Classroom Assignment

 Show Transcript

Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast, where you will get an inside look into school life. We cover school-related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Welcome Simcoe Muskoka Families. In this episode, we are going Beyond The Bell and into the process of classroom assignments. Seems simple, right? Well, we have over 42 elementary schools with many, many classrooms across our school board, all of which are carefully arranged to meet the needs of students, staff, and the school as a whole.

There are so many factors that administrators consider when working through this process of class assignments. And so we wanted to take this opportunity to give you – our parent and caregiver community, an inside scoop on these factors, the thought processes, and why change can be so hard. Our guest today is Deanna Neville-Virardi principal at Monsignor Ronan Catholic School in Beeton. Deanna has been with our school board for 21 years and a principal for three. She's worked in both elementary and secondary panels. She has two adult children who are, who were both students in our school board and one is actually now a teacher at one of our secondary schools. Deanna also has two wonderful grandsons who are students at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic. Welcome, Deanna. 

Deanna: Thank you very much, Chantelle. 

Chantelle: All right. So we're just gonna jump right in Deanna. I know there are so many factors that are involved in class assignments, whether it be for teachers or students or administrators, but, but it's a quite complicated process. So, can you tell us a little bit about that? 

Deanna: Yes, I can. And just uh from the boring procedural side, we have to actually adhere to regulation 132 from the Ministry of Education uh Education Act uh that talks about class size, and we also have to adhere to collective agreements.

So there are some very specific technical requirements that have to come into consideration first. Right. 

Chantelle: Yeah, class size certainly is one factor and that's, you know, not decided by the school board, it's decided or kind of dictated by those regulations. 

Deanna: So, what we have to start out with though is our projected enrollment for the next school year, and we start this phase one process in January of the previous school year. So we look ahead, we look at what has been past experience in the particularly kindergarten numbers because that always is a little bit of a, a question. We don't know if there are new houses built in the area; if there are a lot of movements of people. So we guess-timate our kindergarten numbers, but the rest of our numbers are actually based on our current enrollment in January. 

Chantelle: Oh, it's always so fun to think about all the new kindergarten students coming to the school and joining our Simcoe Muskoka community every fall. Um, but I'm really, uh, I think it's important to consider that January is only halfway through the school year and you're having 1 foot in the current year and also already starting to plan for the next one. It's a lot to manage at once.

Deanna: It is. So they do give us a second opportunity to adjust those numbers in phase two. And that usually happens in April. And at that point, there might be a few families that will have let us know that they will be moving in September. There might be a few new families that have, know they're moving to the area, so we can get a bit of a clearer picture of enrollments. And at that point, we've already invited our kindergarten families to come to an Open House. So a lot of them have signed on. So we do have some real numbers, but again, a lot of it is still projection, but those are the numbers that they base our staffing on for September.

Chantelle: Right? And so the staffing numbers are a consideration and student enrollment numbers. And then I'm also thinking about a recent experience that you had uh when a new school was built in your area and how that reconfigured things. 

Deanna: Exactly. That was an interesting challenge which we obviously accepted. And after this school year, we are ready for the next. So what happened was, Saint Cecilia was built up in Alliston and all of those students in the Treetops area, for the last several years were coming here. So the school exploded in numbers. Once they moved all those students to the new school, then the question was, you know, do we leave my school as a small school or, an additional problem kind of popped its head up in that Tottenham has completely exploded in numbers and Father F.X. O’Reilly could not, you know, safely house that number of students. So after a lot of consultation, what the board decided to do was take all of the grade seven and eight students from Tottenham, and they became Monsignor Ronan students.

And it's interesting when you look at the numbers because I, at Ronan basically have the same number of grade seven and eight classes which F.X. O’Reilly has the same number of kindergarten classes. So their school is K to 6. My school is still K to 8, but half of my school is an intermediate school which for me is a lot of fun having come from secondary, I can roll with it. 

Chantelle: Sure. Yeah, there's always those new kind of factors that come in. And I know, um as we look towards the next, let's say, five years in our school board that we're expanding and there will be more schools and situations where this happens. And that transition can be quite hard for families and students and staff alike. But a lot of thought has really gone into supporting everybody in that process and kind of coming up with the best plan for everybody. 

