"I am proud of Glenlawn." Parents were particularly gratified by our
"good quality educational programs," our "good teachers" and our
"friendly, welcoming atmosphere."
However, when the Manitoba School Improvement Program
(MSIP), a fledgling organization funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation,
offered seed money to encourage research, a few hardy souls decided to take them up on it
and have a closer look at the glowing survey data we had collected. They found that
students who were enrolled in university preparation courses and those at the other end of
the spectrum, taking workforce preparation courses, were so highly satisfied as to skew
The sad truth was that high school was a dull end for students in the middle, those
enrolled in general level courses or just scraping by in the university entrance stream
(6570 per cent of the student body). When the Manitoba Association of School
Trustees reported: "approximately 28 per cent of grads in St. Vital [our school
division] go directly to the University of Manitoba. Of these, only 28 per cent complete
first year," our worst fears were confirmed. By concentrating our best efforts and
resources on university preparation, we were cheating the majority of our students.
We deduced that all our kids want what we were providing for the university and
workforce-bound a relevant education and a sense of personal connection to their
school. We got busy.
Since we started the MSIP in the early 90s, we have earnestly addressed the two
weaknesses identified by students. However, things have not unfolded as neatly as the
latest Stephen Covey panacea. It hasnt been Chicken Soup for Education, either.
Its been more like a Shakespeare comedy, with all the plot twists, verbal sparring,
misdirection, angst and pure joy that the genre entails. We have found our way, and are
now counting on the traditional happy ending.
STUDENTS CHOOSE ADVOCATES
We began with the relationships mandate. Thanks to the advice of MSIP, we included
parents and students on an action committee. Their year of discussion and planning
resulted in a student advocate system with some unique characteristics. Our students each
submit a list of teachers theyd like as their advocate. A few teachers closet
themselves with the lists and emerge with multi-grade groups of 15 to 20 students assigned
to the advocate of their choice, or second choice.
Our advocates are just that. They are not purveyors of advice; nor are they attendance
officers. They are caring adults who get to know students as whole persons and who make
regular friendly contact with the family. The student advocate system is now in its third
year and has certainly contributed to the improvements weve seen in graduation rates
(up 15 per cent) and to a friendly, mutually-respectful atmosphere that visitors to
While the advocate system was getting established and staff were learning how to deal
with this new "touchy-feely" role, another action committee was searching for a
way to make systemic changes.
We read about outcomes-based education and were attracted to the fact that it was a
philosophy, not a recipe. The process requires a school to visualize its ideal graduate
and then plan backwards to make that ideal set of skills and attitudes a reality for every
Outcomes can be filtered down into each courses objectives, making them something
that individual teachers integrate (or not) into their courses. This is easier, but it
also makes outcomes a hit-and-miss exercise exactly what we were trying to remedy.
We were tired of kids graduating with minimal skills as they dropped courses,
teacher-shopped, took zeroes on assignments they didnt like, or squeezed a 50 per
cent out of a 45 per cent.
ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
The second way of doing outcomes is much harder, but taking the road less travelled has
made all the difference. We make cross-curricular outcomes a requirement for graduation
and expect every student and staff member to participate. We retained regular courses and
perched the outcomes atop the traditional system. Their cross-curricular nature allows
them to infiltrate courses without replacing them.
Here are the important features of our system, which we call the Glenlawn Advantage.
We continue to hold students accountable for provincial curricula, but we also hold
them accountable for team work, problem-solving and life-long learning (with communication
and technology to come when we are ready to take on more). Evidence of mastery of the
three outcomes must be gathered into a portfolio. High school is not over until this
portfolio is complete.
We have flexibility but not anarchy. Our outcomes system does not mandate the manner or
location in which students will be asked to demonstrate their skills. We agree on
parameters such as the magnitude of the task, but the tasks themselves are not rigidly
defined. Students can demonstrate inside or outside of the classroom, but demonstrate they
must. We also have no explicit, mandatory instructional model, but by our choice of
outcomes we have implicitly required that student-centred methods be used at least some of
the time in every classroom.
We are no longer sorting kids by comparing them to each other. Our system provides
direct feedback to students on their standing relative to what the real world respects.
