Patti Bacchus: In a valuable civics lesson, a high-school quarterback wins fight to save spares

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      Kinsale Philips is a smart kid who has his future figured out. He’s getting good marks in Grade 11 at New Westminster Senior Secondary School (NWSS) and he’s been planning to finish the courses he needs to graduate after the first semester next year, halfway through Grade 12.

      Finishing Grade 12 early will free up the high-school quarterback for spring training in 2019 and allow him to get a head start by taking a few university courses in the spring term on the football scholarship he’s hoping to get.

      Kinsale makes an ideal poster child for what’s often referred to in education circles as “personalized learning” or “21st-century learning.” He’s an engaged student who has found his passion and is thriving in school. He took French 11 when he was in Grade 10 to complete his language requirement, completed four courses online, and uses his participation in school sports to earn “leadership” credits, putting him on a fast-track to university.

      He plans to study social justice and philosophy and then go to law school. He wants to become an entertainment lawyer so he can work with athletes. He’s got it all figured out, and I suspect he’ll accomplish whatever he sets out to do.

      He told me by phone that he has friends who plan to take only morning classes in Grade 12 next year so they can work in the afternoon and earn money for university. Others count on having a spare block or two to make sure they have time to focus on courses they need to do well in, like English 12.

      But those best-laid plans appeared to get punted last week when NWSS principal John Tyler sent a letter to students and parents announcing that in “the 2018/2019 school year, grade-12 students will be registered in a complete course program”. That meant that students like Kinsale would have to sign up for a full year and a full course load. This was news to students and parents. Kinsale responded by starting an online petition titled “Bring Spare Blocks Back to NWSS.”


      With more than 1,325 signatures and counting by Thursday afternoon (January 18), the petition says: The obligation to take a full course load for grade 12s is being made effective for the 2019 graduating class and future grads of NWSS. The change was not notified through social media, email or any other form of communication to students and their families before being given course selection sheets for the upcoming year. As many of us know in B.C., a student is obligated to receive 80 credits in order to graduate plus core classes like English 12. Myself, like many other students at NWSS, have made post-secondary plans based on the understanding that we would be able to free up our course loads in grade 12 by choosing to have spare blocks.

      “Spare blocks give students the opportunity to dedicate their time to the things that they feel most important to them. It is also a great opportunity to dedicate more time to certain classes such as English 12, that makes up a majority of our graduating grades. Having a full course schedule restricts students from dedicating extra time to planning for after graduation. It is also very likely that students will end up choosing classes that they are not interested in.

      “Grade 12 should be an opportunity to narrow down subjects into what would be most applicable for post-secondary, careers or whatever paths students choose to take. We as a collective of the future young people and supporters of the next generation in New Westminster need to bring attention to this unexpected change. Give the people that are directly affected a voice. You can solidify the concern of our underclassman and all future grads of NWSS, by signing this petition and/or by notifying our school administration through email and/or twitter through the school website: Thank you.”

      Kinsale says he has a good relationship with Tyler, and he’s hoping the principal changes his mind. Tyler did not respond to my emailed questions about why he made the decision to require students to take a full course load and whether he consulted with students or parents before making the, apparently, unilateral decision.

      Not so fast

      B.C. public schools can’t actually force students to take a full course load, so Tyler was overstepping his authority, and I gather he and his school board are reconsidering what looks to me like a poorly made decision. It happens, despite good intentions.

      In fairness to Tyler, who, from what I hear, sounds like a well-respected and well-liked principal, there are compelling arguments for getting rid of spares and making students take full course loads. When students take only the courses they need to graduate, they miss out on the opportunity to explore areas offered by elective courses. And the fewer electives they take, the fewer the school can offer as they’re funded by the number of blocks in which students enroll, not by head count.

      Some argue this results in a narrowing down of options and that students will miss out by not having a rich range of course options. It’s a good point, and I’ve met lots of students over the years who discovered their passions in a woodwork shop, drama studio, photography class, ceramics studio, or in other elective courses.

      But what about the Kinsales in the system? The ones who know where they’re going and exactly how they want to get there? I’ve met lots of students similarly in charge of their own destinies over the years. Should they be forced to take courses they don’t need and they’re not interested in just to keep the funding flowing and the seats filled, to keep the programs alive? Of course not.

      Student-centred decision-making versus what is convenient for adults

      When I was a trustee, we talked a lot about student-centred decisions versus what is convenient for the adults in the system. What works for some individuals doesn’t necessarily benefit others. The new curriculum is supposed to provide more flexibility and personalization and enable students like Kinsale to focus on their interests and move ahead without institutional barriers getting in their way.

      But what about the students who still have no idea what they want to do after high school? They need an opportunity to explore different areas through electives. Protecting those opportunities isn’t a simple challenge, and it was a mistake to think there could be a simple solution, like telling students they all have to take a full course load.

      My eight years as a school trustee taught me that—contrary to the pop-culture portrayal of high-school kids as being inclined to egg the principal’s car over an unpopular decision—students have an important perspective that should be considered, and they should be consulted on decisions that affect them. I’ve seen too many examples of adults in the school system using (or abusing) their authority to make lousy choices that affect the rights of youth just because they can—and regretting those later.

      Including students a VSB priority

      At the Vancouver school board (VSB), we prioritized including students in decision-making. We created a student-trustee positon on the board and invited student representatives to join the board’s five standing committees. The VSB also gives financial and staff support to the Vancouver district student council to enable them to meet regularly. Without exception, I found the students’ contributions at the board and committee table to be insightful, illuminating, and constructive. They helped us make better decisions. I recommend all school boards and schools include students in their decisions.

      Despite not being consulted on the decision before it was made, Kinsale deserves full credit for responding respectfully and strategically by creating his petition and putting forth a reasoned, strong case. What a terrific example of constructive civic engagement in a democratic society.

      He says he’s hoping his petition sparks dialogue between students, parents, and the school’s administration, and that a compromise can be found. He succeeded.

      New Westminster school-board chair Mark Gifford told me on Wednesday that NWSS’s Grade 12 students “are not and will not be required to take a full course load”.  Regarding the spare-block kerfuffle and Kinsale’s petition, Gifford said diplomatically that “the principal, staff, students, and parents are having conversations about curriculum, communications around schedule planning, and pros and cons of course selection and opportunities of spare blocks to support flexible approaches to meeting or exceeding graduation requirements.” 

      Gifford says Kinsale and other students demonstrated great leadership and that the students' “willingness to provide positive, constructive feedback to staff around how initial proposed changes could impact their planning and school experience has been welcomed by school and district leadership” .

      I’d call that a well-earned victory for Kinsale and all students who want to have spare blocks.

      Students: Use your voice

      I suspect that without Kinsale shining a light on the issue with his petition, Tyler’s decision would have stuck, unless it was otherwise challenged, even though he didn’t actually have the authority to make taking a full course load a requirement.

      There’s a valuable civics lesson in this for students. You can challenge authority successfully with respectful, well-thought-out arguments and by building alliances with others and taking your case public. This is how things work in civil society and democracy. If that’s what kids are learning in schools these days, we’re getting something very right.

      Congratulations to Kinsale—you won your first case. I doubt it will be the last.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.