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Highlights of the Annual Superintendent Interviews of Calgary Science School Parents, Students and Staff

Garry McKinnon~ Calgary Science School Superintendent 
June 25, 2013

The fourth annual superintendent interviews of parents, students and staff members were conducted over several weeks in the spring of 2013 as a component of the ongoing school evaluation process. On March 7 and 8 during student-led conferences, 50 parents were interviewed. In May and June, grade 4 to 9 students as class groups (24 classes - approximately 600 students) were interviewed. As well, teaching and support staff members (42 participants) were interviewed. The feedback generated through the two questions (without any prompting) 
"What causes you to believe that the Calgary Science School is a very good school and what suggestions for improvement would you like to offer?", has been organized as commendations or recommendations for further consideration, on the basis of common themes, which were identified through a thematic analysis process. The frequency of common themes is indicated in parentheses.

Parent Commendations

The following major areas of commendation (with a response rate of 40 % or more) were identified through the parent interviews:
  1. The Teaching is Excellent (88%) - Representative comments include: the teachers are very good at establishing positive relationships with the students and they truly care about their students; teachers are very knowledgeable about what they are teaching and they are very good at engaging the students; my child just loves coming to school and that says a lot about the teaching; the teachers instill a love for learning in their students; the teachers are very helpful and they go the extra mile for their students.
  2. The Calgary Science School is a Great School (84%) - Representative comments include: students are highly engaged; students are given the freedom to learn; students are provided opportunities to develop a real sense of personal responsibility; this is much more than a science school because our students are offered an outstanding well-rounded program; this is a school unlike any other school where teaching is personalized for our children and students are empowered as learners.
  3. The Emphasis on Learning and Teaching through a Disposition of Inquiry (54%) - Representative comments include: appreciate the focus on inquiry and how learning in various subject areas is integrated; students develop deep understanding through inquiry; the emphasis on exploring through hands-on learning activities and making connections to real-life experiences prepares the students well as learners and confident individuals.
  4. The Outdoor Education Programs and Learning Experiences Beyond the School (54%) - Representative comments include: the students learn so much about building relationships, teamwork and developing an appreciation for environmental stewardship through the outdoor education and field trip experiences.
  5. The Use of Technology in the School Significantly Enriches Learning and Teaching (40%) - Representative comments include: technology is effectively used to access information and to share learning and technology is huge in this school and it gives the students a leg up.

Parent Suggestions for Further Consideration

The following suggestions for further consideration (with a response rate of 10% or more) were identified through the parent interviews:

1.     Enhance Communication Processes (24%) - Representative comments include: we would like to have more specific information about how our child is doing as a learner and more information on what we can be doing to support the learning of our children; we would like to see more consistency in the approach taken by teachers to communicate with parents; the school website could be cleaned up and made more user-friendly and we would like to learn more about the use of communication applications such as Edmodo.
2.     Give More Attention to Developing Student Handwriting (Cursive Writing) Skills (14%) -Representative comments include: we value the use of technology, but we do not want our children to become too dependent on technology and we want them to be able to have good handwriting skills as well as keyboarding skills to express themselves.
3.     Consideration Should Be Given to Offering a Second Language (14%) - Representative comments include: possibilities for offering a variety of second languages using computer applications should be explored because there is definite merit in having an understanding of a second language.
4.     Restructure the Student-led/Parent-Teacher conferences (10%) - Representative comments include: we miss the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion with the teachers about the progress of our children and we would like to see the structure of parent-teacher interviews still with a component of student-led.
5.     Consider the Possibility of Offering a Calgary Science School Senior High School Program (10%) - Representative comments include: It is very difficult for CSS students going to another school from grade 9 because the learning with an emphasis on lectures and a lack of technology is so different and we need a senior high school learning opportunity with a different focus than what exists in other high schools; one which builds on how students learn and teachers teach in the Calgary Science School.

There were a total of 26 suggestions for further consideration generated through the parent interviews and this feedback is included in the comprehensive summary document.

