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Building momentum for meaningful learning: Board approves $82.9 million budget

A robust consultation process: diverse perspectives, better decisions.

May 6, 2019 – The New Westminster Schools Board of Education last week approved an $82.9 million budget for the 2019-2020 school year – ensuring a growing foundation of innovative and effective initiatives in support of student learning.

It’s a balanced and sustainable budget that also, for the first time in the school district’s history, incorporates a robust consultation with parents, students, staff and the broader community.

“There is lots to celebrate in this budget,” Board Chair Mark Gifford said last week as he congratulated district management and staff for the “yeoman’s efforts to bring this forward in a way that hasn’t been seen in this district in…forever, if not a very long time.”

The budget consultation process was launched in January when the entire community was invited to participate in a dynamic and interactive online forum. Nearly 1,300 people shared more than 1,560 ideas and insights about education in the district.

The process also created new space for students to voice their own hopes and aspirations for their education  – through a student symposium, in student surveys, as well as during an evening of ‘talking tables’ with parents, teachers, staff, union representatives, and trustees.

Teacher Stacy Brine and student leaders from New Westminster Secondary School explained their role to trustees at a recent education committee meeting

Student feedback, for instance, indicated a need for more critical thinking skills in learning, a more welcoming school culture, and more support through counselling services and mental health initiatives.

Teachers, for their part, raised concerns about an endemic lack of resources in the classroom, while many parents wanted to see better home-school communication about student learning.

“The redesigned curriculum is all about inquiry –  and we need resources to support that work,” New Westminster Teachers Union vice-president Sarah Wethered told trustees in early April.

She noted that NWTU members had been surveyed in the fall about what they needed in their classrooms, in their schools and in staffing in order to do their jobs better.  They identified resources from chromebooks to textbooks, and from art supplies to resources for applied design, skills, and technologies, as a key issue.

NWTU president Eric Young noted that chronic staffing shortages for teachers and teachers-on-call continue to plague school districts throughout the province. While he applauded the work of the New Westminster Schools human resources department and the positive relationship between the NWTU and the district, he said the issue remains “a challenge.”

For CUPE 409 members, the concern to increase hours of work and incorporate more training for Education Assistants has been a consistent issue, President Marcel Marsolais told trustees in early April.  He echoed the call from the NWTU that EA support in the classroom is critical for both students and teachers.

“That’s something we hear day in and day out,” Marsolais said.

A direct response…

Eric Young, President of the New Westminster Teachers Union, participates in a “Talking Table” session for parents, students, teachers, staff and trustees.

Many of the initiatives supported in the $82.9 million budget – approved on April 30, 2019 –  are a direct response to the shared ideas for improving service, and are “a demonstration of our commitment to our students,” Secretary-Treasurer Kim Morris told trustees.

“We are making a sustainable investment that is focused and productive, and grounded in our district’s vision, mission and values.”

She noted the budget has been developed at a time of constructive labour/management relations in the district as collective bargaining continues through to the end of June  and as staffing levels at New Westminster Schools are either status quo or increasing.

The budget also helps chart a course for the future.

“We are currently in the midst of developing a Five-Year Strategic Plan – a first for the district – and we view this budget as playing a foundational role that will provide both momentum and continuity as we move forward,” said Hachlaf. “A strategic plan lets us look beyond annual budget planning to develop a multi-year approach based on the good work now unfolding.”

Making a Difference…

The 2019-2020 budget is based on government per-student allocation formulas and projected student enrolment increases.  At New Westminster Schools, the student population is projected to increase by about 170 students, to 6,760 students in September 2019 compared to 6,589 in 2018.  About 90% of the school district’s total operating budget is directed to fixed salary and benefit expenses.

While there is limited flexibility in discretionary spending, Hachlaf said a complete district-wide, in-depth review of all school, district and facilities budgets this year helped determine where funds could best be directed to ensure a sustainable budget for the future.

“This is not a roll-over budget where we simply updated figures over last year’s numbers,” said Hachlaf.

Many of the key educational initiatives launched last year through the use of $1.2 million in unrestricted surplus funds are clearly making a difference, not only in student achievement but in students’ social and emotional well-being.

