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Why bother involving education minister, teachers in schools?

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I had been operating under the assumption that, as much as I knew about him, St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes is politically astute.

Mayes has this idea to import City Year, an American organization that sends young people financed by corporate sponsors into at-risk schools to work with kids for a year. He’s set up three forums Thursday, one by invitation only, one at the Free Press News Café at 1:30 p.m., and a public forum at city hall at 4 p.m.

You can read my story here.

Basically, it’s a new version of the Peace Corps.

He’s looking for at least 50 young people to work for a year.

In the U.S., City Year reports significant academic and attendance and attitude progress among students in the schools in which City Year has operated.

The youth workers are in the school from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., working one-on-one with kids on math and literacy, supervising homework, running after-school activities. Yes, that’s 11 hours a day.

They’re paid $1,000 to $1,500 a month, they receive tuition vouchers when they resume or start postsecondary education, they wear nifty red uniforms bearing the corporate logo of their sponsor.

Sounds pretty good, eh? Why wouldn’t we want that here?

And maybe we do, and maybe it would work. Mayes said Monday that it may make more sense here to base City Year out of community centres or organizations such as food banks, rather than schools, given collective bargaining agreements and curricula and the like, though they’d still work with school kids.

"I don’t think the school system here is in the same disrepair," said Mayes.

No kidding.

Keep in mind that Mayes is a New Democrat, not a union-busting right wing ideologue.

Still...

When you hold a large forum of community leaders to hear from American speakers about bringing a corporate-sponsored youth corps into public schools, do you think it might be useful to invite Education Minister James Allum?

Not Mayes. He invited Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief, because the councillor reckoned that Chief had more to do with community agencies than Allum. Probably so, but it’s Allum who oversees the 200,000 or so school children in this province, and it's under the Public Schools Act that the government represented by the education minister decides who is allowed to set foot in a classroom.

Let’s be charitable and say that City Year would work with classroom teachers and augment the work of other staff, rather than replacing unionized educational assistants, support staff, resource teachers, school office staff — if you look at the City Year website, those 11 hours a day involve doing a lot of work now performed here by trained, educated, and unionized people, at commensurate wages and benefits.

So, you’re going to send corporate-sponsored youth workers into school classrooms and you’re not going to talk to the teachers’ union up front?

OK, I guess, it seems to make sense to Mayes, so why should I quibble?

Silly me, I thought that maybe the Manitoba Teachers’ Society would be high up there on the list of invited guests Thursday.

A surprised MTS president Paul Olson told me Monday, "I have no awareness of this at all. To the best of my knowledge, no one at MTS knows anything about this. We have someone floating an idea who hasn’t thought to consult with the minister of education or with the people responsible for education.

"Teachers should be asked what resources they need," Olson said. "A lot of people have no idea how hard the people in the school system are working. Talk to the unions responsible for the educational assistants and support staff in the schools — that would be the intelligent place to start.

"I’m not impressed with the process," said Olson.

Reacting to my story, Mayes said by email early Tuesday morning that he followed proper protocol by inviting the Manitoba Labour Council to Thursday’s forums.

If you look at the typical City Year day that accompanies my story, the youth corps workers would spend an hour each day with kids one-on-one to work on literacy, and another hour one-on-one to work with kids about math. Sounds good. In public schools here, resource teachers with at least two university degrees do that work, the classroom teacher does that kind of work.

Did it not occur to Mayes that maybe the teachers should hear from him first about having that kind of teaching performed by young people who likely have not yet finished university, and who are trained by a private organization that’s bankrolled by Corporate America, instead of finding out about it by opening their Free Press Tuesday morning?

Just an idea to toss in there if you’re blue-skying the councillor’s plan.

The typical City Year day has the youth corps sit down with the teacher for an hour at 1 p.m. to review how the children are doing. It doesn’t say so, but one might speculate that things might go better if it was specified that the teacher was in charge of that meeting.

I would never try to channel Olson or get inside the head of a union boss, but I’m thinking, where is this teacher supposed to get that hour? Who watches the classroom while all this is going on? Is it the EA, if she’s still on the payroll? Does it come from prep time hard-won at the bargaining table, does it come from the work-free 55 minutes of lunch that teachers spent forever bargaining into their contracts?

Of course, if you’re one of those who thinks that teachers need to work far harder and far longer, who thinks that teachers aren’t working before and after school and into the evenings and on weekends, and who thinks that unions get in the way, you may be quite fine with this scenario.

City Year staff, as I noted, wear corporate-logo uniforms, and City Year talks about ways in which sponsors can participate in schools and have their employees participate. The NDP, and divisions such as Winnipeg School Division, are not all that keen about corporations allowed to run loose in public schools.

Maybe Mayes knows something about the 2015 election, and maybe he knows there are other parties out there that might be OK with all this.

Finally, Mayes was once a school trustee, but that was in Brandon. Maybe he hasn’t been on Winnipeg city council long enough to grasp the depth of animosity that councillors feel toward school boards.

Every March, at budget time, some councillors will grumble about the city’s having to collect school taxes. Council, which has been known to freeze taxes while jacking up a horde of user fees unavailable to school boards, hauls out the sailors-on-shore-leave stereotype to describe trustees’ spending habits.

Surely Mayes could have shown a little more sensitivity to the whole notion of how it might be perceived — a city councillor’s bringing an idea into public schools, without talking to the person in charge and the professionals in the schools?

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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