Friday, May 25, 2007

Fraser Institute findings ought to worry us
May 25, 2007

The Fraser Institute’s annual ranking of B.C. schools is one of those things that sparks controversy every time among teachers, principals and parents. A bad ranking really spoils people’s day.
Critics of the annual ritual say the good of a school simply isn’t evident solely on the basis of how its students perform on assessment tests. There’s much more to doing a good job than test scores can ever measure, they argue.
Those are valid points. Schools are complex places, and tests are simplistic tools.
But with all due respect to the many hard-working school teachers out there, the institute’s school-by-school analysis is still worth talking about. Uncomfortable as it may be, we have much to discuss in terms of the significant gaps the institute identifies between B.C.’s schools.
In its most recent report, the institute rated the province’s elementary schools. The ratings are primarily about how well a school’s young students did when tested in Grade 4 and again in Grade 7 on their reading and numeracy skills.
Once upon a time, the institute’s report didn’t tell you much more than the test scores. But the information now being gathered includes more detail, like the percentage of a school’s students who are categorized as special needs, or are learning English as a second language.
Not surprisingly, the Fraser Institute report reveals that higher numbers of students with those additional challenges generally correlates with a school’s poorer academic performance.
But not always, which is why the school-by-school analysis ought to be mandatory reading for every parent in the province.
What the figures show is that throughout the province, things are not going well in some of our schools.
Of the 154 Vancouver Island schools surveyed, very nearly half now have 20 per cent or more of their students performing below Ministry of Education expectations. At one Nanaimo school, the majority of students scored below expectations.
That ought to worry us.
Schools can be measured any number of ways, and tests aren’t even necessarily the best way. But the percentage of students performing below expectations in provincial tests is still a significant indicator of overall school performance.
If scores are low in B.C. because there are an abundance of young students needing special-needs support or help learning English as a second language (ESL), then more of that kind of support will be needed to fix the problem.
But those challenges alone don’t explain everything about why some Island schools do poorly.
At Nanaimo’s North Oyster school, for instance, some of the poor test performance can likely be attributed to having 23.6 per cent ESL students, let alone another 8.3 per cent with special needs. It’s the obvious explanation for why more than half of the North Oyster students are scoring below provincial expectations.
Except that at Torquay Elementary here in Victoria, the percentage of ESL students is 30 per cent, and 8.7 per cent of the students have special needs. Yet only three per cent of their students scored below expectations.
Why such a gap? I hope we would want to know. We need to know, if only for the sake of every little kid who’s trusting us to provide a useful education.
At 14 Island elementaries, at least 30 per cent of the students are performing below expectations. The problem seems particularly alarming in the Nanaimo school district, which has eight of those 14 schools.
The rates of ESL and special-needs students fluctuate dramatically at those poorly performing schools. The level of challenge is definitely a factor in overall school performance, but clearly not the only one.
In the Comox Valley, Cumberland Elementary has just 3.1 per cent ESL students, and 7.9 per cent special needs. Over at Glacier View Elementary, there are twice as many ESL students, and almost twice as many special-needs students.
But when it comes to student performance, Glacier View scores notably higher. Twenty per cent of its students scored below provincial expectations, compared to almost 33 per cent at the Cumberland school.
That’s not to suggest we leap to the conclusion that the problem is about teaching quality. Still, something’s obviously up. Whatever the reasons behind our schools’ failings, we need to take them very seriously. We need to know why they’re happening.
Statistics have to be handled with care, of course. It just might turn out that the real problem is the Grades 4 and 7 assessments themselves, or that the student populations being looked at for the study are too small to be translated into meaningful percentages.
But we owe it to B.C.’s kids to figure that out. Maintaining an effective public system means addressing the inexplicable differences in performance at our schools before the gaps grow any larger.
Visit for school-by-school results. And if it looks like your child’s school is struggling to meet standards, ask why.
Peace in a kayak
May 18, 2007

