Category Archives: School

Lost one tree, gained another

Following are three short stories that seem quite unrelated, but they converge at the end in a wonderfully meaningful way. At least it’s meaningful for our family.

Purple-leaf sand cherryGail and I moved into our house in Waterdown in July of 1997 (the day before my 28th birthday), almost two years after we were married and two weeks before I started working at Sybase (where I still work). The next summer, we hired a landscaping designer to help us do something different with our front yard. We changed the shapes of some of the gardens and planted a bunch of new things including a euonymous bush, a standard pee gee hydrangea (which lasted about ten years before dying), a dwarf Japanese cedar that I loved (but it also died after only a year or two), and a purple-leaf sandcherry tree. The sandcherry wasn’t a sapling when we bought it – I don’t remember for sure but I have a feeling it was already 5-6 feet tall. It thrived in front of the house and we’ve loved the purple leaves and pink flowers ever since. But a couple of years ago we started to wonder if it was getting too big. Every year we had to trim off some branches and cut it back and eventually, the only branches left were huge and thick and not many actual leaves were growing on it. It was also maybe ten feet from the house, and we wondered if the roots could cause problems. By this point the top of the tree was up to the second-storey window, so it had grown quite a bit. This spring, it looked pretty sickly with mostly branches and very few leaves so we made the tough decision to take it down. Two weeks ago, Gail’s dad came down with his chain saw and we removed the tree.

In Ontario, public schools test all grade 4 students to see if they should be identified as “exceptional”, which includes things like autism, giftedness, speech impairments, as well as other physical or learning disabilities. We became familiar with this process when Ryan was identified as gifted three years ago. He continued at Allan A. Greenleaf public school (where he had been since kindergarten) for grade five, but we found he was “coasting” and not trying very hard. He just wasn’t that engaged. We decided to move him to a special class for gifted children (at a different school), and he’s been there for two years and doing pretty well.

Nicky just finished grade four at Greenleaf, and we received his test results about a month ago – he is also gifted. (Warning: proud daddy bragging ahead) In the Visual Comprehension test, the school VP said that Nicky’s score was in the 99.9th percentile “or even higher” across the entire Hamilton-Wentworth district school board. This means that on average, of every thousand kids that took the test, at most one of them scored higher than Nicky. (OK, bragging all done.) We talked to his teacher and the learning resource teacher, and they both thought the gifted class would be the best place for Nicky. We agreed, and requested that he be moved there. They offered him a spot and since Greenleaf doesn’t have a gifted class (which is why Ryan moved), Nicky will be attending Dundas Central public school in the fall. For the first time since 2003, we will have no children attending Greenleaf next year.

When Ryan started kindergarten at Greenleaf back in the fall of 2003, Gail decided she wanted to know more about the school and the community so she went out to a couple of school council meetings. You don’t need to join the council to attend the meetings so she didn’t actually join, just observed. The next year, she decided to join the council and at the first meeting agreed to be “co-chair”. The school had had co-chairs for several years and it seemed to be working fine, so they continued having two. She was co-chair the next year as well, and then in the third year, the guy who had been the other co-chair left because his kids had all moved on to high school. Someone else stepped up as co-chair for one year but after that Gail just did it herself, and has ever since. This past year was the eighth year that Gail has been chair or co-chair of the school council at Greenleaf. She knows all the teachers and staff on a first-name basis and is involved in just about every fundraiser and event that the school puts on.

The school has “free family movie night” once a month, where kids and their families and friends can come to the school on a Friday night and watch a movie. The school council sells popcorn and drinks and it’s a pretty popular event. That was Gail’s brainchild. Every February, the school holds a spaghetti dinner and silent auction, which is very popular and raises thousands of dollars for the school. Gail helped create that as well and until this past year when she was busy with her own studies, she co-ordinated the event every year. Make no mistake, Gail had lots of help from other parents and members of the council, and I’ve been volun-told myself on numerous occasions when she needed help, but nobody has done more for the Greenleaf community over the past eight years than Gail has. All the teachers love her, and if I had a nickel for every time one of them told me how great she was or how lucky I was, I’d be a wealthy man indeed.