Deanna: Yeah. And one of the extra challenges was the staffing side because teachers are qualified in Primary, Junior, Intermediate, and Senior, and I had a school full of Primary-Junior and not as many Intermediate. So I had to work with a few teachers that when I noticed they did have Intermediate qualifications strongly, you know, requested, “Hey, you might really be helpful in grade eight,” which they did. I mean, the teachers are amazing, and they step up where they need to. And I have one who is Primary-Junior certified, and they sign a mutual agreement form to say that they will teach out of their area of specialty. Uh They would have other courses and experience anyways. But that's how we get some of our teachers who might have been teaching grade three for a lot of years, but maybe taught grade seven, you know, 10 years ago. And now they're back in a grade seven classroom on a mutual agreement. So a lot of behind the scenes moving parts from a staffing perspective.

Chantelle: You know, logistically, I'm thinking about, you know, January and then again, in April, as you said, um are these post-it, notes and lists or spreadsheets? You know, what does that, what does that look like for how you map all these pieces together as an administrator? 

Deanna: Uh It's definitely a process, and we start early in, um April and into May going with the numbers that we have and the students that we know, and we get our teachers involved because they are the, you know, boots on the ground, frontline workers. They are the ones who know these children and can make strong recommendations for the setup of the next year's class. So we definitely listen to them first. 

So they sit down with spreadsheets that are specific to the students in their class currently and make recommendations on who the students can be with. At this point, we haven't looked at teachers, we just look at which students work well uh and would be, you know, suited together. And at that point, I do have an idea of how many classrooms I have and what the splits are on the grades. So that's kind of first draft and then we kind of move from there. 

Chantelle: So in true education form, Deanna, the process really centres and starts on the students: looking at students working well together, and student groupings, and reflecting on um kind of the strengths and needs of students as you kind of place them together in different uh classes that maybe don't have the teacher-factor considered yet. 

Deanna: That is 100% because we are all about our students. And so we need to make sure that they get the support and the success that they need. Uh, the second kind of step is that I have my resource teachers – so my special education resource teachers – and my vice principal and myself and, and we take a look, and we really look at any students with exceptional needs and make sure that they are, you know, set up for success in a space with other students that would be helpful for that. We look at students that uh have educational assistant support and might there be other students in that classroom who would benefit from having an additional adult in that room? So, so we really do focus on the kids. And again, at this point, we still haven't really named who the teachers are. We're really focusing on the needs of our students. From an office side, I look at the other piece which is um you know, how many office visits have some students had, and it might be better suited in a classroom, not with particular people so that they can be successful. So, so there's little, you know, additional pieces that all come into play ultimately to set up our students for success.

Chantelle: I don't know if you'd have this, this number, but in your experience in doing this, how many configurations happen or versions of those lists before it's settled on? And, and when does that tend to happen? 

Deanna: Ok. So, as I said, this process started back in May and then in June is when we sat down and then now I'm actually this morning sitting down, putting everything down on paper, looking at little scribbly notes. Uh my office administrators sending me emails. Don't forget these are some new enrollments, make sure that they're in a classroom. So, I, I mean, right up till today I'm doing it and then when we kind of close up shop for the summer, I will be keeping an eye on new enrollments and mentally doing some math. And then when we're back at late August, we get to sit down and make any major changes if our enrollment has gone, you know, up or down and our superintendents will kind of give us the opportunity to make any of those changes. So it's right up until the first day of school.

Chantelle: And I know that sometimes it extends beyond that. Can you tell us about those circumstances? We hear about the late September shifting. Right. 

Deanna: Right. And that's more of, um, with two pieces, one is additional enrollments and the other piece is staffing because we have a lot of staff who cover what we call long-term occasional position, so those are LTOs and those would be staff who are off on a leave for a variety of reasons. And so someone is brought in to cover that job. Now, what happens in that first few weeks of September is if for example, and, I know this happened in my school last year, I was given an additional classroom, and so I had to take a person who was full-time or, or was full-time LTO in another school and hire them into a full-time contract, permanent teacher position, which then left the position where they were empty.

