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Q&A: Support Our Students aim to make school experiences equal in Alberta

By Chloe Chan, October 5 2018 —

Spurred by the concerns of Alberta parents, Support Our Students (SOS) is a non-profit advocacy group that aims to bring an equal public education experience to each student and reduce the privilege of competitive private schools. The Gauntlet interviewed SOS communications director Barbara Silva to find out more about the organization’s goals.

The Gauntlet: How long have you been part of SOS?

Barbara Silva: SOS started very loosely as a group of parents back in March of 2015, so a little over three years. We became a formalized non-profit society back in 2016.

Gauntlet: Why did you and the other parents start this group? What does it stand for?

Silva: Originally, we started the group before the 2015 election because we heard that [then Alberta] Premier Jim Prentice was going to be introducing some budget cuts to education. As parents, we were concerned with some of those frontline issues: class sizes, lack of resources, the over dependency of fundraising, and not enough teacher aids or support for kids in classes. So we got together because we wanted to highlight that the budget cuts were not going to help at all with those struggling.

Gauntlet: How do those issues affect parents, students and even university students?

Silva: After years of doing advocacy and actually contacting other advocates around the world, we realized that all those things really just highlight and widen inequities that exist within our system. What happens when we rely so heavily on fundraising is that schools at higher socioeconomic levels tend to be able to provide more resources for their students. So schools with parents who have English as a first language, have a higher socioeconomic status [and] can fill out grant application are at an advantage. Those schools have playgrounds, computers and do more field trips. That provides a completely different education experience for kids that come from wealthier families than kids who don’t.

Then, when you throw in what wealth tends to look like, you see other marginalization. We know that [Indigenous] kids are not having the same educational experience. We know that kids with disabilities are not having the same educational experience. We know that English as a Second Language (ESL) or English language learners are having a different experience. When we rely on things like fundraising, we widen a lot of the inequities. Our more marginalized communities suffer even more and at the same time, we provide more advantages to our students that are already advantaged and that hurts our society in the long run.

What we’re trying to highlight through our work is that even though we might think about it being about overcrowded classrooms, there’s also the deeper underlying issue of providing equitable access to all kids and funding public education in a way that makes it accessible to all kids.

Gauntlet: How is your organization working towards achieving better equity?

Silva:  We have, over the past few years, worked on meetings with Members of the Legislative Assembly, school trustees and the Minister of Education himself [to put] forward policy proposals. Our main focus right now is educating the public on what public education should look like, what it does look like right now and to educate people on the growing push towards privatization. There’s this idea that you should get whatever you can afford and we don’t think children should have to afford a public education. We think that education is a right — a basic human right — and we need to build it around our most marginalized kids.

Gauntlet: You have been doing a survey of schools for the past few years and you just mentioned what public schools should look like. What does your survey show that they currently look like?

Silva: We tried to do the survey last year and we didn’t get a lot of participation. For us, that shows that schools and school boards are really scared to share this type of information. We are based on a competition model where schools get funding based on how many students they get — nobody wants to rock the boat if they’re doing okay.

What we have seen is that schools rely very heavily on fundraising. Some schools can raise $80,000 per year, if not more, and some schools have zero fundraising capabilities and raise nothing. So year over year, the gap widens between schools that can fundraise and those who can’t.

The other thing we noticed in the survey we did two years ago, is that there’s a rising need — and this also translates into post-secondary education — for mental health support in schools. So, when we talk about what we think public education should look like, one of the things we talk about is having wrap-around services in schools. Making sure the physical and mental needs of students are being met in addition to academic needs.

Gauntlet: Recently there was the controversy regarding the Webber Academy’s use of supplemental materials asking students to identify a “positive effect” of residential schools and SOS criticized Alberta’s minister of education David Eggen’s response. What about the response could have been improved?

Silva: Our biggest issue with the response Eggen gave was that he didn’t actually use the word “racist.” That resource was just that — racist. Instead, he used the word “hurtful,” and it was hurtful, but what is also hurtful to marginalized communities is when we don’t call out acts of racism when we see them. So while that document was indeed hurtful, it was also racist.

It is also an example of how systemic racism exists in our education system. That document was around for eight years [and] had been used year over year. Teachers had seen it, students had seen it and no one recognized this as inappropriate until now. When it comes to this specific issue of systemic racism and bias in our system, we would like for the minister to do two things: first, make sure there are educational advocates on his anti-racism advisory council that he’s starting and second, ensure that in the same way that they developed school board policy to protect LGBTQ students that they develop the same type of policy for anti-racism policy and to work at the school board level.

