Private Schools Aren't The Only Place For Diverse Education In B.C.

08/15/2014 04:30 EDT | Updated 10/15/2014 05:59 EDT
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc via Getty Images

With all the strike blogging that I've been doing lately, readers sometimes accuse me of being biased. Well, as much as you can accuse someone of something that they're not trying to hide. It's more just a statement of fact. Yes, my strike posts are biased. But maybe not for the reasons that you think.

I'm not biased because I'm a teacher.

I'm biased because I support public education. And I always have.

I have friends who went to pretty exclusive private schools. These friends and I met toward the end of Grade 12 and, if polled, I'm sure that they would remember 17-year-old me engaging them in debates over private vs. public education. And Surrey vs. White Rock, and classic rock vs. heavy metal, and... well, keeping my mouth shut has never been a priority for me.

But that's the key here. I've always backed things that I believe in. And, as a student in B.C.'s public schools, I believed in them. Even though I had no desire to ever become a teacher.

I knew that I was getting a solid academic education, and that I had social and emotional growth opportunities that can only come from throwing a bunch of random people together and asking them to get along. And my friends' arguments that they were attending schools with unique programs that didn't just treat them like a now clichéd (but still musically awesome) brick in the wall?

Well, that argument never worked on me. Because I'd attended five of B.C.'s public schools. And they were all choice programs. You know, unique programs. Schools within the public education system that provided me with experiences and opportunities that people often think are relegated to the private system.

But here's the thing: they're not.

So, yes, I'm biased about public education. But that's because I had an amazing one. And, in the spirit of trying to show just what kinds of opportunities public education can provide, let's see just what made me support public education in B.C. like I do:

1. Hjorth Road Elementary and Riverdale Elementary

Oui, je parle français. Et j'ai appris le français quand j'étais une enfant à Surrey.

I can say that and a bunch of other stuff thanks to my mom camping out overnight in a covered play area in order to secure registration in Early French Immersion. I hear they do a raffle for the limited spaces these days, which is a bit more humane.

But yes. I learned French in Surrey. It's a fact that often blows my students' minds. Sure, I continued my studies in university and spent a summer in France and all that jazz, but B.C.'s public schools are really where I became bilingual.

Early language acquisition has a whole slew of positives attached to it, but let's ignore that for the time being. Let's talk about the fact this program is even an option in our public schools.

In French Immersion, the same basic B.C. curriculum is followed. It's pretty much the same as any typical English school (at the elementary level), but everything is in French. So, students learn all the same math, science, and social studies etc. stuff as their peers in English classes. But they do it all in French.

And other than having trouble training myself that I needed to write "blue" rather than "bleu" when I transferred to English school, I can only count positives coming from my time in French Immersion. But I was only in French Immersion until the end of Grade Four, when I transferred to...

2. Discovery Elementary

No desks. Sitting in a circle on the floor. Not wearing shoes in class. Using lapboards. Non-competitive atmosphere. Evaluation Days (student-led conferences) instead of report cards. Discussion-based conflict resolution over punishment. School-wide pumpkin carving (with parents) at Halloween. No bells to signal...anything.

A yearly family picnic instead of sports day. School-wide themes to which all curriculum was tied. Encouraged cross-grade interaction. Showing learning in creative ways. Self-direction and independent learning. Goal setting and reflection.

Basically, Discovery was the complete antithesis of what most people consider to be a public school. But it was one. And a bunch of us came from outside of catchment to attend.

Now, Discovery Elementary itself has ceased to be. It was closed a couple of years ago due to a drop in enrollment, which is a little confusing to me since it's exactly the kind of program that many independent schools push. But fear not! The program itself lives on within another Surrey elementary school.

3. Inter-A (Integrated Academics)

Like its name suggests, Inter-A is about integration -- of curriculum, of students, and of school/life. Most core academic classes are grade specific (at least they were when I was there), but not electives.

Grade levels are mixed together, allowing for leadership opportunities and community building. Students have a lot of choice with regard to what they want to study. Self-direction and inquisitiveness are encouraged. The teachers handle multiple subjects, so you get to build relationships with them as people since you see them all the time.

Inter-A supports experiential learning -- that is, actually doing, not just studying -- and project-based learning and assessment. I mean, I only had one final exam in Grade 8. And it was a group exam. But the task? Determine which industry should be B.C.'s focus for a sustainable and profitable future economy.

We were expected to incorporate all the skills we'd learned in all the different subjects throughout the year. And we were challenged on our ideas, sent back to our groups, made to think critically about the impacts of our proposals and clarify, revise, or try again.

Looking back on it, I almost regret leaving after only one year. But I don't. Because although Inter-A is a choice program, it wasn't my choice. So I left.

4. Johnston Heights Secondary

In general, Johnston Heights is a typical high school. It has bells, and structured schedules, and competition, and everything that most people associate with a high school.

But to me, it's still a choice program. Because I could have gone to a different school. I could have attended an alternative program within the public school system. But I didn't want to.

I wanted to go to a mainstream school. I needed a little more structure than Inter-A provided. I went from being a mediocre Grade 8 student to excelling in most of my classes. Because my choice of a mainstream program was right for me.

So, I attended five schools and sampled four totally different ways to learn. All without ever going to a private school.

And that's just my experience. I have friends who attended Fine Arts schools. Or International Baccalaureate. Or Montessori school. Or traditional school. Or Late French Immersion. All in public schools.

I've taught co-op classes within mainstream high schools. I've seen integrated curriculum programs piloted at mainstream high schools. I've brought all of my choice program experiences to my own classes, no matter which subject I'm teaching in my mainstream school.

And with those experiences comes my bias that public school is a fantastic thing. Because I had a diverse and fulfilling education. And I never had to consider private school in order to get it.

So, I could not agree more fully that choice in education is wonderful, and that parents and students should be able to attend a program that's the right fit for their educational needs. But I will never agree that choice means private schools. Because, in my experience, it doesn't.


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