Those are now incorporated in the 2019-2020 operational budget as long-term commitments of more than $650,000.

That means additional curriculum resources, professional collaboration initiatives, and capacity-building for educators  as they implement the redesigned curriculum – along with a suite of supports for caring, positive and compassionate relationships in our schools.

It means addressing key gaps in student learning achievement identified by standardized provincial student learning assessment processes, including foundation skills assessments of Grade 4 and 7 reading, writing and numeracy skills, as well as graduation completion rates.

It also means robust support for technology in learning.

Community Schools Co-ordinator Rick Bloudell and a student chef shared an evening at a school/police “cooking with cops” event as the district prepared to launch its universal school lunch program in 2019.

“We are no longer dependent on a surplus to fund these important programs.  Our Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity commitments, for instance, are not a one-time support but are now built into our staffing. That’s a good news story,” said Hachlaf.

“Our student voice initiatives are now a part of our ongoing commitment.”

“Our groundbreaking universal school lunch pilot program, launched this year, is also sustainably funded.  We will gauge the costs as we continue the implementation process.

“And our teacher coach initiative was so successful, it’s now an annual part of our staffing budget. We are committed,” Hachlaf said.

Good news budget highlighted in the details…

Teacher-coach Laurie Wong is part of an initiative inspiring teacher collaboration across the district. She is pictured with teacher Kelly Cannon at Connaught Heights elementary school.

Specific examples of initiatives supported by the 2019-2020 budget include:

 

Tools to strengthen personalized learning and student engagement.

  • The district’s Discovery Education licences are providing student access to state-of-the-art digital textbooks and multi-media resources designed for kindergarten to grade 12 learning. Teachers have had training in using the resource as it is increasingly incorporated in teaching and learning throughout the district.
  • Students with diverse abilities and learning styles are increasingly supported in literacy skills through tools like Google Read and Write technology, which helps students engage with documents, webpages and other files in ways that suit individual needs. Learners can use text-to-speech to hear words and sentences; they can access text and picture dictionaries that help explain the meaning of words; and they can use word prediction to enhance their vocabularies.

Closing gaps in student achievement in literacy and numeracy; supporting Aboriginal student success

  • The budget continues to provide a growing suite of relevant and appropriate  literacy and numeracy resources – such as leveled readers to meet varied student needs, math manipulatives supporting hands-on learning, and “Mathletics” – an online, interactive math learning space.
  • Additional literacy and numeracy assessment tools are being incorporated to identify at-risk students.
  • The Aboriginal Education staff at New Westminster Schools provide a variety of academic and cultural programming supports to Aboriginal students.

    The budget funds an Aboriginal student graduation and transitions coach, who provides vital support during phases of the educational process that can be particularly challenging for vulnerable students. This work will unfold in the context of a recognized need across the district for a whole-population approach to Reconciliation that challenges how we educate and learn, and that embeds First Peoples Principles of Learning across the spectrum from kindergarten to grade 12.

Enhancing support for Education Assistants.

  • New Westminster Schools is undertaking a full-scale, $50,000 Comprehensive Special Education review in 2019-2020,  a new initiative that will examine training, quality of services, evaluation and relationships to better support students.
  • The district recognizes the need for flexibility as it continues to address a wide range of student needs. The 2019-2020 budget supports an increase in EA staffing hours by 25%, as well as a position for a board-certified behavioural analyst who is skilled in trained, individualized student support.
  • In addition, professional development initiatives recently included training for 20 educational assistants in applied behaviour analysis to support their work.

Nurturing and positive relationships.

  • The Board of Education strives to create a school and district culture which supports diversity, including a welcoming learning and working environment for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The 2019-2020 budget provides funding for a staff position in support of SOGI policy in the district.
  • The budget also provides an increase in student counselling support (a .6 FTE position funded through the province’s Community LINK fund for schools), and continues to support a major district-wide approach to improving mental health literacy for staff, students and parents.
  • The ground-breaking universal School Nourishment Program, Fuel Up!, was launched at the beginning of 2019 at three schools and will expand in 2019-2020.
  • Support for student empowerment and self-advocacy is now embedded in the 2019-2020 budget.