Student Interviews

Calgary Science School Students from grades 4 to 9 were interviewed as class groups for a total of 24 interviews. In addition to the two basic questions, (What causes you to believe that the Calgary Science School is a very good school and what suggestions for improvement would you offer?), the students were also asked to share their views in regard to the possibility of renaming the school and the possibility of offering a Calgary Science School senior high school program. It is interesting to note that without exception in every class the students identified learning through inquiry; the use of technology to enhance learning and teaching and outdoor education/field trips as key contributors to making the Calgary Science School a very good school. 100% of the students indicated by a show of hands that these themes were in their view what make the Calgary Science School a great school. As well, the students in 100% of the class interviews made reference to the dedicated teachers and school staff members as a special strength of the school.

Student Commendations
  1. Learning through Inquiry (100%) - Representative comments include: we appreciate the hands-on learning activities and learning through inquiry; we learn outside the box and go more in depth and learning through inquiry makes it possible to explore interesting ideas and to get into developing a deeper understanding.
  2. Outdoor Education/School Field Trips (100%) - Representative comments include: we appreciate the freedom to explore learning beyond the classroom and the focus on hands-on learning in a natural setting; we learn so much through the outdoor education experiences including how to build positive relationships and to appreciate nature.
  3. Using Technology to Enhance Learning Experiences (100%) - Representative comments include: our access to technology opens up many new possibilities for learning and demonstrating our learning and learning is made more meaningful and interesting through technology.
  4. Dedicated Teachers and School Staff Members (100%) - Representative comments include: our teachers truly care about their students and what they are teaching; they are fair and considerate and they find ways to build positive relationships with the students; the teachers are enthusiastic, knowledgeable about what they are teaching and helpful and supportive; the teachers give students the freedom to learn in different ways and they teach students to be responsible; our teachers engage us in exploring big questions that relate to real-life experiences and they engage students through a variety of approaches to learning; our teachers help students develop a deep understanding; they give students the freedom to learn together and to learn from each other and they try to help all students to succeed. The caretaking staff does a great job of keeping the school clean and making it like home and the office staff members are very friendly and accommodating.
The following additional areas of commendation (with a response rate of 33% or more) were identified:
  1. Freedom and Responsibility to Learn Independently (58%) - Representative comments include: students are given choices on how they learn as long as they are good choices which are respectful of others and students have a voice in their learning and what goes on in the school.
  2. Electives Provide Valuable Learning Experiences (58%) - Representative comments include: it is good to have a variety of electives which are interesting and worthwhile and we enjoy the fun things we do and different learning opportunities we have through the electives.
  3. Hands-on Learning Activities and Learning Activities which Connect to Real-life Experiences (50%) - Representative comments include: we learn best through meaningful projects and hands-on learning activities.
  4. Safe ,Caring Climate and Culture in the School (42%) - Representative comments include: students appreciate how well the school is taking care of; it is very clean and everyone takes pride in the school building; we get many opportunities for collaboration and we are like one big community and everyone is friendly and everyone gets along well with each other.
  5. The Culture of Innovation (33%) - Representative comments include: students are encouraged to be creative and innovative and to go beyond by pushing the boundaries.

Renaming the School - In response to the discussion of the process of renaming the school, approximately 40% to 60% of the students expressed support for renaming the school with the others feeling that there is no need to change the name. It was suggested that there should be a participatory process to identify renaming possibilities, similar to the process used for the grade 9 CSS Reads project and that if there is not significant support for a proposed new name, it should remain as it is.

Offering a Calgary Science School Senior High School Program - Approximately 30 to 40% of the grade 8 and 9 students would be interested in participating in a senior high school program which was modelled on the Calgary Science School charter goals and principles and approximately 80% of the students in other grades indicated that they would be interested in exploring this possibility further. The grade 8 and 9 students, in discussing this possibility, made reference to their interest in having a choice of various programs such as IB and AP and specialized Performing and Visual Arts programs and having opportunities to deal with new challenges and to learn to adapt to different situations.
Student Suggestions for Further Consideration

The following suggestions for further consideration (with a response rate of 17% or more) were identified through the student interviews:

  1.  Make Enhancements to the Use of Technology (54%) - Representative comments include: Students and teachers should have more preparation in the use of a variety of computer applications to enhance learning and teaching and the older laptops used by grade 8 and 9 student should be replaced.
  2. Lunch Programs (30%) - Representative comments include: we are concerned about losing our hot lunch program and we would like to have it every day. We would like to have a microwave in every classroom to heat our lunches.
  3. Family Groupings should be Discontinued or Significantly Enhanced (25%) - Representative comments include: the program needs more structure and better organization; the grade 9 students find it difficult to meaningfully interact with the younger students.
  4. Provide More Opportunities to Participate in Extracurricular Activities and School Sports Teams (25%) - Representative comments include: the grade 4 and 5 students in particular, as well as other students would like to have the opportunity to participate in intramural sports activities.
  5. Do More to Make Our School a Green, Environmentally Friendly School (25%)- Representative comments include: we should build on what we are doing like the recycling program and introduce energy saving measures like blow dryers rather than paper towels in washrooms and we should design and create an outdoor classroom.
  6. Make Improvements to the Playing Field (21%) - Representative comments include: we should take some time to do a major clean-up and to make enhancements to the playing field and we should do more to naturalize the school grounds and create more green areas.
  7. Organize Special Activities and Events for the Grade 4 to 6 Students (17%) - Representative comments include: the teachers and students should work together in identifying several theme day/fun activities throughout the year.
  8. Provide Appropriate Personal Storage Spaces for Grades 4 and 5 (17%) - Representative comments include: if it is not possible to have lockers we would like to have some place like cubbies in our classroom where we can keep our personal belongings.
  9. Make Some Enhancements to the Electives (17%) - Representative comments include: the staff room for foods preparation and the woodworking room should be used as much as possible because these are popular electives and it would be good to have double periods for the electives to allow for more in-depth learning experiences.
  10. Give the Junior High Level Students More Opportunities to Develop Independence and Responsibility (17%) - Representative comments include: junior high students should be treated differently than elementary students; they should be able to eat their lunches in other classrooms and do more social networking and more thought should be given to strategies for preparing them for senior high school.
  11. Improve the Change Room Situation (17%) - Representative comments include: the ideal would be to have appropriate change rooms and shower facilities, but if this is not possible other strategies should be considered like designating the washrooms as change rooms at certain times (prior to and after physical education classes).
There are an additional 18 suggestions for improvement generated by the students which are outlined in the full summary document.

Staff Interviews

Informal interviews were conducted with 42 staff members and they were asked to share a few observations in response to the questions, “What causes you to believe the Calgary Science School is a very good school and what suggestions for improvement would you offer?” The following, major areas of commendation (20% or more), were identified by the staff members:

Staff Commendations

  1. Collaboration Within the School and Beyond (62%) - Representative comments include: we appreciate and support the concerted effort which is made to promote and facilitate collaboration throughout the school: in the classrooms among students and teachers, throughout the school among teachers and the leadership team, with parents as partners in educating their children and with professional colleagues outside of the school. Rather than working in isolation, through shared planning and teacher teams, visits to our school and visits to other schools, we are able to build on new ideas and be inspired by others.
  2. Leadership and Support from the Administration/Leadership Team (57%) - Representative comments include: we are given responsibility and freedom to explore different learning and teaching strategies and the encouragement to take risks. We appreciate the ongoing support and the leadership team knows how to steer the ship and where to steer the ship.
  3. Very Capable and Highly Dedicated Staff (48%) - Representative comments include: the staff members are highly committed to doing the best for students. The teachers are creative and are not afraid to take risks and try different things and they are always pushing themselves to make improvements.
  4. Excellent Students (45%) - Representative comments include: we are having some awesome learning experiences with the students and they are keen and responsive. The students are amazing, they understand the meaning and joy of learning, they care about themselves as learners and they take ownership for their learning.
  5. Great Vision for the School, Moving in the Right Direction (45%) - Representative comments include: our 15 year charter document, guiding principles, vision, mission and goals and exemplary learning, teaching and leading documents provide an excellent framework for visionary action as a school community. We continue to be on the upswing and we are making the jump from good to great.
  6. Focus on Professional Development and the Ongoing professional Growth of Teachers (36%) -Representative comments include: as a school we are consistently doing things well and we continue to learn from other teachers in our school, through school tours and the opportunities to participate in tours to other schools and a variety of professional development activities. The professional development focus, funding and time is exceptionally good and certainly is a key to the success of the school.
  7. Culture of Trust, Mutual Respect, Transparency and Open Communication which Prevails Throughout the School (33%) - Representative comments include: the culture of the school is happy and it is a good place to be; there truly is a sense that we’re all in it together.
  8. Parental involvement and support (23%) - Representative comments include: parents trust us with their children and they are incredibly supportive.
  9. Outdoor and Environmental Education Programs and Taking Learning Beyond the Classroom (21%) - Representative comments include: the outdoor and environmental education programs and the emphasis on taking learning beyond the classroom are key components of the school learning activities and the success of the school.