In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you those stories to tell you this one.

On the second-last day of school this year, the librarian at Greenleaf (Nirogi) called Gail and asked her if she would come to the final assembly of the year the next morning. Gail knew that something was up, since parents don’t usually go to the end-of-school assembly. But we also knew that this would be the last day we had kids at Greenleaf, and they would likely be doing something to say goodbye to Gail. We were right. They did a little thing for each of the five or six teachers that were leaving, and then they brought Gail up. A grade eight girl who has been involved with the student council also got up and read some stuff about how much Gail has done for the school, how much they appreciate everything she’s done, and how the school won’t be the same without her. After much applause from the teachers and students, Gail got up and said a few unscripted thank-yous through tears.

But the best part is that in Gail’s honour, the school will be planting a purple-leaf sandcherry tree behind the school in the fall. Nirogi knew how much we like the sandcherry in front of our house, so that’s what she picked to plant for Gail. She didn’t even know that we had had to take ours down.

As much as we’re excited about the new opportunities awaiting Nicky next year in his new school, we’re very sad that we’re leaving the Greenleaf community. But the fact that for the next however-many years there will be a tree at the school that was planted for Gail is supremely cool. We may not have kids at the school anymore, and I don’t know if there’ll be a plaque or anything near the tree with her name on it, but we’ll know. And every now and again we’ll stop in at the school for no other reason than to see Gail’s tree.


Educating the public

This letter to the editor appeared in the Flamborough Review on September 17, 2011:

I was puzzled – but not surprised – to read the comments offered by the provincial candidates regarding education (Review, Sept. 8). The big picture to these players is the bricks and mortar and infrastructure. They really need to pay attention to the people.

Wait, where have we heard that before? I am a parent, and the biggest concern among all parents I talk to is the curriculum.

We are inundated with fundraising for this, awareness for that. The kids come home telling us about all the “activities” they do.

Wait a minute. What happened to the three R’s?

What happened to sitting down and having a deep discussion about something relevant? Has school turned into glorified daycare?

I’m sure there are some teachers who are just fuming right now, but I don’t care. The public system is failing our kids. The adage that they “never leave a child behind” because it may affect his “self esteem” doesn’t wash with me, or many other parents. Who will worry about their self esteem when they can’t fill out a job application?

I don’t agree with technology and keyboards in primary schools. What is wrong with pen and paper? Apparently, spelling tests are too much to bear anymore. Standardized testing is also an issue with many parents. Many teachers I have spoken to say that they are pressured into spending more time in preparing the kids for these tests.

Let’s get back to basics. Our kids need a stable base of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic, not volunteering activity time to promote corporate marketing.

Kevin Inglehart

The only phrase missing from this rant was “Back in my day…” My first thought upon reading it was “spoken like a man who hasn’t set foot in a school in thirty years.” Gail, who has been involved as a volunteer and on the school council at our kids’ school for eight years and is currently going through teacher’s college, was indeed fuming when she read it. If Mr. Inglehart had done the slightest bit of research before writing this, he might have understood the current goals of the education system and why they’re different from those of years ago.

“What happened to the three R’s?” – Literacy (which is far more than just reading and writing) and mathematics (which is far more than just arithmetic) have always been the core of the education system and still are, though they are being taught in a different way than in the past. When my parents were kids, and to a lesser extent when I was a kid (I’m currently 42), mathematics in primary school was mostly arithmetic and was almost entirely memorization. Here are the times tables, learn them by rote (i.e. repeating them out loud over and over and over until it’s burned into your head). There you go, that’s math. Did the students understand what it was they were memorizing? I’m sure some did but many did not. In public school, we had to memorize the times tables up to 12 times 12. To this day, I can instantly tell you that 12 times 12 is 144. If you asked me 12 times 13 it takes me a half-second longer to come up with the answer – but I can come up with the answer. In all modesty, I am one of the ones that understood how the times tables worked (I always did well in math and went on to get a Bachelor of Mathematics degree) but I know that some of my classmates would have been completely lost because 12 times 13 wasn’t on the chart we learned memorized. That’s not the way math is taught these days. Kids are not just given the answers but are taught how it works so that they can figure out the answers for themselves.

