FEATURE SERIES Pt. 1: Exam-ining education in the Sooke School District

Part One: Statistics are more complicated than they first appear

In part 1 of a three-part series examining high school education on the West Shore, we look at provincial performance statistics and the difficulties with using them as indicators of how the system is working as a whole

Earlier this year, the Gazette ran an editorial talking about the graduation rates of students within the Sooke School District (SD62), which covers much of the West Shore of the Capital Region, as well as Sooke.

It was pointed out by people within the system that the numbers cited in that opinion piece, while technically accurate, did not tell the whole story of the state of education in the region – doing so in a 350-word piece about graduation statistics is nearly impossible. We realize that our interpretation may have created a perception amongst the public of a failure on the part of the school district.

“There’s always a story behind the data,” was almost the first thing out of assistant superintendent Dave Betts’ mouth when he sat down to discuss the editorial, entitled “Graduation rates an issue in SD62.”

Citing graduation statistics that were “enough to raise alarm bells in the hallways,” we called on the district to “act quickly to ensure a downward trend doesn’t continue.”

Possibly most alarming was the statistic cited that, “among all students listed as first-time Grade 12s in the Sooke district last year, just 68 per cent graduated in 2014.” That caused an uproar among educators, parents and administrators alike.

Betts acknowledged the figure was accurate, but pointed out that “first-time Grade 12s” by the province’s definition includes anyone who takes a Grade 12 course. He says such a percentage shouldn’t be in the discussion when it comes to graduation rates, because many of those students couldn’t possibly gain enough credits to graduate in that year. Maybe they are Grade 11 students who are ahead in a particular subject and want to get the Grade 12 course in that subject out of the way early, for example.

Maybe they’re Grade 10 students who chose to get the Graduation Transitions course – one of only two required Grade 12 courses needed to graduate with a Dogwood Diploma – out of the way.

“There’s a huge difference between a first-time Grade 12 and a person who is actually eligible to graduate,” Betts said. The second group are students who are actually within striking distance of gaining the requirements to complete their secondary schooling, while that factor isn’t even taken into account for the first group.

Looking at the second group alone, SD62’s “actual eligible grad rate is 83 per cent,” Betts said.

Another factor skewing the numbers downward, he said, is the fact that roughly 25 per cent of the student population are in what he calls “non-traditional” or “alternative” programs. Not surprisingly, the completion rate in those programs is significantly less than in traditional high schools.

At Pacific Secondary, one of the alternative education programs under the SD62 umbrella, 63 students took a Grade 12 course in 2013 – they’d be “first-timers” – but only eight graduated. That’s 13 per cent.

Two out of 41 kids  who were enrolled in a Grade 12 course at Juan de Fuca – another alternative program – got their credential. That’s five per cent.  Similarly, the BITE program graduated 31 per cent of its first-timers.

Most educators would agree these students need more time to be successful. They have different needs from those in traditional systems. They live different lives and struggle with more than just school.

Betts was once the principal of those alternative schools, so he knows the myriad challenges students face when they’re trying to get to graduation.

“Without a high school graduation,” he said, “they don’t have the foundation for a better life. We don’t say to them, you know, ‘You’ve had your five years in the Sooke School District, so see ya later, it’s time to go.’ We give them six, seven, eight years to graduate if they need it.”

Statistically, the schools are “not doing us any favours,” Betts admitted.

“But I know personally that the people who have graduated, what a boost that has been in their life and what an opportunity that provides for them that otherwise wouldn’t exist. In this district we pride ourselves on making sure that we’re providing those opportunities for all of our students.

“We serve our community. These folks are a big part of our community, and I think it’s our obligation –  our duty –  to make sure we’re providing programs for them that are going to enable them to be successful in life.”

So how is the district working towards improving the numbers within the alternative education section, if that’s what’s bringing down the overall totals?

“What we don’t want to do is play games with the numbers,” Betts said. “We could play games with the numbers and not record people who are just enrolled in any Grade 12 class, or we could say ‘you’ve had your time and now you’re out.’ That would be a way to make the numbers go up quickly and would look great on paper. But it’s not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is work with the kids who are not being successful in the current situation …”

That’s where Paul Block comes in.

As the district principal for adult and alternative education for SD62, he’s one of the people driving that change for the better within the system, in an attempt to get those numbers up without “playing games” with them.

“These kids are highly intelligent, incredibly resourceful and very resilient,” Block said. “They just need some guidance and compassion for what they’ve endured and continue to endure.”

They also need to have education presented to them in a different way.

“What I saw when I was working in primary school,” Block said, “was the strength and power of the cohort model, where the same group of kids move through together and build a community.”

He felt this style of learning would translate well for older kids who don’t necessarily learn best in a traditional structure, and presented it as an option to the established model of alternative education.

His model has now been adapted for the region’s alternative education programming, and everyone is not only hopeful, but confident it will benefit those who need it most.

So the numbers are actually better than they might first appear on a spreadsheet. The district is, in fact, keeping pace with overall graduation outcome averages throughout the province as well as taking care of an underserved segment of the population and increasing their ability to do so.

Block, Betts, and the school district as an entity all believe the new model being implemented in the alternative education system will make a huge difference to the overall average outcomes in the district.

There are still gains to be made, however.

Ian Johnson, president of the Sooke Teacher’s Association said, “When you look at the data that’s collected, I think we’re doing as well as anybody. It’s generally agreed by everyone, I think, that under the conditions we are forced to teach in right now, we do a very good job. Could it be better? Absolutely.”

Hear more from Johnson in Part 2 in the series, where we examine the challenge of just straight-up not having enough money.

mdavies@goldstreamgazette.com

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