The Montreal Gazette, January 3, 2003
Major reforms empower students at Lester B. Pearson School Board
By Warren Perley
It’s sure not business as usual when the head honcho of a public organization with close to a $200-million annual operating budget has advisers who aren’t old enough to vote in an election.
But that’s exactly what’s happening at the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) these days, and it’s creating a torrent of excitement and optimism among educators, parents and businessmen in board communities stretching from LaSalle and Verdun to the Ontario border.
This is the educational-sector equivalent of Jacksonian Democracy, that 19th century American reform movement which opened the door to universal suffrage and allowed the common man access to decision-making.
In this case, Lester B. Pearson, led by Leo La France, its dynamic director-general, has opened the door of its boardroom to students as part of a wide-ranging, 12-year reform plan undertaken last March. Some 65 stakeholders – teachers, administrators, parents, businesspeople, social workers and other professionals – met for 2 1/2 days between last March 21 and March 23 in what is called a Future Search Conference.
The purpose of the conference was to mobilize communities served by the Lester B. Pearson School Board to help define the best way to prepare its 28,000-plus students with the skills they will need in the 21st century. The changes being contemplated cover a 12-year period – from the time a student enters kindergarten through his or her high-school graduation.
One of the first concrete results of the meeting was to create a central students’ committee and invite them to join the board’s 23-member Council of Commissioners as an official consultative group. The council, made up of educators, administrators and parents, is the body which acts as the board of directors, voting on all issues from curriculum to budgets.
As I sit in the boardroom this day, a few weeks prior to Christmas, waiting to meet with three of the 14 students who make up the central students’ committee – Christopher Deslauriers and Nadia Sevo, both 16, and Hannah Quinn, 12 – I wonder how they view their newfound roles.
The first thing that strikes me as they enter the room with director-general Leo La France is their complete sense of ease. After all, they’re rubbing shoulders with the Big Cheese, the Top Dog. But they’re not at all in awe. They’re smiling and ribbing each other. The second thing that strikes me is that La France looks like he’s at recess, laughing and joking with the students.
I’m a bit shocked because in my day students didn’t dare think about having social contact with the school principal, let alone the director-general of the entire school board. And principals rarely smiled and seemingly never laughed in public.
But, as I am to find out in an interview with him a little later, La France is a different breed of educator and executive. He’s one cool dude, a team player who likes to keep his staff focused but loose. After all, how many CEOs do you know who can pull off a Christmas party guitar-in-hand impersonation of Elvis, replete with splits?
As we begin to speak, it becomes apparent that Christopher, Nadia and Hannah are mature beyond their ages. They talk about the sense of responsibility that they feel in representing their fellow students on the Central Students’ Committee, which meets once a month – usually on a Saturday.Students lead the way
Hannah is a slight, vibrant Grade 7 student at St. Thomas High who plans to be a journalist, a lawyer and a politician before moving into the prime minister’s residence on Sussex Drive. She looks like she was sprinkled with pixie dust as she talks animatedly about how “neat” and “amazing” it is to find herself in an advisory capacity to the board at the tender age of 12.
“I come to meetings with ideas on how to make high school work better for the students,” she said. “One of the ideas I have is to set aside one day a week where students will engage only in social activities – sports, debates and clubs.”
Christopher, a Grade 11 student at Hudson High School, says he “can find no words for it” when asked how he feels to have direct input into board decisions. “It’s a big responsibility,” he said.
One of his pet peeves is the disarray some students leave the public washrooms in after using them. He sees it as an issue of respect – flushing toilets, throwing used towels in the waste bin. “I want to address the issue of lack of respect among students towards each other and towards teachers.”
A Grade 11 student at Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School, Nadia says she is “thrilled that we (students) have become a full educational partner and that the school board has been so supportive.”
“By getting involved, we can make it better for all the children in the community,” she said. “My goal for this year is to create more networking among high schools, including interscholastic activities which bring students together.”
All three agree that students should be given courses on respect and self-esteem in an effort to deal with the issue of bullying which is a problem at some schools. In fact, among the new initiatives announced on Oct. 29 by the LBPSB was the creation of a new board-wide, anti-bullying program at a cost of $100,000.
La France, who took over as director-general in February 2002, sees the major changes which are occurring as part of the coalescence of the LBPSB into one cohesive organization since it was formed in 1998 from the English sectors of six separate school boards – the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, Lakeshore, Baldwin Cartier, Sault St. Louis, Trois Lacs and Verdun.
The first few years of the LBPSB involved trying to merge the physical and human resources of the six school boards – buildings were sold, schools were closed or amalgamated, educators and students were transferred to new jurisdictions. There was no time for long-term planning.
And, of course, as is the case with mergers in any field, there was the challenge of melding corporate cultures – in this case, those of six different school boards. If there is one attribute which is readily apparent about La France, it is his ability to make people – adults and children – feel comfortable. He is the ultimate team player.