“What happened to sitting down and having a deep discussion about something relevant?” – That depends on the grade level. Just try having a deep discussion about anything with twenty 8-year-olds and see how far you get. That hasn’t changed in a hundred years and so has nothing to do with this issue. But I know what kinds of projects Ryan (currently in grade 7) has worked on over the past few years, and they are having deep discussions about relevant issues.

“The public system is failing our kids.” – Evidence please. Don’t go spouting off a claim like this without backing it up. Show me evidence that children are coming out of public school less prepared for high school or university than they were twenty or forty years ago and I’ll start listening.

“Who will worry about their self esteem when they can’t fill out a job application?” – Show me a teacher that allows a student to pass their class with high self esteem but without the basics of reading and writing and I’ll show you a teacher who needs to be fired. That’s not the way the public education system works, now or in the past. The difference is that now teachers consider a student’s self-esteem whereas in the past they did not. Were people in Mr. Inglehart’s classes ever singled out and humiliated in front of the class? Let me guess, stuff like that “builds character”, right? It doesn’t take a genius to realize that humiliating a student or telling him he’s stupid because he didn’t do well on a test or assignment does nothing to help the student learn. If a child is struggling in school and you tell him he’s stupid, after a while he will come to believe it himself. Alternatively, you can give him extra help – both in the curriculum and in believing in himself so that he has the confidence to continue. If a student’s self esteem is ignored and he struggles, he is more likely to hate school and leave as soon as possible. How is that good for the student or the community?

“I don’t agree with technology and keyboards in primary school. What is wrong with pen and paper?” – Technology is not replacing pen and paper. Both of my kids go through plenty of paper during the school year and they do far more printing and writing than typing. But considering the pervasiveness of computers and technology in our world, how does it make any sense not to start familiarizing our children with it as soon as possible?

“Apparently, spelling tests are too much to bear anymore.” – That’s because many studies have shown that spelling tests are ineffective. Students learn how to spell the words in the few days before the test, write the test, and then promptly forget them. Teaching them the fundamentals of English grammar and phonics is far more effective in teaching kids how to use language.

“Standardized testing is also an issue with many parents. Many teachers I have spoken to say that they are pressured into spending more time in preparing the kids for these tests.” – Then whoever is pressuring the teachers doesn’t get it either. The idea is to prepare the children for life – teach them how to think, not how to answer the questions on the test. Once you’ve done that, they will succeed on any test you give them.

I don’t know what “corporate marketing” thing Mr. Inglehart is referring to in his last line, but I assume it has to do with fundraising which he mentioned earlier in the letter. It’s a fairly well-known fact that schools are given far less money now than in previous years. As for why that’s true, that’s a political issue that has nothing to do with the teachers or how they teach. When I was in school, all the materials we used were provided by the school itself. Now, teachers spend their own money to outfit their classrooms. Over the years my kids have read and studied many books that were purchased by (and then borrowed from) their teacher, not the school or the Board of Education. Fundraising is a way to help further equip the schools. Without it, schools wouldn’t be able to afford many of the materials necessary, and programs like music and art may need to be cancelled altogether.

Mr. Inglehart needs to realize that society is constantly improving its knowledge of how children learn, and changes must be made to the education system to reflect that knowledge. Yes, sometimes money is a factor in such changes, but not always. Things don’t work the same way as they did when he was a kid, but that doesn’t make the changes unnecessary.

There are always people who say things like “it was good enough for me when I was a kid”, but is that really what you want for the next generation – “good enough”? Don’t you want “better”?

