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B.C. education minister optimistic about negotiated deal with teachers, new curriculum

B.C.’s education minister Rob Fleming says he hopes to have good news to announce soon about the teacher’s contract negotiations.

 Kids in classroom/Shutterstock Kids in classroom/Shutterstock

As Vancouver students head back to the classroom next week, B.C.’s education minister Rob Fleming says he hopes to have good news to announce soon about the teacher’s contract negotiations.

“It’s a positive sign both parties are working with a skilled mediator to try to get us towards a deal,” Fleming said in a wide-ranging interview about the back-to-school season. “We will work together to make sure that we come to a deal.”

A negotiated deal would be a very positive development in a relationship that has been marked by bitterness over decades. With an NDP government now in power, one might expect less of a battle, though the early stages of this negotiation haven’t been smooth.

This year’s $6.6-billion provincial education budget includes 4,000 new teachers hired since the B.C. Teachers’ Federation won back the right to bargain class sizes and other supports in 2016. Some of that increased funding is also due to more students — enrolment in B.C. public schools rose by more than 3,000 students this year. Enrolment began increasing in 2015-16 after nearly 20 years of declines.

Vancouver enrolment edged up slightly this past year to nearly 52,000 but is still down by more than 10,000 students since 2003. Vancouver schools enrol more than 2,000 Indigenous students and 5,500 students with special needs.

Fleming said teacher job vacancies are back to what they were before the court win. Even Vancouver was able to replenish their teacher-on-call list by 200 teachers, by giving some of them a commitment to more work each week, he said. More teachers from out of province and from other countries, such as Belgium and France, want to teach in B.C., Fleming said. Despite that, some shortages will continue in rural and northern B.C.

One big difference for students in Grade 11 and Grade 12 this fall will be a more flexible curriculum, with more choice among classes and a greater focus on Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.

“Whether it’s science, math or social studies curriculum or a Grade 2 class or Grade 5 or Grade 10 class, we are starting to see Indigenous world views and perspectives and traditional ways of knowledge reflected in those kinds of academic curricula and that’s just tremendously positive,” Fleming said.

Indigenous students across B.C. graduate at lower rates than non-Indigenous students — in Vancouver in 2017-18, just 56 per cent of Indigenous students graduated, compared to 90 per cent of all students — but those numbers are getting better.

Seventeen Indigenous language courses are now offered in various parts of the province, and a language immersion program is in the works in Haida Gwaii, Fleming said.

For all students, the new curriculum is focused on three “core competencies” — communication, thinking and personal-social skills. It aims to create so-called “educated citizens,” or people who are thoughtful, able to think critically and who can communicate well. They should have a positive self-image, be capable of making their own decisions and know their rights and responsibilities.

Mental health is a priority, Fleming said, both in a preventative capacity and to help students who are already using drugs.

“We are in the middle of an opioid crisis,” Fleming said. “We’ve never had an opioid overdose death on a school property, but we know that school-age kids are not immune to the reaches of the opioid crisis.”

All secondary students will now take two career-focused courses, one of which will include 30 hours of work or volunteer experience.

Final exams will get a new twist.

From here on, students will take three graduation “assessments,” rather than exams. These will be in numeracy (old-style math) and literacy (old-style English).They won’t be tied to any particular course, although two of them will be written in Grade 10 and one in Grade 12. Unlike the old exams, students will get three chances to write these assessments and will be graded using the following scale: emerging, developing, proficient or extending, rather than the usual letter grade or percentage.

“We still maintain a benchmark for equity and quality in the school system,” Fleming said. “We can see whether a student in Surrey is doing as well on the numeracy assessment as a student in the north of B.C. or on Vancouver Island,” Fleming said.

Report cards for senior students will still contain letter grades and percentages.

For students, parents and teachers, autumn is a time of new beginnings. All of this hinges on a negotiated contract with teachers, which would go a long way toward kicking this school year off right.

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