By J.W. Schnarr
Southern Alberta Newspapers — Lethbridge
The province must close a home-schooling loophole that is harming the quality of education for many students attending congregated school sites, says the superintendent of a southern Alberta school division.
Brian Andjelic, superintendent for Prairie Rose School Division, said he has seen many issues with the education of children in congregated sites when they transition into public schools. So much that he has written a letter to the Ministry of Education asking for more involvement.
“In some cases, we have students and families who come to the public schools because they know full well themselves that they are not receiving a standardized education,” he said. “They come to us to get (quality teaching). Are there learning issues? Absolutely.”
Congregated sites are spaces where home-school children come together and are instructed by non-certified teachers. In southern Alberta, these sites are often found in churches for children from Low German Mennonite communities.
LGM families who put their children in congregated sites often begin by enrolling their children in obscure private schools. These schools might only have 40 actual students in them but could have 800 or more home-school students who are in these congregated sites.
And because they are registered in a home-schooling program, children are generally considered to be “in school” during the day. Don Zech, a trustee for Palliser Regional Schools who helped set up that district’s LGM schools, said that is not always the case.
“Many of them are being used for child labour for babysitting, or housecleaning, either at home or for other people,” he said. “Some of them have jobs. I know some are employed by rural businesses in southern Alberta.”
“There’s no accountability whether they are getting any school work done. Or if they are getting it done, how well are they doing it?”
As the majority of congregated sites are comprised of English as Second Language?students, Andjelic said it should be expected that there is a discrepancy in the level of education (ESL?students face barriers with communication).
However, looking at the education levels of many congregated site students making the transition to public school, there is reason to be concerned they are not receiving an adequate education.
“(LGM?families) have told us, directly, that in some of these cases, they are just not satisfied with the level of education they are receiving in these congregated home-school settings that don’t have a qualified teacher,” Andjelic said. “That’s why they’ve come with us.”
He noted the situation can be hard on the families, as there is often a lot of pressure from the church that the children remain at the congregated sites.
“It takes a lot of courage for a family to withdraw from that,” he said.
Horizon School Division is another school district dealing with a large LGM population. It is unclear on the exact number of students attending these sites, but there is some indication many, possibly hundreds, of LGM children may not be taking part in any schooling at all or participating in limited schooling through congregated sites.
Wilco Tymensen, superintendent for HSD, said he is concerned about the rights of children to be able to gain an education to allow them to be successful in society, in spite of the wishes of parents.
“Our world is ever-changing,” he said. “If you ask businesses what they want, they want kids who are ethical, engaged and can learn and work together, critically think, and who are complex problem solvers.”
“They want future leaders who have the skills. My question becomes, ‘Are all kids living in our geographic boundary getting those skills?’ And if not, that’s not right.”
Zech said belief in a parent’s choice does not mean all the options are viable ones.
“I believe in choice,” he said. “But not educating your children is not a choice.”
Because the instructors at congregated sites are not certified, there is no guarantee the education level is held to any standard.
A press secretary for Minister of Education David Eggen provided a statement which read in part:
“The minister is committed to supporting all Alberta students in their education, regardless of whether they learn in a school or at home. In the case of home education, a certified teacher employed by an Alberta school board or an accredited private school measures the progress of the student at least twice a year.”
Andjelic said the issues seen with transitioning students show these assessments clearly are not enough.
Tymensen said the issue can come down to one of parental rights in education versus children’s rights to receive a complete education.
“Certainly, parents have a right to be involved in a child’s education, but kids have rights as well,” he said. “They have a right to receive a high-quality education. They have a right to feel safe, secure and welcomed. Let’s be sure the kids are getting what they need to be successful.”
There is potential for a lot of upside for rural school divisions to encourage LGM?families to attend public school. Rural depopulation can be partially offset by swelling LGM populations.
This allows the districts to keep staff and continue programs they might not otherwise receive funding for.
“We’re trying to provide as many options to meet as many needs as our budget and resources will allow,” Andjelic said. “That’s been our strategy. We work together with families and try to be as flexible as we can.”
“They are great kids, and great parents,” Zech said. “They are good community people. The more we can include them in our communities, and have it so they can function in a 21st Century Canadian society, at any level they choose to, is really important. They shouldn’t be handicapped by inadequate education.”