Gail’s television debut

The drama with the school issue I wrote about before continues. There was a meeting at the high school last night, where over 100 parents and members of various school councils (including Gail) met to brainstorm on ideas of how to best solve the problems at the high school and Greenleaf without busing our kids away. Each participant with an idea wrote it down on a piece of paper, and Gail now has a huge stack of paper here with lots of different ideas. One of the “rules” for this meeting is that any idea was to be submitted, even if you thought it was silly or impossible, so some of the ideas are pretty “out there”, but it was great to see a lot of people come out and not only show their support but voice their opinions. Gail, some other Greenleaf council people, and members of other school councils will be meeting with our school board trustees next week.

Someone called the local TV channel and they sent a team up to the meeting. A few people, including Gail, were interviewed and appeared on last night’s 11:00 news. Since this was Gail television debut, I’m trying to find a link to the video online, but no dice yet. We did tape it (with actual video tape, no PVR yet…), so I suppose I could record it from there onto the video camera, and then transfer from that onto the computer, but I’m sleepy. Maybe tomorrow. She was also interviewed the other day for the local paper, and that story came out today.

Save Greenleaf!

I don’t write too much political stuff here. This is mainly because I don’t follow politics all that closely, and I don’t have strong opinions on a lot of political issues. However, there’s a local issue that’s recently come up that I really have to write about, since it directly affects my family, specifically my kids.

My kids go to Allan A. Greenleaf Elementary School, and Gail is the chair of the school council there (and has been for four years). They love the school, and Gail and I have grown to know the school and its staff pretty well. Over the years that Gail has been on the council, there have been lots of events intended to bring parents into the school and foster a real feeling of community: in particular the annual spaghetti dinner and silent auction which raises a ton of money for the school, and free family movie night.

Greenleaf is right next to Waterdown District High School (WDHS), the only high school in town. They share a parking lot, and there are a bunch of portables between them. WDHS has over 1200 1400 students, and is severely overcrowded; they have an astounding 29 18 portables scattered around the school grounds. They have to expand the school, there’s no question about that. The school grounds, which includes the high school, Greenleaf, and also the local YMCA, is bordered on the south by a fairly major street, and on the other three sides by farmland, all of which is owned by a developer. The school board has been in negotiations with this developer for years to buy some of the land next to the school so that they can expand. This deal recently fell through. I’m not going to comment on that, since I know none of the details of the bargaining, but the end result is that the school will have to expand on its existing land.

Here is a Google satellite map of the area. You can see the high school at the top right, Greenleaf at the top left, and the YMCA at the bottom left. The picture must have been taken a little while ago — I can only see 11 portables at the high school, and only two at Greenleaf, which now has eight or nine.

The board has come up with two plans to solve this problem: (1) build extensions onto WDHS, or (2) take over Greenleaf and make it part of the high school. If they go for option (2), they then have to decide what to do with the 700 kids that currently go to Greenleaf. The two options there are (2a) bus the kids to two currently empty schools in Dundas (~10-15 km away) while they build new schools in Waterdown for them to return to, or (2b) scatter the kids between the other three elementary schools in Waterdown. Either way, the school spirit and environment that they’ve built over the years will vanish, as Greenleaf will cease to exist. In option 2a, at least most of the kids and staff will be moved en masse so the environment would be similar, but they’d still be split in half and they wouldn’t be going to school in Waterdown. They’d be moving to older schools that have been abandoned and stripped (everything from the air conditioners to the fire bells have been removed). Also, there is no timetable for when they might return to Waterdown — the board doesn’t currently even own any land on which they can build a new school.

The board did mention another “unofficial” option: expropriate the land from the developer. They apparently have the power to force him to sell it to them at fair market value, though I believe there are some legal stumbling blocks that make this option difficult. Someone sent an email to the local city councillor as well as our MPP asking them about that possibility. The councillor replied (rather rudely) and said that the city could not help and it was up to the board, but our local MPP said that he spoke to the mayor about it and would look into this possibility. The MPP was helpful and polite, the councillor was unhelpful and rude. One of those two has announced that they will not be running for re-election next time around — three guesses which one, and the first two don’t count.

Option 1 (building additions to the high school) is not without its problems either. The renovations will take two years, during which time the high school students and the Greenleaf students will be going to school in a construction zone. There is only one entrance/exit into the school/YMCA area, so the school parents and staff and YMCA visitors and staff will be using the same entrance as the construction vehicles, and part of the plans include building a second storey above an existing one. While that’s happening, students will not be able to use the first floor of those areas.

