There was the debacle surrounding Ryan Land, the popular high school principal whose firing in 2011 sparked protests and allegations of grudge matchery on the part of the school division.

There were stories of brutality and drugs in R.D. Parker Collegiate. In 2004-05, there were about 300 reports of violent or drug-related incidents.

There was a provincially ordered consultant's report last year that found intimidation and mistrust rampant within Thompson's schools. It made 23 recommendations for remedying the working and learning environment.

Then local media revealed that less than half of the students at R.D. Parker graduate in the customary four years even though Mystery Lake spends more per student of any other division in Manitoba.

The board's response has been to focus on challenges relating to parental and student engagement, transiency and attendance, among others.

Early literacy intervention, full-day kindergarten for students who need it and increased data collection are among the measures the district hopes will see more students graduate, and on time.

"We are looking at it from a district perspective, high school perspective and elementary school perspective," the school board said in a statement to the Free Press. "Where we are seeing gaps, we are putting supports in place."

The province is also lending a hand. Last month, Premier Greg Selinger was in town to unveil a new support program designed to foster academic success for the Grade 7 class at one of Thompson's six elementary schools.

The program will follow the students to Grade 12, helping them heighten their engagement, connect with the community, plan for careers and learn about their culture. If it's a success, it can be replicated as needed.

As for the violence at R.D. Parker, Blackmore is not overly worried.

"They have minor issues from time to time with violence in the schools, but it seems to have slowed down compared to what it was," she says.

Where Mystery Lake is well advised to go next would be an alternative high school, providing the sort of less-structured approach that has proven successful in The Pas and Flin Flon.

And with a significant aboriginal student population, a continued emphasis on culture, provided it is practical, will be vital. No slouch in this department, Thompson already has the innovative Wapanohk Community School, a K-8 school that offers Cree programming.

With a total enrolment of nearly 2,800 students, the district says the future of public education in Thompson is promising.

"We have started some new initiatives but are cautious not to start too many new projects," the district said. "Each project needs time to be created, implemented and reviewed. To create positive change takes time."

That it does. But after the turmoil of recent years, up is the only way left to go for the school district.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2013 A15

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