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Best School System in North America

Edmonton’s common-sense revolution helped students and the local economy

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Any other radical changes that made a big difference?

We allowed open enrollment (parents can enroll their children at any school in the district that has room for them). It’s important for a couple of reasons. Schools take on ownership for their “clients,” the kids. I remember one principal who was very rigid, arbitrary and didn’t have good listening skills. In the first year he lost 175 kids to the neighboring school. The next year he lost 75. The school with all the new kids wanted portables because it was over capacity, so I said, “Why don’t you lease space in the empty school?” By the third year a reversal started to take place as that rigid principal accepted that he had to serve a customer. Under the previous system, you didn’t view the students as customers but as inmates.

How do you get people to accept change?

You align the resources around the entity responsible for results. If your people are not behaving the way you want them to behave, rather than trying to change the people, you should change the organization and thank the people for letting you know the organization was not working. You can command people’s presence but not their performance. So to change, you give them the responsibility. When we wanted to go districtwide with this new system, the CFO said, “You want to give the money to the bank robbers, the principals?” I said, “You’re half right; I want to make the bank robbers into bank managers.” The only people who are responsible are the people given responsibility. It makes such a difference when everyone is together around a common goal, the performance of that school.

What was the impact on the community and the economy?

When I went to work as a consultant in Washington, D.C., polls showed that public concern over education (in Edmonton) was rated at just 6 percent compared with around 40 percent in D.C. The community was no longer worried about how its children were being educated. A quality school system is now a given.

Graduation rates aren’t an issue. That means students are going on to college and careers.

How do you know if you are succeeding?

We had to develop our own instruments to measure success – we didn’t really have any. But we began to see scores improving markedly. Every year there are also surveys – of the students, of the teachers and staff, of the parents. Those results are available in every school and at the district level so prospective parents can shop for the school they like and know how it’s rated. Even students in the elementary grades are surveyed, with questions like: “Are people in the office nice to you?” “Do you feel the teacher likes you?” “Does your teacher help you when you ask questions?” “Do you feel safe at school?” Things like that. One of the questions we ask parents on the surveys is, “Are you satisfied with the opportunity for interscholastic sports?” If there are no teams in a school but it still gets a high satisfaction rating, we believe that school community has accepted the trade-off – forsaking athletics for
other things.

How much do the schools emphasize athletics?

Schools offer what their individual communities want. And that is decided jointly by parents, teachers, students and staff. For instance, if your school doesn’t have a football team, you can try out for one at a school that does. Kids can try out for any one of the teams at any of the high schools in the city. We even hit on the idea of schools having two teams in the same sport if there is a lot of demand and that’s what they chose. But we also had a high school where super-elite marks are required. It didn’t have a gym. But its program is advertised on the basis of that, so if you came to that school you knew that, and if you wanted sports you tried out elsewhere.

What about private or religious schools? Do they siphon off the best students?

The public system is so good that private schools have diminished. And religious schools can be part of the public system, as long as religion is not taught during the school day. So they can also exist within the public system. As well, a school community has a broad option of developing just exactly what it wants to look like. Alternative programs, such as French immersion, a Ukrainian bilingual school were two of the first. But choices soon became even broader, and included a group of Christian schools and a Hebrew language school. Public education should be able to encompass everybody. They pay their taxes so we should be able to serve them.

What happens when a school continually loses enrollment?

As superintendent, it was my job to see that our facilities were balanced. If we had a school losing enrollment, the best way to get it up was a good principal who could draw good teachers and draw students back into the school. The end result was that everyone in the school was trying to do their level best. That’s very different than dissipating your energies in wheel-spinning and complaining about the system.

Change is difficult for many people. How did you get the people at the central office to give up control?

In bringing about change you have to look at getting a community of support. We didn’t do it by dictatorial order. Our unions were very strong and we had to make sure that what we did was work with unions, work with our people and get a high degree of buy-in. In working with the central office, one of the keys was communication and keeping everyone informed of what is being done. With the unions we told them everything we were doing. We did not ask them to approve it. We said, “We’re trying something and if it works, great. And if not, we’ll abandon it.” I’ve learned that when you’re going to make a change of this size, it’s very important that you honor the systems – the new one – and those working their buns off to make the current one work. So I felt if we guaranteed that everyone would have a job – though the jobs may change – that would lower the resistance. If it did, it didn’t feel any different. Most people are interested in: “What’s in it for me?” So you talk about what’s in it for them because people need to be reassured. Therefore, making them aware of the plans – and to stay ahead of the rumors – was important.

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Old to new | New to old
Apr 30, 2010 09:15 am
 Posted by  AnEdmontonParent

There is no doubt that we have some fine schools in Edmonton; However there are very serious problems as well. There is no simple solution to excellence in Education. Please, look carefully at any approach taken, especially ones that sound too good to be true. The current system is inefficient and our Superintendent is reorganizing it to attempt to deal with one of the highest dropout rates in Canada.

Apr 30, 2010 11:14 am
 Posted by  Heather MacKenzie

While I appreciate some aspects of our relatively decentralized school system in Edmonton, it has not been a 'silver bullet' solution, and it has created some challenges as well. Because of our consumer based model, we do not always think about the best interests of our communities and there are many problems that our unions have identified in managing maintenance and custodial staff at an individual school level - old schools have been getting run down and closed in part due to these problems.

Apr 30, 2010 11:42 am
 Posted by  Christopher Spencer

This article appears at the same time the current superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools is bring forward a plan to centralize many of the services Mr. Strembitsky turned over to site-based decision-making during his term. The lesson we are learning in Edmonton is that ideology is not a good way to run an educational system. That's the real silo -- getting stuck in right-wing or left-wing thinking. In all things we need to put the kids first, not the system.

May 3, 2010 01:16 pm
 Posted by  Randy Roth

Of course the Edmonton school district has challenges, as do all districts, especially in times of belt-tightening. But Edmonton is NOT moving away from the principles of site-based decision making. The opposite is true. Those principles continue to be "fundamental," according to the current superintendent. Proponents of top-down management sometimes confuse the issues. The question is whether to align resources with responsibility. Edmonton said yes in 1970s and says yes now.

May 9, 2010 09:01 am
 Posted by  AnEdmontonParent

Edmonton public schools have a very high dropout rate and achievement that is no better than similar districts in the area. Their board is proposing a new tax to deal with inadequately maintained schools. For those interested in a current, peer reviewed consideration read: “Three decades of choice in Edmonton schools” in the Journal of Education Policy Vol. 23, No. 5, September 2008, 549–566. Many in Edmonton are saying no. Sadly, some have already left the district because of poor management.

Oct 12, 2010 06:25 pm
 Posted by  Former Edmonton Public School Principal

As a former principal and teacher in Edmonton Public Schools, and now actively involved as a US national school reform consultant and consultant business owner in the US, I still hold proud the days that I spent in Edmonton when Mike Strembitsky was Superintendent. I didn't understand how empowered we were to set our own course and to have the freedom and flexibility (partnered with high accountability) to determine program design. I continue to be amazed at what we were able to accomplish.

Oct 12, 2010 06:36 pm
 Posted by  Former Edmonton Public School Principal

Continuing with the above, I have worked as an education consultant in more than 20 of the US States since moving from Edmonton, but I've yet to see the kind of public school system where responsibility and accountability are so beautifully linked. I don't know where the district is headed now, but I do know that when I was there in the 80s and 90s, site-based decision making really did work - it was both top down and bottom up. Truly, I don't know that anyone really understood how lucky we were

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