The board has not stated which of the options they are leaning towards. They held a public information meeting at WDHS last Wednesday where they outlined the options. Lots of Greenleaf staff members and parents were there. Gail tore a muscle in her calf on Tuesday night and spent three hours in the hospital on Wednesday, but even the inability to walk didn’t keep her away from this meeting. She hobbled in on crutches to make sure she knew exactly what the options were so that she could present them to council at the regular council meeting the next night. The result of that (second) meeting was that the parents and staff are pretty much united that we don’t want to lose our school. We understand that the high school needs to expand, but the option of taking over Greenleaf and busing 700 kids to Dundas or scattering them among the three already-crowded Waterdown schools is simply not acceptable.

At the meeting, a third option was proposed, which will be presented to the school board. The original option (2) was to move the kids to an abandoned school, expand the high school, and then build a new school for the Greenleaf kids to come back to. We submit option 3: the construction should simply be ordered differently. Build a new school, move the Greenleaf students there, and then let the high school take over Greenleaf. The high school is apparently big enough to handle the current student load for another couple of years, so they’ll be OK during the construction of a new school, the Greenleaf students and staff don’t get scattered to the four winds, and after the new school is built, the high school can take over Greenleaf and grow as necessary. Everyone wins.

Greenleaf was built because a group of Waterdown parents wanted a new elementary school and formed a group to look into the possibility. The parents group contacted developers and did most of the legwork and then presented their findings to the board, and Greenleaf was built within two years. Given that, here’s no reason a new school couldn’t be built within the same two year time frame.

Disclaimer: My wife Gail Perrow is the chair of the Allan A. Greenleaf school council. The opinions expressed here are my own. I am not speaking on behalf of her or the council.

Update: Fixed some of the numbers which were inaccurate.

Spaghetti dinner

Gail’s spaghetti dinner and silent auction was held last night at Ryan’s school. I say “Gail’s” because she’s the chair of the school council that ran the event, and has thought about little else for a couple of weeks. It was kind of a one-woman show last year — Gail’s council co-chair, Paul, did all the stuff for the auction, and Gail pretty much did everything else. It wasn’t like that so much this year — the council divvied up the responsibilities a little more evenly, so Gail was kind of the fore-person and was in charge of communications, and Paul did the auction again, but other people were responsible for the catering, desserts, decorations, entertainment, raffles, and other stuff. They had about 440 tickets sold, and something like 160 items at the auction, and ended up raising between $8000 and $9000, all of which will go towards music programs and instruments and stuff for the school.

A rousing success, as was last year’s event, which allowed them to purchase a scoreboard for the gym. The scoreboard also has some advertising panels on it, so local businesses pay to have signs there, which brings in even more money going forward.

A good time was had by, well, most. They had comment cards available (which Gail collected), and I took a look at two of them this morning – one gave the event a 5/5, saying that the food was good and hot (which was a problem last year), and everything was great. The other one (obviously written by a student) gave a 1/5, and said that the waiter got their drink order wrong, took too long, tried to steal their bread, and some other negative comment I can’t remember. Oh well, you can’t please everyone. We all had fun, anyway. My sister came as well, and was very helpful in keeping me from throttling Nicholas, who decided numerous times that a crowded gymnasium with over 400 people in it (plus tables, chairs and lots of food and breakable auction items), was a good place to spin around, dance, swing your coat around and generally play. As I’ve said before, whoever invented the phrase “the terrible twos” didn’t have a three-year-old.

I bid on a few items — Raptors tickets, a nice pair of sunglasses, gift certificates for green fees at local golf courses, and one or two other things I don’t remember, but just ended up with 2 sets of green fees, so I’ll take my dad golfing in the spring. Ryan purchased the opportunity to be “secretary for a 1/2 day”, so he gets to sit in the office and talk on the PA, do morning announcements, stuff like that. He’ll love it.