By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on February 2, 2024.
Providing an optimistic perspective of the education system in Alberta, Lethbridge School Division trustee, Kristina Larkin, spoke to SACPA on Thursday afternoon at the Lethbridge Senior Citizens Organization.
Larkin, who is also the director of community programs at the YMCA of Lethbridge and board co-chair at Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society, says she gets “tired of the criticism of public institutions.” Referring to herself as “dangerously optimistic,” Larkin acknowledges that the challenges in education are real. She explains that across the province there are 100s of unfunded students. On top of large classroom sizes and overwhelmed staff, she notes educators face insufficient learning supports, especially for students with learning disabilities. Larkin also notes, what she says is an “eroding trust of public institutions.” Despite that, she maintains things are good in Lethbridge schools.
Believing that many students find comfort in schools and enjoy learning, Larkin notes that assessments and evaluations of the education system, such as student engagement surveys, student forums, and town hall meetings, indicate that students enjoy social aspects of school including option courses and extracurriculars. She also notes that the Lethbridge School Division has incorporated wellbeing into their values and policies.
“Offering children and youth learning opportunities that work for their unique interests and the needs of students today, as well as the futures that we frankly cannot even imagine, these things are critical for learning,” says Larkin, adding that “There are numerous studies that indicate balancing a foundation of instruction, teacher-led instruction, with student-led learningâ€¦leads to a 26 per cent improvement in educational outcomes.”
Larkin notes that within the Lethbridge School District there are a number of programs that offer flexible learning for students, including dual credits which allows a high school student to earn post-secondary credits prior to graduation, work experience, the Registered Apprenticeship Program, as well as the Green Certificate Program that offers students training in agricultural trades. “I truly believe that in order to create strong public institutions, and healthy communities, we need to create, maintain and feed our visions of what our schools are, what our schools can be,” she says.
In addition to the existing programs, Larkin says a partnership between Holy Spirit Catholic School Division, Horizon School Division, Livingstone Range School Division, Palliser School Division, Westwind School Division, and Lethbridge School Division has been established to form the Southern Alberta Collegiate Institute. Pilot projects have been launched offering four trades courses.
Many alternative school programs are something Larkin says help launch students into their careers, while others, such as Fast Forward, provide opportunities for young adults who may not have graduated with their peers to successfully complete the coursework required to earn a high school diploma.
Speaking through emotions, Larkin emphasizes how important community and support is for students, noting that in 2023 the provincial student surveys revealed that 81 per cent of students felt they had a positive relationship at school. “A sense of belonging is an essential part of learning,” says Larkin, “there is a mountain of evidence that shows this, but I think if we all look in our hearts, we know that about ourselves.”
While struggles in the education system may be commonly discussed, Larkin’s optimism remains. “The truth is, things are awesome actually, there’s a lot going very, very well,” she says. Going forward, she believes that continued assessment is needed, but in the end, “It’s not just about fixing things that are broken, it’s about encouraging, resourcing, and supporting the things that are.”