Being a woman of many enthusiasms, I was bound to stumble upon kayaking sooner or later.
I’d been curious about it for years. How can you grow up on an island without feeling the pull of being out on the water?
Boats had figured more prominently in my life in my younger years - the benefit of growing up in an era when Vancouver Island’s then-thriving logging and fishing industries put real money in people’s pockets.
But except for a canoe or two, it had never been me who’d owned those boats. Eventually there came a time when the only boating I was regularly experiencing was aboard a BC ferry, on a routine journey so familiar to me that it barely felt like being on the water at all.
Kayakers caught my eye throughout the Ferry Years, but I tended to write the sport off as something that would require more skill, knowledge and money than I was prepared to invest.
I guess they just looked so sleek and expert out there in their beautiful boats that I assumed I couldn’t easily become one of them.
Then came a sunny, warm weekend last September, when my partner and I finally acted on our much talked-about plans to rent kayaks for a couple hours. We launched into the Gorge with only the briefest of instructions around how to hold our paddles.
The love affair was on.
September turned out to be an ideal time to fall in love, what with it being the season of the sell-off in the world of rental kayaks. By the next weekend, we were the proud owners of two slightly used kayaks, paddles and life jackets, for less than $1,500 all in.
I’ve kayaked almost every weekend since then. It’s been a transforming experience.
My little plastic kayak is light enough for me to sling easily into the back of my pickup truck, and to lug from the parking lot to whatever small beach I’ve found for my launch.
I assumed initially that I’d put my kayaking on hold when the winter cold set in, but I never did.
It turns out there’s a miraculous invention known as the “pogey” - a big neoprene mitt that fits over your hand and paddle - that keeps your hands toasty no matter the weather. A half-decent waterproof jacket and pants take care of the rest.
As for gentle ocean waters for a beginner to learn on, a Capital Region kayaker couldn’t be more blessed.
The Gorge. Portage Inlet. The Inner Harbour. Esquimalt Harbour. Saanich Inlet. Esquimalt Lagoon. Sooke basin. With basic paddling knowledge and even a rudimentary understanding of tides and weather, there are easily a couple dozen two- or three-hour paddles in our region suitable for a beginner.
I’ve made some bad calls, mind you. One particularly cold December day in Portage Inlet, I got stuck on the wrong side of surface ice blocking my route home, and then trapped in the middle of it. (No rescue necessary - I managed to hack my way through.)
Another time, I found myself paddling feverishly but barely moving while fighting a strong current near Sooke Harbour, after what had already been an exhausting couple of hours in choppy water.
But a tubby little plastic kayak turns out to be quite a stable fellow. Coupled with my healthy fear of the power of the ocean, that has made for very few scary moments.
If ducks are your thing, kayaking in the winter is a bird bonanza. Having limited most of my previous boating to summer months, I’d had no idea of the vast varieties of ducks that winter in our waters.
With summer now approaching, the scene has changed: the ducks largely gone, but ospreys, eagles and hawks now everywhere. Seals and otters are common viewing fare on every trip.
Even if nature isn’t your thing, kayaking has other pleasures. For one, you can’t believe the spectacular, over-the-top waterfront homes going up around our region.
A paddle from Brentwood Bay to Patricia Bay one day this week left me agog at the massive new houses along that route. There’s a kayak-based real estate service just waiting to be discovered, because there’s no more appealing way to view a waterfront mansion than from the water.
On the night of the winter solstice, Dec. 21, my partner and I slipped our kayaks into the Gorge to look at Christmas lights. I could see that short trip developing into an annual event if we could figure out a way to lure more waterfront homeowners into lighting up for the season.
So if you’ve wondered even a little about whether you might like kayaking, make this the year to test your theory. Serenity is a rare commodity in these clamorous times, and for me to have found it so close at hand has been a most wonderful gift.
See you on the water.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Beware the spin
May 11, 2007

News flash: Vancouver’s safe-injection site causes more harm than good.
So says the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, which last week reported “serious problems in the interpretation of findings” in a review of 10 studies about the site.
Research on the three-year-old site has to this point mostly been positive. Among other things, there’s been a drop in social disorder in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, an increase in the number of drug users wanting treatment, and successful interventions in 400-plus potentially fatal overdoses.
But prevention-network research director Colin Mangham contends the real picture is not nearly so rosy. He reviewed some of the studies and found that while they “give the impression the facility is successful. . . the research clearly shows a lack of progress, impact and success.”
Mangham’s findings were reported straight up by Canadian Press last week. They also made their way unchallenged into the on-line edition of Maclean’s magazine, CBC Radio, and some Canadian newspapers.
But as a number of intrepid bloggers have pointed out, the mainstream media outlets that took the CP story at its word did a disservice to anyone looking for all the facts.
A couple of rudimentary Google searches are all it takes to flush out some interesting details, as proven by the bloggers who looked a little deeper into the Mangham report.
Searching on the name of the group that wrote it, for instance, reveals that the organization is privately funded, abstinence-based, and headed by former Reform/Alliance MP Randy White. The vice-president of REAL Women Canada sits on the network’s board, as do representatives from a number of Christian groups.
Search on Mangham’s name and you’ll find that while he’s a genuine drug-policy researcher, his primary focus is abstinence.
His particular knowledge is around tobacco. Mangham runs the provincially funded Prevention Source BC, which aims to stop people from smoking.
Search on the name of the publication where Mangham’s report first ran, the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice, and you’ll learn that it’s funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sitting on its editorial board are U.S. groups such as the Drug-Free Schools Coalition, the Drug Free America Foundation, and the National Drug Prevention Alliance.
The journal has published just two issues.
The first featured critiques of liberal marijuana policies. The second focused on harm-reduction programs like the safe-injection site, with headlines including “The Lure and Loss of Harm Reduction in UK Drug Policy and Practice,” and “Is it Harm Reduction or Harm Continuation?”
Nothing wrong with differing viewpoints on drug use and harm reduction, of course. A safe injection site is, after all, just a tiny piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing the harms of addiction.
Ultimately, the Manghams of the world want to prevent the many miseries caused by drugs. I can’t fault them for that.
But being able to weight the findings of those with something to say on this most vital issue is of critical importance. We can’t afford to keep on making wrong moves in our drug policy.
Health care. Justice. Human rights. Urban renewal. Personal safety. Child welfare. On all fronts, we’re feeling the impact of drug addiction. Add in the exponential effect of leaving a growing problem to fester unattended, and the future looks downright ugly.
So if we hope to do something about that, we need to be informed as never before. We need the facts, presented as often as possible without the spin of a special-interest group in the background.
We don’t need this forces-of-good/evil approach anymore when it comes to our drug policy. It’s not working. We need clear-eyed thinking and well-reasoned approaches, all of it based on proven, efficient strategies.
Hearing what people like Mangham have to say is part of that process. I’ve got no quarrel with some of his or Randy White’s thoughts on dealing with addiction, particularly around providing easy access to treatment for anyone who wants it.
But knowing how to weight the blizzard of “facts” we’re presented with on any given day requires knowing more about whose facts they are, and what’s the context.
So no problem with the mainstream media running a story about a literature review published in a fledgling anti-harm-reduction publication funded by U.S. anti-drug interests. Or that the author of the review is a long-time foe of harm-reduction strategies with the support of some of the most conservative groups in Canada.
But we really need to know all that going in. In this case, the bloggers made sure that we did. The mainstream media didn’t.
The lessons learned? Trust no one, me included. Verify your own facts. Know the sources of the information you’re using to form your opinion.
And in the interests of better Canadian drug policy, do it soon.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Don't tear down the Kinsol Trestle
May 5, 2007