(How do we know? We asked employers.) We have developed school-wide rubrics for team work
and problem solving (life long learning is self-evaluated). Students know exactly what
"excellent", "very good", and "not yet" mean.
Minimal competence in student work is not accepted, nor are gut reactions in teacher
evaluations of student work. Our assessments of team work and problem-solving are reliable
because excellence is defined by specific observable behaviours (and we have done lots of
consulting and revising on the rubrics). Anything less than very good is not good enough.
The demonstration must be revised or replaced. We are confident our portfolios will be
reliable proof of the students skills because they will contain at least 25 entries,
each one evaluated independently.
We are not satisfied by performance flukes. Assessment data is gathered many times in a
variety of ways. Each student has to obtain a specific number of validations on each
standard: five teamwork demonstrations and three problem- solving demonstrations. We also
expect students to take an active interest in, and responsibility for, their own learning:
17 life-long learning demonstrations (all self-evaluated).
Cross-curricular teams of teachers have written our own Glenlawn Learner Guides, one
for each outcome, which give students and teachers practical strategies for raising a
"not yet" to a "very good" or "excellent."
We provide emotional support, encouragement, goal-setting tips, and portfolio
management help for students via the advocate system. We also run special events such as a
career symposium, a panel discussion and a life-long learning day, which simultaneously
sell students on the value of outcomes and give them chances to do demonstrations.
We provide support for staff. We run our own in-house professional development sessions
linked to our specific initiatives. We have also written a Teachers Guide to the
Glenlawn Advantage. Having all the ins and outs of the system there for staff perusal
ensures confidence and consistency when giving information to students.
We expect mistakes and try not to panic. We keep everything in draft form, extend
deadlines, change plans. Being sensitive to legitimate concerns, yet not caving in at the
first sign of implementation jitters is truly a tightrope act. For this you need acrobatic
administrators. They need to stay with the act as it develops and improves, they must be
calm in demeanour yet passionate about the reform and strong and flexible enough to manage
divisional and staff politics, yet willing to share the applause.
So, thats "Much Ado About Glenlawn." As of September 1997, students
entering our school must complete their provincially mandated courses and demonstrate
competence in teamwork, problem-solving and life-long learning. Our entire staff and
student body are involved in this reform, some more enthusiastically than others.
SOME SCARY FACTS
Glenlawns reforms have evolved over seven years, and we have not yet graduated
our first outcomes-advantaged class. We have had to rely on outside funding over
$250,000 from MSIP, the Canadian Vocational Association and the Winnipeg Devolopment
agreement to give the lead reformers, classroom teachers all, the crucial release
time to do the work. We have to keep parents, students, senior administration and the
school board updated, report to our funders, share with other schools, do our own public
relations, and constantly be on the make for more dollars.
We have lost key people to burnout (one keener chose to be vice-principal at a tough K
to 9 school, thinking that would be less stressful). Recently there has been much
grumbling as some teachers realize this "outcomes stuff" isnt going away
and that smiling in sweet agreement (but carrying on as always) will no longer cut it when
students need multiple demonstrations in order to graduate. Everyone on staff is tired.
Although our administrators try hard, it is difficult to subtract traditional duties to
free up energy, time, and good-will needed for new ones. We get additional work piled on
by constantly changing curricula, provincial exams and divisional initiatives. Most
importantly, our first class has not yet graduated. The stress of ensuring that these kids
do not suffer while we go through the learning process and make the inevitable mistakes is
beginning to show.
If systemic reform resembles a classic Shakespeare comedy, Glenlawn is struggling
through the tribulations of Act IV. However, "Alls well that ends well,"
and happiness is definitely in the offing. Some of you are muttering darkly that marriage
is the answer Shakespeare offers, and how can we put our faith in that? Remember, the bard
didnt bring together Barbie and Ken. He made us pay attention because he wedded
feisty, intelligent, spark-producing lovers.
And thats how we have come to see school reform after a course that never
does run smooth, the bringing together of big, brave, smart ideas with willing,
persistent, fearless people in order to produce educational sparks.
Arpena Babaian is an English teacher and outcomes co-ordinator at Glenlawn
Collegiate in Winnipeg.