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March 1999

Glenlawn College

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Much Ado About Winnipeg’s Glenlawn Collegiate

The Manitoba School Improvement Program is a lot of work, but it’s showing results.

By Arpena Babaian

Our school, Glenlawn Collegiate in Winnipeg, did not have a terrible problem to solve. We have always been a darn good comprehensive high school with a great satisfaction rating. In a 1995 survey, 90 per cent of our students said they agreed or agreed strongly with the statement:

"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 results.

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 (65–70 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 hasn’t been Chicken Soup for Education, either. It’s 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.


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 they’d 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 we’ve seen in graduation rates (up 15 per cent) and to a friendly, mutually-respectful atmosphere that visitors to Glenlawn note.

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 graduate.

Outcomes can be filtered down into each course’s 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 didn’t like, or squeezed a 50 per cent out of a 45 per cent.


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 Teacher’s 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, that’s "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.


Glenlawn’s 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" isn’t 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, "All’s 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 didn’t bring together Barbie and Ken. He made us pay attention because he wedded feisty, intelligent, spark-producing lovers.

And that’s 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.


The Manitoba School Improvement Program

In October, 1998, the Manitoba School Improvement Program (MSIP) announced the results of an evaluation of its seven-year program. Of the 22 secondary schools participating, 17 showed evidence of improvement.

"I know of no other strategy which has taken 20 or more schools at the secondary level and shown such success – even more quickly than we had thought possible and in a cost-efficient way," said Michael Fullan, Dean of Education at the University of Toronto and an advisor to the project.

The project strategy, developed and funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, is to offer timely attention to schools’ needs, engage teachers through supportive challenge rather than blame, focus on the needs of all the students and be independent of the system. Funds give teachers time to create solutions to overcome barriers to learning, and professional advice is available.