Despite the testy relationship with the province this past year, Edmonton Public Schools board chairwoman Trisha Estabrooks is hopeful for a path forward that best serves students in 2022.
Edmonton public is one of dozens of Alberta school boards that refused to test the UCP government’s controversial draft K-9 curriculum after many education experts and advocates denounced parts — the social studies program in particular — for being regressive, faulty, negligent and plagiarized.
“We’re elected to represent Edmonton families and they’ve asked us to be loud and to be vocal on that issue, and I believe we have been,” Estabrooks told Postmedia in a year-end interview.
Last month, Education Minister Adrian LaGrange announced the social studies curriculum will be revised and a new version released in the spring. Math, physical education and English language arts and literature programs are going ahead in the fall with some changes.
Estabrooks said this is a step in the right direction, but the board is concerned some subjects will be implemented without field testing and requested changes being made. Edmonton public asked the government days prior to pause the roll-out, make revisions, then pilot it for two years.
“This is where the minister and I agree. We know we need a modern up-to-date curriculum. Where we disagree is how do we get there,” Estabrooks said prior to the changes being announced. “Now is not the time to be putting in place this curriculum.”
LaGrange met with Edmonton Public Schools this month, Nicole Sparrow, LaGrange’s press secretary, said in an email. Sparrow said the group providing advice on how to put the curriculum in place hasn’t been finalized.
“We are committed to continue working collaboratively with all education stakeholders to ensure Alberta’s students receive the world class education they deserve,” she said.
“(LaGrange) has firmly committed to having teachers on the (curriculum implementation advisory) group as well as system leaders from the public education system.”
Aside from the curriculum battle, the board at Edmonton Public Schools was also dismayed when nothing on its capital project wish list was funded this year.
“Which, quite frankly, is tough for growing school divisions such as Edmonton Public Schools … I guess we remain optimistic that the province will invest in our capital plan for this year,” Estabrooks said.
“Even though we’ve just opened up a brand new high school, a number of our high schools remain at or above capacity.”
Sparrow said the needs of all of Alberta’s 63 school boards must be considered in the budget. She said the government invested $1 billion in educational capital projects this year and that 31 Edmonton Public Schools projects were funded over the last decade.
Four new public schools opened in Edmonton in 2021 and Joey Moss (Keswick) K-9 School is slated to open next year.
Despite being in a second year of a global pandemic, students had more continuity and spent more time learning in-person this year, which was needed, said Estabrooks.
“I think about the early days of the pandemic and how the communities that I represent just felt this sense of mourning …and then we emerged from that, and we figured out new (strategies),” she said.
Estabrooks also thinks there’s a renewed appreciation for public schools as community hubs and for teachers, especially when students were learning online.
“So many parents were like ‘What? Wow! Look at what teachers do.’ All of a sudden your child is home learning right beside you (and) you see the challenges, you see how hard it is. So I think that our gratitude for staff in our schools is enormous.”
Anti-racism, police in schools
Using an anti-racism and equity lens is one item Estabrooks says the newly-elected school board will be working on next year.
“It really falls to this next board of trustees to ensure the accountability piece around that policy, to ensure that the policy isn’t just words on a few pages of paper.”
The policy was recently put to the test by advocates lobbying for students to get four days off for some religious and cultural holidays. One was approved.
Estabrooks said the board has more work to do on the issue and consultations about these holidays are ongoing.
There’s only so much the board can do without other levels of government, Estabrooks said. According to Sparrow, school boards have the authority to set their own instructional calendars.
Also next year, Estabrooks expects the review of the school resource officer (SRO) program will be complete.
The board voted to review SROs last year and superintendent Darrel Robertson later paused it.
Critics of the SRO program say poor and racialized children are often targeted for discipline, then funneled into the criminal justice system, while police have said it has a crucial public safety role.
Edmonton Catholic Schools (ECS)’ SRO program is still in place and under review.
Sandra Palazzo, ECS board chairwoman, declined multiple requests for a year-end interview with Postmedia.