And the same thing happened with me, some teachers - that were covering LTOs at my school got offered permanent positions in other schools. So then that left those jobs open here. So that's why in September there will be a big shift, and it's usually mid-September, and then they have to post any of these openings. And that's a process, they can't just put somebody in there the very next day and then, you know, the process starts again. So it's, it's um you know, a lot of patience on the part of our, our families on that when it happens. And um we put in a daily supply and we try to make sure that, you know, I know, I try to make sure if I can keep the same person in there and all of the colleagues are amazing to help support with the, you know, lesson plans and things like that. But that's why this September movement happens and it, it really can't happen earlier because truly, we don't know until the children are in our building. So that's when we can start counting heads officially. 

Chantelle: And so in September, you're taking all of the, the work and planning you've done from May right through until the end of August.

But then those two factors really come back into play in terms of your staffing, um, uh considerations and potential changes like you just talked about. As well as any last-minute enrollment uh changes as well. And so you are managing those factors right up until um you know, midway through the first month of of school before things settle in. 

Deanna: Yeah. And one of the kind of extra factors that we have to look at is class caps. So the the size of classes depending on the grade. So um things like grade 1, 2 and 3 and three cannot exceed 20 students in a classroom. So if I get a new enrollment of a grade one student uh on the first day of school, and now I have one classroom that has 21 then that needs to be addressed. And there are two ways to address it. We can reconfigure – and this is obviously in consultation with superintendents at the board office – but we could reconfigure the class, or they do have a um a little bit of a percentage to go over the class limit of 10% across the board. So if they allow one of my classes to have 21 students in it, it's because there's another school that has 20 there probably is another school that has 19. So they look at it from a board level and that's why our superintendents at, at the board level are extremely important in making sure that the entire board is in compliance. So we have to look beyond our own walls. Uh When you look at Junior-Intermediate, the class cap or the class average is 24.5. So no, we're not putting half a student in the class anywhere. But again, we need to look at our numbers and then the board looks at what does that look like across the board because that is what the average needs to be.

So even though one class might have 28 students in it, there's another class that has, you know, 21 students in it.

Chantelle: That class um kind of cap factors into sometimes requests or considerations on people being with certain teachers or with a certain friend that um all the factors that you've already mentioned, Deanna must make it hard to manage any type of personal request that comes from families. 

Deanna: True. And, and what I've learned from my own experience as a mom many, many years ago, is that you truly need to trust the professionals because as much as we think that we, you know, have knowledge of our own child which we do, um, that there are other things that we don't know of if I can share a little anecdote.

Uh, my, my daughter always would be so nervous for the first day of school because there was one student in particular - a boy - who from kindergarten on, she just did not want that boy in her class. And, you know, so whenever he was in her class she was upset, and we're gonna have a bad year, and she would make sure the teacher knew and, you know, and, and it was just, um, you know, nothing major, but it was just that, you know, classroom banter, um, you know, teasing, although she was no angel on that either.

But it, it was a challenge. And then at grade six, interestingly when she came home and she said, “Mom, he's in my class this year. It's gonna be a bad year.” Uh I did have a conversation with the teacher and I said, look, just heads-up. I just want you to know that this has been ongoing since kindergarten. I, I just, you know, I'm gonna trust you. And we did, and this teacher actually put them together in a group project and she, I mean, she was furious. My daughter was like, why are you doing this to me? And I said, no, let's trust him. And it actually worked because then they realized that they were both high-achievers, they were both hard-workers. They were both, you know, they had things that they could connect with and so what I can say is, um, so in grade 11 they started to date, they went off to university to together and now they've been happily married for several years and have my two grandsons who are in our school.

So we, we actually talked about that at their wedding - that how they despised each other up until grade six and that teacher who, you know, and if he listens he'll say, hey, that was me. I did that. Um You know, so, so again trusting those professionals. Now, I'm not saying that, hey, your child's gonna, you know, end up married to the person that they hate. But, but it was just amazing to let the teachers and the school do their job and, and be the professionals that they are and you just never know what might happen because um we really work, especially as a Catholic school, from a stance of um you know, we care for everyone we love for everyone. We have a lot of support in place for that just to be our best self, and our children rise to that. It's um you know, kind of nice though. That was my little story!

