Class sizes a challenge for P.E.I. schools

By J. Alan McIsaac (guest opinion)

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on June 7, 2014

Education Minister Alan McIsaac

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to your editorial of May 30, 2014. This is indeed a challenging time for public education in P.E.I.

As minister of education and early childhood development, supporting student achievement is my number one priority. My department has worked with our partners to face some of the challenges in our education system, including declining enrolment, class sizes and ensuring our students graduate with the skills required to compete in the global labour force.

From 2001-2009, P.E.I.’s school population declined by over 3,500 students. Despite this decline, 71 teaching positions were added to the system during this period.

In 2010-11, our government added approximately 1,400 kindergarten students and hired an additional 132 teachers. Since then, the student population has further declined by 1,000 students and is expected to decline by 750 more by 2016.

To put it simply, in 15 years we will have lost the equivalent of the student population of our eight largest high schools. In response to this decline, over the past three years, we have removed 106 teaching positions from the system.

I am aware of concerns about removing teaching positions. We informed the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation of our intention to remove positions and negotiated with them about when, how and how many. We agreed all positions would be removed through retirements and there would be no layoffs.

Since the completion of these negotiations, my deputy minister and I have met with the school boards, the P.E.I. Home and School Federation and various other groups, to make them aware of the situation. I have been visiting schools regularly and have heard the views of teachers directly.

Our present average class size ranges from 14.5 students per class in kindergarten to 22 in Grade 6. By way of comparison, Nova Scotia’s average class size varies from 20-23 students in 2012 (primary to Grade 6).

British Columbia, which finished second in Canada and 12th in the OECD countries that participated in the recent PISA assessment, reports average class size ranging from 19-26 students (kindergarten to Grade 7).

What is very challenging in Prince Edward Island is the differences between class sizes in various schools. There may be as many as 15 students in the difference between the smallest and largest class in a given grade; one school might have, on average, as many as seven students more per class than another. I have a great deal of confidence in how the school boards and their superintendents have responded to this challenge.

For example, the resources to offer Reading Recovery are not available in all schools this coming year. Instead, seven schools will offer a Primary Literacy Intervention Program to struggling readers in Grade 1. I have been advised that the English Language School Board will also implement a three-year plan to assign literacy coaches directly to schools to support teachers and students. I am confident that the expertise is in place to make these interventions successful.

The deputy minister and I recently met with the executive of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce and presented at the annual meeting of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation. The chamber indicated that our presentation addressed many of the issues impacting student performance in our province. They also made a number of helpful recommendations.

The P.E.I. Home and School Federation indicated that it has passed several resolutions aimed at broadening and deepening the dynamic of parents as partners in education, which we fully support.

I believe that our educational partners, such as the school boards, the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation, and the P.E.I. Home and School Federation, are all working to ensure that Island students thrive, achieve and succeed.

To ensure that our students leave Grade 12 prepared for university, college, apprenticeship or the labour market, we will continue to work closely with all our partners so that our resources are used as effectively as possible for all students. Let’s continue to work together to support student achievement in Prince Edward Island.

J. Alan McIsaac is P.E.I.’s minister of education and early childhood development.