People have been debating the future of the Kinsol Trestle for a year now. I admit to barely paying attention to a word of it.
I guess it just didn’t seem like something I needed to care about. But then my partner and I went to see the trestle for ourselves last Sunday.
It’s spectacular. Tearing it down would be a terrible thing. Count me an instant convert to the “save the Kinsol” movement.
Perhaps it’s a recent trip to Europe that has me thinking about the importance of preserving history.
Had our global ancestors been even a fraction as hasty as us in tearing down history, I’d have missed out on the amazing feeling of stepping into the past. Deep thanks to several millennia’s worth of taxpayers who have willingly borne the cost of history’s upkeep.
The pyramids of Mexico and Egypt. Greek ruins. Ancient churches. England’s Roman baths. Nothing you can read about them, or watch on television, can ever come close to experiencing them first-hand. There’s nothing like it.
Even the places where great ugliness has happened are spellbinding. They can be unbearably hard to look at - a concentration camp, the Ghanian slave prisons - but we need them to remind us of times when we did the unthinkable.
Like so many of the wonders of the world, the Kinsol Trestle is both marvel and tragedy.
The trestle is a beauty, and a wonderful reminder of B.C.’s past. On the day we visited, the tight little river valley that the trestle spans was sunny and inviting. We walked up and down, to see the trestle from all angles, and I could feel the tremendous vision and hard work that must have gone in to getting it built.
But men died building the massive structure. On that front, the trestle also serves as a reminder of the immense challenge it would have been in 1921 to build a structure so grand, high above the valley floor.
The trestle has been through a heck of a lot since being brought to life, the last 28 years of which have been quite ignominious. Abandoned by its former railway owners in 1979 and already in a state of disrepair, the trestle has been profoundly neglected in intervening years.
Its fate was sealed in a report last year that concluded it was too wrecked to fix. The province is planning to spend $1.5 million to tear it down, and another $1.6 million through the B.C. pathway program Local Motion to build a different bridge.
I’m no engineer, but even my untrained eye could see that parts of the trestle are in rough shape. I don’t know whether it’s realistic to restore it to working shape again.
But that doesn’t mean we have to tear it down. If it simply isn’t feasible to restore the Kinsol Trestle as a working pathway, then by all means, let’s build a different bridge.
But why does the trestle need to be torn down to accomplish that? We might just change our minds one day about a full restoration, or find other ways to fund the work. Why not repair the worst of the damage right now and leave the trestle standing?
New Democrat MLA John Horgan was quoted a year ago saying that getting across the river is “more important than preserving rotting timber.”
It needn’t be either/or. We can choose to get people across the river and preserve history at the same time. Building a new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians would, in fact, provide incomparable views of a preserved Kinsol Trestle.
And it might even save money. The Cowichan Valley Regional District figures it would cost $6.2 million to restore the existing trestle to working order, and $4.2 million if you started from scratch and built a two-thirds replica of the trestle instead.
We could save at least $1.5 million right off by not tearing the trestle down. Meanwhile, if the trestle remains in place where everyone can continue to gaze at it as they cross the valley on the new bridge, you can opt for a cheaper, functional bridge style rather than a costlier replica.
In the end, though, it isn’t really be about the money. It’s about respecting that a massive 86-year-old trestle is a sight to see, and living testimony to a time when B.C. had big trees, big dreams and endless amounts of crazy ambition. We owe a duty to the future to look after the legacies of the past.
Don’t take my word for it. Go see the trestle for yourself - it’s just past Shawnigan Lake, and easy to get to (; click on “Map”).
The pictures don’t do it justice. Neither will a pile of rubble and a fancy new bridge marking the spot where the old trestle was torn down.