March 1998

Les Centres et Réseaux
Les Centres et Réseaux

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Creating Accessible, Professional,
Learning Programs

The Centres et Réseaux de formation de l’Ontario is a network of centres, some physical, some virtual, created to serve teachers in Ontario’s French-language system.

By Jacqueline Pelletier

How do you provide top-notch professional development services to less than 10,000 teachers in a geographic area the size of Ontario when resources are scarce? How do you make sure the teachers in areas where there are only a few get as much access as teachers in the big population centres?

The answer, in the Franco-Ontario education community, was to create the Centres et Réseaux de formation de l’Ontario (professional learning centres and networks of Ontario).

Like teacher centres, the Centres et Réseaux are based on the principle that professional development be done "by and for teachers." The networks and centres develop and deliver programs for their own regions and provide the learning programs needed to implement Ministry of Education and Training directives.

"The efficiency of a training program is directly linked with the level of involvement of teachers in its development. As long as the Centres et Réseaux will abide by this principle in the identification of needs and the provision of services, they will remain an invaluable tool for teachers across the province," says Diane Chénier, president of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

Created between 1992 and 1995, the Centres et Réseaux are regional consortiums of Catholic and public school boards, professional associations and various partners such as colleges, universities and tfo, TVO’s French-language equivalent. There are six, one in each Ontario region: southwest, central, mid-northern, northeast, northwest, and east. They all have headquarters, but their chief characteristic is that they operate on the highway, whether virtual or asphalt.

Unlike traditional teacher centres, Centres et Réseaux have no meeting places. "Our centres are the 129 schools and the board offices," says Lise Charland, co-ordinator of the eastern network.

In short, whether travelling or logging-on, teachers in the French-language system throughout the province have access to top quality in-service professional learning designed for them and delivered in French.

Modelled on Teacher Centres

Professional learning programs for teachers in the French-language system used to be non-existent in Ontario. Teachers either took their in-service training in English or went to Québec. In 1986 with the passage of the new French-language services law, the need for programs increased even more.

Denyse Brisson, now a superintendent of education, is widely acknowledged as the founder of the Centres et Réseaux. In the 1980s, Brisson was working at the Centre d’animation pédagogique (CAP) at the Ottawa Roman Catholic Separate School Board.

CAP was, as Brisson puts it, "the first shaky step toward the Centres et Réseaux." Her experience there and her concern about the scarcity of resources convinced her of the urgent need for new structures based on teachers’ sharing of their knowledge and expertise and their own assessment of their needs.

In 1990 Brisson attended the International Conference on Teacher Centers in Toronto. "At the time," she says, "there was a network of Canadian teacher centres, but nothing in the Franco-Ontarian education community. To learn more about it, I toured teacher centres in England, where the concept originated."

Brisson returned from this tour more persuaded than ever of the need for a model that would involve educators directly, both as learners and experts. With the help of several colleagues and the firm support of Raymond Chénier, then an assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Education, she redoubled her efforts. She promoted the concept through lectures, articles in professional journals and meetings with decision-makers.

Brisson’s work culminated in 1992 when the ministry signed the first of six agreements creating the Centres et Réseaux de formation de l’Ontario. Brisson became director of the first one, serving central Ontario.

Over the next three to four years, each region received $500,000 to $560,000 in funding. In 1996, the ministry integrated French Language Consultative Services (FLCS) into the Centres et Réseaux. This meant four to 11 consultants for each centre.

As Robert Arsenault, co-ordinator of special projects at the Education Quality and Accountability Office, explains, "The integration of the FLCS makes it easier to align provincial and regional priorities. With more resources, we can gear our training and work to both local and ministry objectives."

The centres are increasingly being supported by their regions. "One of the boards pays the rent, another does our accounting and a third supervises our activities," explains Danielle Lemieux, co-ordinator in the mid-northern centre. "It’s a truly co-operative effort."

Provincial Co-operation

The co-operation extends from the regional to the provincial level, where a provincial association of Centres et Réseaux meets regularly, albeit sometimes via teleconferencing rather than being in one room. The association analyzes needs and develops professional development strategies.

Every year, the six centres divide up provincial portfolios such as physical education and health or the arts. Each centre designs programs to share across the province. A physics course designed under a partnership agreement involving the centres in southwest and central Ontario and Contact North is currently being tested on the Internet.

Lemieux says, "There is a very strong sense of partnership among the regions. We share everything we do, and our discussions create a synergy that is rare in my experience and keeps on growing."

This sharing cuts out duplication. Constance Legentil, co-ordinator of the southwest centre, explains, "When the new report card was introduced, our centre designed a detailed manual on managing the electronic component of the report card and offered distance education, with input from a program consultant from each region."

Eastern network co-ordinator Charland confirms it. "There is no duplication," she says. "When one region delivers a service, it’s shared whenever possible. Our mission is to maintain the quality of education, and we have to co-operate and use every method we can to achieve that."

Wide Ranging and Custom Services

The services created by the Centres et Réseaux range from workshops on specific topics to job-shadowing school principals to teaching-related discussion groups. Topics are varied and include leadership, administration of provincial tests, curriculum planning and teaching strategies. Wherever possible, the centres recruit experienced classroom teachers from the region to develop and deliver the programs.

Teachers can request a program. They identify their interests and submit them to their principal, who makes a request to the regional centre and negotiates how it will be delivered. If necessary, the centre or network will develop a customized program.

A board may identify a need for professional development for the entire teaching staff. In such a case, the centre creates a targeted plan that may include both existing and new modules.

Teachers with individual needs are offered personalized support or directed to an existing service, perhaps to a university in the region.

Not surprisingly, people realize that the quality, variety and number of professional learning products have improved immensely since the Centres et Réseaux have come on the scene. Summer schools, Saturday courses and lecture series on specific topics, delivered over several evenings or weeks, have sprung up. Every year, there is less duplication of services as organized programming takes hold.

The Next Challenges

The creation of 12 French-language boards is a considerable challenge for the Centres et Réseaux. Will these boards embrace the joint action approach of the Centres et Réseaux? Will they dedicate the financial resources needed to provide solid support for in-service training?

According to Arsenault, they will have to, because the next step after the sharing of resources will be to design a training plan for each district. Throughout the province, the feeling is that these are still the same schools, teachers and needs as before. If the 12 boards co-operate, the centres will be able to carry on their mission. It is unlikely, and undesirable, that each board will have its own professional learning section. After all, joint action has already proven itself.

In Arsenault’s view, the start-up of the centres was a timely occurrence. Without them, he says, professional learning for the teachers in the French-language sections and small boards would now be minimal and scattered across the province.

The Ontario College of Teachers will soon be able to certify learning programs and the organizations that provide them. Lemieux probably speaks for all the centre and network co-ordinators when she says, "We must prove that our Centres et Réseaux are in the best position to deliver programs, and that our services are highly relevant and of impeccable quality."

The Centres et Réseaux de formation have made a name for themselves, and a modern and dynamic learning environment has evolved. Geographic isolation is vanishing thanks to province-wide co-operation and efficient communications technology. The vast area of Ontario has become a village as far as training for French-language teachers is concerned.

Whether they work in cities or rural areas, and large or small Catholic or public school boards, francophone teachers now have more access than ever before to quality professional development delivered in their own language.