“Education is about relationships,” he said in a recent interview. “If you have trust, you can solve anything. If you try to place blame, you end up in a reactive mode. We need partnerships, not opposition.”Thumbnail sketches of three student advisers to Lester B. Pearson’s Council of Commissioners
- School: Hudson High School
- Age: 16
- Grade: 11
- Hobbies: Reading, drawing, writing, kayaking
- Favourite subjects: Art, English literature
- Worst subject: Mathematics
- Favourite thing about school: The happy people in my school
- Dislikes about school: The bathrooms
- School: Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School
- Age: 16
- Grade: 11
- Hobbies: Reading, soccer, dancing
- Favourite subjects: History, morals
- Worst subject: French
- Favourite thing about school: School spirit
- Dislikes about school: Cliques
- School: St. Thomas High School
- Age: 12
- Grade: 7
- Hobbies: Figure skating, horseback riding, singing
- Favourite subjects: Mathematics, music
- Worst subject: French
- Favourite thing about school: I like learning and the sports teams.
- Dislikes about school: Sissy cheerleaders
Debate without anger
The flawlessly bilingual La France, whose mother was Irish and whose father was French-Canadian, knows how to bridge language and cultural gaps. He encourages complete honesty and outspokenness at meetings that he chairs. But when the verbal sparring has abated, he encourages participants to socialize and leave the room as friends. A bit of humour and a lot of respect can go a long way.
“We’re moving towards building an atmosphere of trust in the school board,” says the former teacher and elementary school principal who was educated at Concordia and McGill. “We need debate without anger.”
One of the major initiatives under his watch has been to turn the board’s attention to long-term planning as envisaged at the Future Search Conference last spring. There were a number of action groups set up as a result of that conference which are to make recommendations to the LBPSB in 2003 and 2004 concerning ways to improve the classroom environment.
Among the businessmen who attended the conference and who are involved in the action groups is George Nydam, industrial commissioner for the West Island.
“The Future Search Conference was an extremely interesting, innovative and courageous exercise by the school board,” Nydam said in a telephone interview. “I was fascinated by the process and I was impressed with the commitment of the participants.”
Nydam is part of a 15-member action group recommending ways to encourage the business community to get more involved in supporting schools. Among the suggestions being made by his group:
- A database is to be set up which will let teachers know what business resources are available in any given community with a view to allowing them to call on those resources to try to make their lessons “more diverse and interesting.” For example, certain business experts might be invited into schools to address students, or tours could be set up of various plants to give students an inside view of the industry in question.
- Starting early in 2003, a few science teachers will be invited to visit plants, such as those in the pharmaceutical field, with a view to learning how subjects that they teach, such as organic chemistry or kinetics, are used in the industry. They will then be able to explain to their students the relevance of what they are being taught.
Louise Hamelin, director-general of the West Island of Montreal Chamber of Commerce, says that the Future Search Conference – which she attended – was another step in the commitment of local businesspeople to support the educational process.
Her organization is already committed to granting 45 scholarships of $1,000 each annually to graduating students in three school boards, including the LBPSB. The scholarships, which help defray CÉGEP costs, are awarded by the presidents of participating companies in ceremonies which involve the students, she said in a recent telephone interview.
How does she feel about the first major initiative of the Future Search Conference to put students directly in touch with the Council of Commissioners of the LBPSB?
“I like the idea of empowering students,” she said. “They have concerns, and we have to listen to them. It’s a great way to know what the young feel and how to improve the system. It gives the students a feeling of belonging. It allows students to understand the policy process, how decisions are reached.”
LBPSB chairman Marcus Tabachnick is another fervent believer in the positive energy that has flowed from the Future Search Conference.
“Future Search is a people project,” Tabachnick said in a telephone interview. “It encourages participants to come to their own conclusions as to new directions.”
The Future Search network is an American-based collaboration of hundreds of dedicated volunteers worldwide who for close to 50 years have been providing Future Search Conferences as a public service to communities, non-governmental organizations, and other non-profit groups for whatever people can afford to pay.
Their mission, as stated on their Web site, is to help communities everywhere become more open, supportive, equitable and sustainable. They also work with for-profit organizations which share these values, charging standard fees.
There have been Future Search Conferences worldwide on social issues such as economic development, school-based management, health-care systems integration, renewal of religious congregations, sustainability programs, youth and family projects, land use and water resource planning, technology management, community planning and hundreds of related purposes.
The conference itself is always held over 2 1/2 days and is divided into five tasks:
- Establish a common history – participants draw time lines on big sheets of wallpaper.
- Produce a map of world trends which illustrates the confusion and complexities of people’s living conditions.
- Assess accomplishments which participants are proud of and actions which they regret, which helps everyone to understand each other’s motives.
- Devise ideal future scenarios and discuss what role each participant could play in bringing them to life.
- Sign up to work together in action groups to bring the over-all plan to fruition.
At the end of the conference last March, the stakeholders who attended realized that they have the collective experience, knowledge and decision-making power to implement new policies – a true grass-roots educational initiative which delights Tabachnick.