Collaboration and capacity-building initiatives.

  • New Westminster School’s innovation grants program, now in its third year, has proven extraordinarily successful. It encourages collaborative teams of teachers to explore new ideas, test them and share their findings, and has led to the adoption

    Students explain to trustees how they used coding to develop their own computer game during an education committee meeting in March.

    across schools of new tools and programs that teachers find they can support. For instance, uptake of coding programs, 3-D printers, robotics and other science, technology and engineering tools has increased, and many teachers are now adopting the use of FreshGrade as a way to share progress in student learning with parents. Similarly, the Zones of Regulation program has been adopted in many schools, improving students’ social and emotional learning by helping children to identify their feelings, improve their self-control and consciously regulate their actions. This year, more than 36 teams in the district are involved in ongoing projects.

  • The success of the newly implemented teacher coach program, with 15 teachers across the district providing one-on-one support and building collaborative relationships in schools and district-wide, has been an ‘incredible resource.”  The budget provides $300,000 in support of this initiative, and adds a Teacher Mentor position to provide district support for the team.
  • Resources that strengthen support for the redesigned curriculum are also critical, and the 2019-2020 school year will include an 11% across-the-board increase for individual school budget allocations that target support for related resources and professional development. 

A district-wide role for technology in learning.

  • The budget provides ongoing support for sufficient technology resources and equitable access for students across the district. For instance, chromebook carts are shared among classrooms in each of our schools (there are currently 2,300 chromebooks in the district), while school plans are now identifying how technology will support each school’s  learning goals.
  • Flexible seating options in classrooms are transforming how students engage in learning….

    Technology also plays a growing role in supporting home/school communication, with parents increasingly able to engage in their student’s learning through digital portfolio tools.

  • A district-wide technology refresh plan, with $300,000 geared directly to schools, is in place to ensure devices are kept up-to-date and functional, and plans are developing for both a parent and a staff portal as a one-stop option to access report cards, pay fees, view digital portfolios and more.
  •  As noted, the district continues to leverage technology to reduce learning achievement gaps through tools like Google Read and Write and new tools like Lexia to support literacy.

Changing physical learning environments

  •  Investment in flexible furniture options to replace standard rows of desks and chairs continues with $100,000 in funding support for 2019-2020, and is having a profound impact on teaching and learning.
  • Rocking chairs, book nooks, bean bag chairs, Hokki ‘wobble ‘ stools, and small group tables all empower students to use options that suit their learning styles, and support a range of learning activities – from individualized to group work –  by creating a variety of ‘zones of learning’ within classrooms.

New Westminster Schools prepares to chart a course for the future…

On April 30, the Board of Education also approved a one-time request for an additional $425,595 in funding, allocated from surplus funds of  $3.1 million, to address a number of staff requests. These include:

  • $20,000 for additional custodial equipment identified through a comprehensive “Cleanliness Review’ in the district.
  • $100,000 for earthquake emergency provisions to be located in storage bins installed at each school.
  • $50,000 for a Comprehensive Special Education Review
  • $25,000 for the district’s Strategic Plan development project 

The newly approved budget will leave about $2.7 million in unrestricted surplus, in addition to $500,000 in restricted ‘rainy day’ contingency funds that the board of education has also set aside.

As Hachlaf notes, the fact that a replacement for New Westminster Secondary School is now under construction and will be ready to welcome 30% of the student population when it opens in September 2020, has implications for future spending.

As a replacement school, the assumption is that furniture will be transferred from the current to the new school. Given the age of NWSS and much of the furniture – which librarian and NWTU vice-president Sarah Wethered noted could be as old as 70 years  – the new school will require investments in up-to-date furniture and resources that address flexible classroom arrangements and 21st century learning.

The Board-approved annual budget will be submitted to the Ministry of Education by June 30.

With the 2019-2020 budget in place, New Westminster Schools will finalize the consultation phase of its first-ever Five Year Strategic Plan development process by the end of the school year.

“We are now looking at setting key directions for the future that will anchor us as we address a changing educational landscape in a rapidly growing community,” said Hachlaf.

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