Gauntlet: How would you want people like Eggen with a lot of influence in regards to public education to fix, or at least improve, our public education system?

Silva: What we wish Eggen would do around education is, first and foremost, redefine what public education should look like. For us, that means being a visionary and we need somebody in a position of power to re-envision what public education should look like and we think that that must be rooted in universality. Currently, we have a system that is exclusive — we exclude people based on their ability. We exclude kids based on if they’re an elite athlete or musician. We exclude kids based on languages. We exclude kids on many different levels — we exclude them on socioeconomic barriers and we do a lot of that under the public umbrella.

We would like the minister to present a vision that moves us away from exclusivity and privatization and is more rooted in universality. Step one would be to review the funding model and stop funding schools that pick and choose who goes to them. If schools can pick and choose, if they are not universally accessible, then they’re not a public school.

Gauntlet: Can you clarify what you mean when you say we exclude based on athletic ability, language and other factors?

Silva: Within the public school system, we have schools for high-performing athletes. Those come with fees, maybe $1,500, and you have to apply to it. We also have schools that teach alternative programs, like music schools. In Edmonton, they have the Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts. So that’s another school that would require auditions and interviews. We consider those barriers that some kids will have to get over. So for example, if you manage to be an elite athlete by grade nine or grade 10, that means you’ve had the means to become an elite athlete. Therefore, that school probably wouldn’t be very well representative of kids who are newcomers to Canada, who are ESL [or] who don’t have the means to play extracurricular club sports in a way that they become elite athletes. In other words, there is a socioeconomic component to being an elite athlete.

We have language programs, where if your child is dyslectic or has autism or has Aspergers, they’re often counselled out of language programs because it’s deemed “too academic” for those kids — “too difficult.” And schools will tell you we don’t have the resources to meet your child’s need, that this is an added element that will cost you.

Gauntlet: How would schools like that differ from a school having an honours math program?

Silva: There are a few ways in where it’s different and some ways where it’s not. If we could start collecting some race-based data on that, you would find that honours math programs in high school are not as racially diverse as society is, so kids are similarly academically streamed in that way. The difference is that at least kids of differing abilities and talents are in the same school setting and so we might be moving them into different classrooms, but they’re still part of the same school community. So if they leave, for example, an Advanced Placement math class, then they might go to a music class and meet kids from a different interest level as them. It’s still one diverse community, not just culturally, but also interest wise.

Gauntlet: What would you say to people that disagree and say they like the ability to choose between charter, private, boutique and public schools?

Silva: Our major problem with private schools is that they are publicly funded and they shouldn’t be. Of course, parents should be able to choose to send their children into a private school. Those people have already decided they are okay with the privatization model, so if they want to leave the public system and move to the privatization model, they should leave the funding behind.

To people that want choice within the public system, we would say that they have actually been marketed privatization under the public umbrella, so what they call “choice” is actually exclusivity. The reality is that the choice ultimately lies with the school. Parents don’t really have “choice,” they just choose to apply. It’s the school that chooses whether or not you get in. If you believe in public education as the ultimate equalizer and that it should be a level playing field, then it has to be equitable and accessible to all students. Private school kids don’t have to choose between a music program or an arts program or a physical education program or a language program. They get all of that because it would be unacceptable to those parents to have to choose.

So don’t buy into the idea that choice is great. Choice is actually the lower option. The best option is to have it all and we should be demanding to have it all for all our children. We live in a country with two official languages. Why every single child doesn’t have access to language programs in both official languages is shocking to me — it doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. Why is French immersion the bastion of higher socioeconomic class, higher educated, more engaged parents?

Gauntlet: Where can people find more information about SOS?

Silva: They can email us at info@supportourstudents.ca and we have a website, supportourstudents.ca. We also have a Twitter and a Facebook page. We’re constantly putting out information to make people recognize that Alberta’s move towards privatization is not unique — it’s happening in the United Kingdom, Australia, the States — all following the same pattern of undermining public education and coming in with the “solution” of choice. We are a completely volunteer-run non-profit society so we make very good use of volunteers and donations. We’re interested in hearing younger people’s perspectives. I haven’t been in school for a very, very long time.

We honestly believe that we need younger people to start making some changes and being the force behind these changes because older folks are more resistant to change. We think that the millennials and younger people are making some amazing decisions — we think you guys are doing a great job making some lifestyle choices. You guys are making different decisions but have to understand those decisions are inherently political and it’s okay to be political and it’s okay to make them political decisions. Don’t be afraid of political engagement. It is your civic duty.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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