One of the major areas being studied as a result of the conference is new ways to make the relationship among educators, students and businesspeople even tighter.
“That relationship is not just about money and marketing,” Tabachnick said. “ We don’t believe in crass commercialism and holding our students hostage to advertising. It’s about relationships and educational opportunities.”
The LBPSB already has a solid foundation upon which to build with businesses – student apprenticeships and mentoring programs. But there is more work to be done.
“We have to understand industries’ needs and prepare students well to meet the challenges,” Tabachnick said.
The role of technology in education was another major area of focus at the conference – issues such as fibre-optic networks to link schools, wireless portals and video-conferencing capabilities, the creation of digital portfolios to hold students’ homework so that parents can monitor their children’s progress at school via the Internet.
Currently, all 2,000 teachers in the school board have an E-mail address. Tabachnick says the objective is to expand the capacity of the system servers to provide all students – up to 35,000 of them – with an E-mail address.
There is no mistaking the excitement in his voice when Tabachnick talks about the role of students such as Christopher, Nadia and Hannah in helping educators formulate future directions for the school.
“Those children are so impressive,” he says of his three youngest board members. “The breadth and scope of their knowledge, experience and commitment just blows you away.”Leo the leader
And, of course, like every ambitious project ever undertaken in the history of the world, a leader is required. Tabachnick leaves no doubt that director-general Leo La France is just that man for the Lester B. Pearson School Board.
“Leo is like the CEO of our school board,” Tabachnick said. “Don’t be fooled by his laid-back demeanour, he’s tough. But he’s patient and has special people skills. He’s a terrific leader.”
If you want to gauge how focused and tough he really is, you should know that Leo ran his first marathon two years ago at age 50, despite the fact that he has a work schedule that starts just after daybreak and often goes late into the evenings.
Some nights, he would arrive home after midnight, slip into his jogging pants and running shoes and start pounding the pavement for his requisite daily training sessions which began eight months prior to marathon day.
The competitive drive to be the best that he could be was apparent even as a child. He was the kid who grew up wanting to play professional hockey – to follow in the ice ruts of his idols, Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau.
He can commiserate with underachieving students. At one time, he was one of them. He was a nonconformist with a short attention span in class, verging on behavioural deviance.
He was one of those kids who needed special attention – either the proverbial kick in the pants or a pat on the head, depending on his mood swing. Luckily, he had some teachers, such as his high-school gym instructor, Mr. Saad, an Olympic medalist, who knew how to push his buttons and get him on the right track.
To this day, he considers working with troubled children to be a major priority within the school system. Children – many from single-family homes – are growing up faster these days, bombarded by media images and with too few adult mentors willing or able to help them establish a system of strong moral values.
“Teachers are being asked to be instructors, guidance counselors and disciplinarians,” he said in an interview. “We have to figure out how to reduce the administrative demands and workload of the teachers so that they can concentrate on taking care of the students.”Teachers deserve respect
One of his priorities is to raise the respect level for teachers and school support staff, the way it was in the 1950s and 1960s when the school system was seen as an indispensable adjunct to parental authority.
The 12-year development plan undertaken at the Future Search Conference is aimed at putting the focus on student learning and success beyond the classroom, he says.
“We don’t want to emphasize exam results. We want to provide students with life skills. We need to make changes to structures, attitudes and behaviour.”
Don Taylor, LBPSB’s assistant director-general, says the school board has made enormous strides under the leadership of La France and his predecessor, Catherine Prokosh.
“I keep pinching myself at what we’ve accomplished in the last four years,” Taylor said in an interview. “We’ve brought together six different school boards under the banner of Lester B. Pearson and in a short time have come together as a cohesive organization.
“Now that the nuts’n’bolts are in place, one of our priorities is to build stronger ties with school personnel,” he said.
To accomplish that goal, a new program is beginning this month to have head office administrative personnel visit various schools to help out teachers and administrative staff. For example, they might answer phones or read stories to children in class. The idea is to build a cohesive team.
An extensive orientation program for new teachers, with an annual budget of $75,000, was announced last Oct. 29.
As part of the effort to let teachers and other school personnel know how much they are valued, La France, Taylor and Bob Mills, the other assistant director-general, are in the process of making weekly visits to every LBPSB school.
As well, Mills says he arranges for one of the schools to make a presentation as an example of an accomplishment prior to each board meeting.
“This is to show our commissioners what activities the schools are engaged in,” Mills said in an interview. “It might be dancing, singing, orchestral music, technology or work from a classroom.”
Mills worked closely with the Central Parents’ Committee, which introduced a “Volunteer of the Year” award to recognize the contributions of parents who donate their time in the schools or at the board level.
As board chairman Marcus Tabachnick is wont to summarize: “Lots of good things are happening in the school board. …We’re making big decisions every month and the focus is always the long-term well-being of our students. The public school system serves learners of all ages very well.”
Warren Perley, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a marketing and graphic design studio (www.ponctuation.com).