School year will be busy

Considering whether to change the school calendar, determining how best to spend an extra $700,000 and setting out some long term goals are among the items the New Westminster school district will consider in the year ahead.

Parents packed up their kids and sent them back to school Tuesday for a year that is expected to be a busy one. One item the school district is working on is determining how best to spend the Learning Improvement Fund, almost three-quarters of a million dollars of additional funding for New Westminster. The funds came through Bill 22, called the Education Improvement Act, which was introduced last year, during the ongoing teachers' strike.

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"What it allows for is government provides additional funding to school districts to actually hire staff to meet the needs of the schools. It's nice to have that money," superintendent John Woudzia told The Record. "What we are doing now is just working our way through the process of consulting with the NWTU and looking at getting our plan in place."

Woudzia said it would mean more teaching and support staff.

The district is continuing to focus on education methods, including Universal Design for Learning, an approach to teaching, learning and assessment that draws on new brain research and technology.

Many teachers in New Westminster have been interested in participating in district training for the learning method - even during job action last year, Woudzia said.

The district recently received a Gold Cap Award for its implementation of Fast ForWord, learning software designed to help struggling readers improve brain fitness and strengthen brain processing.

"We've got it in the secondary school, all alternates, both middle schools, the Homelearners' (program)," Woudzia said. "I think we've got it in three or four elementary schools, but I know the goal this year is to try and get it in all of our schools."

The district is also building on the apprenticeshiptraining program at New Westminster Secondary School.

"If kids have an interest ... and we can find it for our students, we'll most certainly do that," Woudzia said about the programs, which include cooking, carpentry and plumbing.

The provincial government also passed legislation in the last school year which opened the door for districts to consider changing their school calendar. New Westminster's board of education passed a motion in the spring asking senior staff to bring a report to them by February 2013 that looks at whether the district wants to consider a different calendar for the coming year.

"So that's going to be a fairly significant undertaking, just to get a sense from the community what their feeling is," Woudzia said.

One of the options could be to have more breaks for shorter durations, he explained.

"What that means, of course, is that you don't get a traditional summer holiday - two months off, which would be a fairly significant shift for a lot of people," Woudzia said. "The thing here in Metro (Vancouver), the difficult thing is that we are all so close to each other in terms of school districts. Our borders all nudge up against each other, and many of our employees live elsewhere."

Woudzia said shifting the calendar is an "innovative prospect."

"What I like about it is that it does give boards the flexibility to actually examine the issue," he said. "So our community may say, 'Yeah, we find that the lag at the end of the summer, too much learning is lost, and we'd like to have our kids return to school sooner rather than later' and others say, 'No, we find that our kids really need that duration, that length of a break, so we are really happy with the current format.'"

The district will seek input on whether to change the calendar. Currently, some school districts, including in Maple Ridge, do offer alternate school calendars at one or more schools.

"There are pockets - so it can be done," Woudzia added.

The district is also working on its strategic plan, which Woudzia called a "blueprint for the board" to help set priorities and objectives.

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