There are an additional seven areas of commendation identified by staff members which are included in the summary document.

Staff Suggestions for Further Consideration

 The following suggestions for further consideration (with a response rate of 14% or more) were identified through the staff interviews:

  1. Enhance Professional Development Programs and Initiatives (57 %) - Representative comments include: there should be a greater emphasis on carefully and thoughtfully planning staff professional development activities. We need to keep coming back to the inquiry rubric and using it as a framework for our professional growth. Our professional development activities should focus on and support our charter goals and exemplary learning and teaching frameworks.
  2. Make Improvements to Family Groupings (26%) - Representative comments include: family groupings is a good idea but there is room for significant improvement; we need to give students more leadership roles in organizing and facilitating activities for family groupings and we need more consistency and continuity in what we are doing.
  3. Increase the Involvement of the Principal and Assistant Principals in Working Directly with Teachers (26%) - Representative comments include: we would like to have more feedback on our teaching practices, what is working well and ideas for improvement and it would be good to have more involvement of the administration in working with teachers in planning learning activities.
  4. Provide More Depth in Learning Experiences Through Greater Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Planning (21%) - Representative comments include: we need to do more to promote collaboration and interdisciplinary work and we should develop a new model along the lines of the Rocky View/CSS inquiry initiatives to promote communities of practice within the school.
  5. Increase the Emphasis on Global and Environmental Education as a School Community (21%) – Representative comments include: we should have a global and environmental strand which serves as a focus for classroom activities as well as out of school activities throughout the school year and we should identify some significant questions and issues that the entire school will explore.
  6. Implement New Strategies for Addressing the Special Needs of Our Students (19%) -Representative comments include: there are some students who have some significant personal challenges and while we need to keep the focus on learning and teaching, we don’t want to lose sight of the personal stories of the students. We need to keep building on what we’re doing to promote inclusive practices and to have each student feel valued.
  7. Enhance Communication Processes (17%) - Representative comments include: currently we have too many forms of communicating with students and parents such as Edmodo and teacher websites and we should be more consistent through, for example, using the school website for communication. We need to do a better job of communicating the vision and the nature of learning experiences of the school because they do not always seem to be clearly understood by parents. The website could use a major overhaul.
  8. Continue to actively pursue having a second campus for another middle school (14%) - Representative comments include: a second campus would open up opportunities for professional growth and for enhancing our ability to share our learning experiences and best practices with others as well as demonstrate that what we are doing in CSS can be replicated.
  9. Prepare Junior High School Students for the Transition to Senior High School (14%) -Representative comments include: we need to give junior high level students more freedoms and opportunities to develop their independence. We should keep working on the vision of developing students as extraordinary citizens.
  10. Enhance Outdoor Education/Field Trip experiences and Other Out-of- School Learning Experiences (14%) - Representative comments include: we are moving in a positive direction in outdoor education by having a plan and making closer connections to curricular learning outcomes. We need to ensure that out-of-school learning experiences are connected to the in- school learning experiences.

As well there are 32 additional suggestions for improvement outlined in the full summary document.

