By David Thomas, Director of Education and Secretary to the Board for the Upper Canada District School Board
The Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) aims to attain a 90% graduation rate by the year 2020, which would be the highest in North America. Speaking at the EQAO conference in Toronto, David Thomas outlined some of the strategies the board is using to move forward on its journey to excellence and the critical role that data play in this process.
Mr. Thomas noted that in 2004 the board launched a 15-year strategic plan to charter a course to improvement. The board organized the multiple goals in its plan by themes: Communications, Resources, Educational Programs and Wellness (CREW). In essence, the UCDSB’s overarching objectives are to strengthen communications with students, parents and staff, to ensure that its schools have equal access to resources, to enhance its world-class educational programs and to promote the health and wellness of its students, staff and community.
After a recent 1,000-day review of the plan confirmed numerous advances in every area (including increases in graduation rates and provincial EQAO scores), the board determined it will stay the course and continue to implement the vision encompassed by CREW. The use of data is helping to inform, improve and inspire the board along the way, said Mr. Thomas.
The board’s goal of a 90% graduation rate by 2020 is supported by several top CREW goals and projects. These include the full implementation of the Michelangelo Project, which supports vulnerable students, takes leadership in small high schools, promotes character development programs and extends the board’s wellness program.
Mr. Thomas noted that each of these goals uses data as an awareness tool to prompt a greater sense of urgency to action. However, he emphasized that his board is careful to make the distinction between urgency and panic. “What worries me,” he noted, “is sometimes we tend to look at data and instead of saying, ‘What can we learn from this?’ we panic. Panic makes for poor decision making.”
Mr. Thomas explained that while many assume that every child entering junior kindergarten will graduate 14 years later with a diploma, the reality is that school boards across the province have an average graduation rate of 73%. He admitted that a 90% graduation rate is ambitious and to date has not been achieved by any board of education. However, the UCDSB has determined that its initiatives which include credit-recovery programs, new opportunities in co-operative education as well as programs that look after the whole student, such as the Michelangelo Project, are gradually helping to reach its goal for 2020.
“With our goal of a 90% graduation rate in mind, I look at the cohort in kindergarten differently now,” said Mr. Thomas. “It’s compelling to look at the class of children and say, ‘We’re going to get all of you across the line’; and that, of course, inspires the question, ‘How are we going to make good use of data, knowledge and intelligence to help you?’”
The Michelangelo Project is a UCDSB initiative designed to help students in crisis succeed in school.
After creating a masterpiece from a piece of marble that every other artist in Italy rejected, Michelangelo pronounced that in every piece of marble there is a beautiful statue waiting to come out. “We believe the same goes for every child,” said Mr. Thomas.
This is the philosophy that characterizes the UCDSB Michelangelo Project that, Mr. Thomas said, is an example of how data and information can contribute to making a difference in the lives of students. In the school board office, there is a Michelangelo Wall that provides a column for each of the 100 schools in the board. Under their school’s name, principals record the first name of any student who is suffering from great personal or family stress.
These students are then tracked through such tools as the board’s Dashboard Metric system, which allows administrators and teachers to access both large-scale and individual student information. The intention of the monitoring is to determine and assess strategies to ensure that these vulnerable students don’t fall dangerously behind in their learning. Support may include everything from simply delaying an exam during a time of personal crisis to offering psychosocial help.
“It’s a very powerful act for a principal to write down a child’s name on our Michelangelo Wall and say, ‘This is what we will do to get this student across the line so they get a high school diploma,’” said Mr. Thomas. “When I meet with a principal, one of the first things I do is ask how a particular student is doing. It’s wonderful to see a principal erase a name from the board and say, ‘We think we have this student on the right track.’ Now, it may be that the student’s name has to be put back on the board again in the future, but the commitment is always there to help get every child across the line.”
