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Thompson chapter 874

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record (ask your grandparents): Nancy, what in the world is going on in Thompson?

The latest furore in turmoil-plagued Mystery Lake School Division involves superintendent Bev Hammond having discovered "irregularities" in grades and credits of two dozen students at R.D. Parker Collegiate.

These were students who were short credits for graduation, or who had failed courses, suddenly allegedly being given passing grades, or allowed to do trivial community service to push their marks into a pass.

You can the read the story here.

The upshot was that Mystery Lake school trustees fired high school principal Ryan Land, and assured the provincial department of education no student received a high school diploma last week who did not deserve to do so.

What’s that? You thought the trustees fired Land back in the winter? So did I. Turns out the school board did decide back in the winter not to renew his probationary contract when it expired June 30, and had removed him as principal, but had continued to pay Land. That is, until June 14, when the trustees fired Land outright.

Hammond says the principal is responsible for everything that goes on in the school, which is certainly true, just as it’s true that the superintendent is responsible for the principal, and the school trustees are responsible for the superintendent.

I’ve asked the department of education and aides to Education Minister Nancy Allan several times if they’ll divulge exactly what the division told the province, but Allan won’t be interviewed, and her staff plays the local jurisdiction card, saying that whatever went on in Thompson is a matter of local autonomy.

I wanted to know specifically, were these "irregularities" some form of program designed to engage at-risk youth and help these students otherwise doomed to drop out, to stay in school and graduate?

You know, the type of programs at other high schools which Allan cites when the minister justifies her much-touted move to require students to stay in school until they turn 18, unless they’ve already graduated.

And, indeed, I’m told that R.D. Parker had two such off-campus programs, one called Echoes at the Indian-Métis friendship centre, the other called Futures.

But I’m still hoping to hear whether the irregularities had anything to do with formal attempts to engage at-risk students and keep them in school.

If not, why was it done? Just to boost graduation rates?

I’m obviously not a high school principal, or a high school teacher, or a high school guidance counsellor, and alas, as usual, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society won’t talk about this controversy. So I can’t say I know first-hand how the bureaucracy works within a large high school.

But I doubt that one person alone produces the report cards for all 995 students at R.D. Parker Collegiate. Nor does one person have lone control over the transcripts of 995 students.

I’ve written enough stories about the reasons why June has so few instructional days and why exams aren’t held late in June, allowing for more class time in early to mid June — it’s because teachers are desperately marking and preparing final grades in time for convocation and grad and need every day they can get. As a safe grad parent twice, I heard from our high school that our numbers were fluid right up to the last minute, because some students were touch and go to graduate.

If someone had the ability to alter two dozen transcripts for the better, do you think that anyone else in the school would have noticed?

If you were, say, an English teacher or a history teacher or a math teacher, and you knew  you’d flunked a kid, and then saw that same kid walk across the stage and receive a graduation diploma at the convocation in June of 2010, would you notice? Would you say anything?

If you were a student short a credit and who’d failed a course, and suddenly you were told that you’d graduate if you walked your own dog or fostered a pet in your home, do you think you might mention it to your friends? Or your parents? Or maybe put it on Facebook a nanosecond after you’d got the good news?

If you were a student who’d worked your butt off to get good marks, might you notice if two dozen classmates who did not appear to be as academically engaged as you suddenly were walking around with big smiles on their faces?

Some of those two dozen students did remedial work and got their diplomas; others are still working to graduate, Hammond said. Her investigation did not look back as closely at the 2009-2010 school year, and thus she cannot say whether anyone graduated in June of 2010 who did not deserve a high school diploma. That’s unfortunate.

Nor did Hammond’s investigation go back any further, to the time before Land arrived at the school. Knowing whether such irregularities predated Land might have been useful information.

Down below here, you’ll find the response I got from Allan’s office. Meanwhile, until the next bizarre revelation, again I ask, Nancy, what in the world is going on in Thompson?

Here’s what Allan’s response was, sent through an aide:

"The highest quality education is essential to preparing young people for successful careers. The ability to meet deadlines and perform required tasks is an important skill which our students need to learn if they’re going to succeed both in and out of school. We’ve made it clear that students can be held back a grade. In fact, we’ve ensured that school divisions can NOT have a policy that allows a student to pass regardless of their academic achievement. Our understanding is that all students graduating will have attained the required credits.

When a school division has information or evidence to suggest grades are being assigned incorrectly, it has a corresponding obligation to pursue the matter and deal with it accordingly. Our understanding is that is what has happened here.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing: we want students to have the best education possible and parents to have input into their children’s’ education. We are going to work together to address issues of concern that have been raised by community members in Mystery Lake.

Our goal is to ensure the highest level of public confidence in our schools, our school system, and the education our kids are receiving. We are going to accomplish this by working together to consult the public, including concerned organizations and individuals, about the best steps forward. This is a forward-looking process which will result in recommendations and a plan of action to address community concerns, including stewardship, leadership, responsibility, and accountability.

As you know, the Province does not employ teachers or administrators. School divisions as employers have jurisdiction over human resource issues."

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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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