Concluding Observations

     There was a very positive response from the parents, students and staff members to the opportunity to share their views in regard to areas of commendation and suggestions for further consideration relating to the Calgary Science School. Clearly, there is agreement that there is something very special about the Calgary Science School and there is strong support for the emphasis on providing a comprehensive program with rich learning experiences in mathematics, science, the humanities, physical education, performing and visual arts and a variety of electives. The feedback from parents, students and staff members all strongly support the charter goals, mission, vision and guiding principles which are outlined in the 15 year charter document approved by the Minister of Education in July 2012. The participants expressed very strong support for the emphasis on learning through a disposition of inquiry, enhancing learning and teaching through the appropriate use of technology and providing authentic, engaging learning experiences in the school and beyond through the extensive outdoor education/field trips and out-of-school programs. Major strengths of the school, in addition to those outlined above, which were identified by the students, parents and staff members include the: exemplary work of the teachers and staff members; freedom and responsibility to learn independently; electives which provide valuable learning experiences; focus on hands-on learning and connecting learning to real-life experiences; safe, caring climate and culture in the school; culture of innovation; collaboration within the school and beyond; leadership and support from the administration/leadership team; students and their commitment to benefiting from all the school has to offer; focus on professional development and the ongoing professional growth of teachers; culture of trust, mutual respect, transparency and open communication and the high level of parental involvement and support.

     As well, there were a number of suggestions for improvement that will serve as an excellent framework for action as plans are made for the next school year. Specific suggestions for improvement include: enhance communication processes; give more attention to developing student cursive writing skills; consider the possibility of offering a second language; restructure the student led/parent-teacher conferences; consider the possibility of offering a Calgary Science School Senior High School program; make enhancements to the use of technology; make provisions for school lunch programs; discontinue or significantly enhance family groupings; provide more opportunities for students to participate in extracurricular activities and school sports; do more to make CSS a green, environmentally friendly school; make improvements to the playing field; organize special activities and events for the grade 4 to 6 students; provide appropriate personal storage spaces for the grade 4 and 5 students; make enhancements to the electives; give junior high students more opportunities to develop independence and responsibility; improve the change room situation; enhance professional development programs and initiatives; provide more depth in learning experiences through greater interdisciplinary collaboration and planning; implement new strategies for addressing the special needs of students; increase the involvement of the principal and assistant principals in working directly with teachers; increase the emphasis on global environmental education as a school community; continue to actively pursue having a second campus for another middle school; prepare junior high students for the transition to senior high school and enhance outdoor education/field trip experiences and other out of school learning experiences.

Interested individuals are encouraged to make reference to the detailed description of commendations and recommendations for further consideration outlined in the report document which is posted on the website and available through the school office.


Anonymous said...

In discussing the school with former students what was interesting is that students felt ill-prepared for High School. With all of the Inquiry and close connections with teachers and staff this is surprising but given the parent population that is inolved maybe not so surprising.

What I feel has always been missing at CSS is a stricter behaviour policy. CSS students are not given a clear path and understanding of what is expected of them. When they make mistakes, the punishments are insignificant. Because of this, many students feel that they can then get away with more. This overall lack of respect from students makes it difficult on those that want to be there.

Garry McKinnon said...

Thank you very much for sharing your insights which it would seem come from the perspective of a former Calgary Science School student. We are interested in the views of students in regard to attending another school for senior high school and have engaged the Galileo Educational Network Association to conduct a research involving the experiences of Calgary Science School students in making the transition to a grade 10 program in another school. We anticipate receiving the report from this research in the next few weeks. The informal feedback we receive from former students and/or parents of former students is that they very much appreciate the nature of learning and teaching which they experienced in the Calgary Science School. As you will note from the interview feedback from students and parents highlighted in this blog, there has been significant interest expressed in exploring the possibility of offering a senior high school program based on the Calgary Science School charter goals and guiding principles.

It is interesting that you make reference to the approach to discipline in the school; over the four years in which I have conducted the interviews of students, parents and staff members there have been very few, if any, references to discipline. There seems to be strong support for and appreciation of the emphasis in the school on giving students responsibility for their learning and for the manner in which they conduct themselves and focus on respect for oneself and for others as the guiding principle in the school. Students express appreciation for the freedom they are given to learn in different ways and the strong sense in the school that, “this is a good place to be, we are all in this together and it is never just an ordinary day”.

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