Mr. Thomas shared the story of a student named Austin as yet another example of how his board recognizes that data ultimately inspires leaders to become aware of and accountable to the individuals in its system. In Grade 3, Austin was at Level 3 in reading and writing, and at level 4 in math. By Grade 6, he had slipped to Level 2 in all three areas. “That told us something was happening,” said Mr. Thomas. “So we dug deeper and took a look at various sources of data. We saw an alarming change in absenteeism patterns from the primary years to the junior years. His Ontario Student Record showed four moves, with two in Grade 4. And then we looked at attitudinal information.” In Grade 3, Austin reported that sometimes he was a good reader and sometimes he liked to read. In Grade 6, he reported that he was not a good reader and he didn’t like to read. In both Grades 3 and 6, he reported that at home, he did not read by himself or with an older person.
The professional opinion of Austin’s teacher was that he was very capable. In reviewing the case, Mr. Thomas summed up, “Teacher-driven assessment determines this student can do it. He comes from a home that perhaps doesn’t value or have the same love for literature that we would like him to have. And we see his absences have a profound impact and have increased as he has moved through the school system. So how can we use this information and data to inspire us?” Being accountable to Austin prompts such possible strategies as an in-school adult mentor, an independent education plan, meetings with his family and caregivers and connecting with community supports on his behalf.
The board is using data and information to become a leader in North America’s small high schools. With 23 small high schools in its jurisdiction, its objective is to ensure they are the best they can be by sharing these practices. To that end, the board has been holding a series of three-day small high school summits that bring together educators from across Eastern Ontario to celebrate successes and discuss improvements.
The school board has created common templates for school-success planning, which are accessible online to principals to encourage the sharing of ideas. “We’re moving away from the isolation of the principal in the school to the interdependence of a collaborative culture,” said Mr. Thomas. “We must get away from our schools and our classrooms as being the most private act,” said Mr. Thomas. “We have to knock the walls down and have people talk about successful practices as they move through.”
Collaboration, said Mr. Thomas, is one of three areas of emphasis for the board. The other is innovation, which Mr. Thomas said can take many forms, including an idea that is shared. The third, but equally important factor for the board is accountability “to parents, students, to each other and to the future,” said Mr. Thomas. “The moment you say you are using data to inform us, to become aware, you automatically become authentic,” added Mr. Thomas. This authenticity leads to attunement, he continued: “In a system that embraces data, we don’t use it to judge, but in a trustful way to ask ‘How can this inspire our performance at the next level?’”
“Another thing we did to inspire our system using data was to look at the scores of six of the highest-performing boards in North America,” said Mr. Thomas. He noted a key lesson was that each of these boards of education emphasized a character development program not just for students, but for the adults in its schools. The UCDSB has since adopted a program that took 1.5 years to develop in consultation with educators, parents, administrators, community leaders and students and encourages adults to model the character traits of caring, empathy, respect and resilience for their students. “I think our character education programming has had the single greatest impact on our board,” noted Mr. Thomas.
Last year, the board sent teams to visit 10 of its highest-performing schools to learn and share best practices with other schools. Mr. Thomas noted that the findings (summarized in the sidebar to this article) made clear the value of positive adult relationships within the school and the powerful results that occur when adults create and demonstrate a caring and respectful environment.
The UCDSB has created a systematic approach to problem-solving using a shared language and professional development, offering workshops in crucial conversation for leaders to strengthen skills in addressing controversial and emotionally charged issues safely, respectfully and nonjudgmentally.
The board’s goal of creating an optimally healthy workplace to facilitate staff and student focus on excellence has led to the launch of its Wellness and Work Life Balance Project. Staff members coordinating the project are analyzing baseline data related to demographics, WSIB statistics, absenteeism and long-term disability to gauge how healthy the workplace is. Staff from human resources will then design a program to improve employee wellness in diverse categories—mental, ergonomic, cardiovascular, metabolic, dependence issues and financial.
The emphasis on wellness is also intended to address the issue of child obesity, with the view that a fit and healthy child is better able to learn. All schools in the system are looking to measure the impact of their daily physical and health education programs.
Mr. Thomas believes that data as a means to help tell a story are an invaluable tool for the UCSDB. But he urged that the use of data must be paired with clarity of purpose and trustworthy sources. To make his point, he shared a cartoon that portrays two astronomers looking to the sky. One, peering through his telescope, exclaims excitedly, “I think I’ve discovered the next big black hole.” The other responds, “I think we should take off the lens cap.”