Chantelle: What a beautiful story. 

Deanna: I know!

Chantelle: What a beautiful story. I didn't know that, Deanna! That was, that was so lovely to, to share. And I imagine, you know, I'm thinking about those situations and, and the story that, that you just shared that um you know, recognizing the inner strength of our kids, of the students in our school and supporting them with those skills such as problem-solving and communication. Um and you know, coping with difficult emotions, all of those things build capacity and resources and um can be such a beautiful lesson versus removing um somebody from a difficult situation when we know that they can have the support and resources to, to work through that and develop some confidence and, and maybe some even close relationships as you described as a result. So what a beautiful story. I wonder if we can chat a little bit more about kind of why classroom change or those requests are so complicated. So as an administrator, do you often get a a lot of requests? And um are those things that you're able to accommodate? Is there or is there like a general um process that kind of guides the decision making uh for you whether those types of requests can happen or not? 

Deanna: Yeah, that's a good question. I do get a few. I ask if a parent, you know, uh comes up to ask me, I say please send me an email. I will take it into consideration. And then again, with all of the other pieces involved, it really depends on uh for myself anyways, the, the mental well-being of that child, the mental well-being of the whole classroom, the um you know, the dynamics. So, so I might, but that would be like a very last, last piece and it, it really is on a case-by-case basis, but it's hard to do because as I mentioned with, you know, class-caps in particular, you know, if I've already got 20 students in, you know, the both classes, if I was to take one and move them, that means I have to take another one and move them out. So that's becomes especially knowing that my resource teachers, my teachers, my vice principal have sat down and spent a lot of time and energy. We look at all the data. So we're not just saying this is a lovely child and this is a lovely child. We're looking at um things like what are their reading levels, what are their math scores? So we take all of that into consideration to build a class so that the students can work well together, support each other, that there's a variety of levels of learners in a class so that the teacher can work kind of with a small group on, on certain strategies, knowing that there's another group that can work independently while they're doing that. So those pieces are really a huge part of it. And so it's a domino effect. If you take one out, then you have to move one back and, and it's not as easy as you think. And so, you know, if anything is done, it's done preferably, you know, before, you know, like it's done right now, that's when we want to do it. Uh The only other, you know, challenge is then if we have to add an additional class or remove a class in September for that mid-September date, then that involves a lot of movement again. So, um that's just an additional challenge. 

Chantelle: Sure. And so I suppose, you know, you're well positioned to offer some kind of words of wisdom or advice, both as a parent and as an administrator around how uh parents and caregivers can support their students as they, you know, hear about what class they're gonna be in, in September or have to navigate any changes. What advice, words of wisdom do you have that might be helpful? 

Deanna: Well, and, and I think I've said it already, but you really need to trust the professionals because a lot of thought and care has gone, gone into this. And I know even with my other daughter, she was always upset if her best friend was not in her class, that was always her benchmark. And I was like, “hey honey, you know what? But you can see each other at recess, you can come over on the weekend,” you know, with like school truly is about academics first and uh obviously supporting students on many levels. So we need to just, you know, give them those tools as you've mentioned with resilience and coping. And if there are challenges to make sure that they share that information with their trusted adults. And then there are other pieces from a school level and a board level that we can put into place to help children cope because sometimes it's not necessarily about that teacher or that other student in the class, but there's other pieces that come into play that we can most certainly help with. So that's where your department comes into play as well, Chantelle,  extremely important. And, um, so I said that resilience and those coping skills and hey, maybe you'll make a new friend. I know with all of these grade sevens and eights coming to our school from FX O’Reilly the first month of school, these students didn't know what to do with themselves because they just were in a different building, different adults, everything was changed. And at grad and prior to grad, I mean, they were crying, they were sad to be leaving each other, although they're gonna see each other at high school next year. But, but they really connected and, uh, really, you know, had an amazing experience getting to know new people and new faces and new teachers. And so our kids are more resilient than we think. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And I love what you said about, you know, looking at the bigger picture that, you know, being in a class with somebody is, is one piece of a bigger, a bigger kind of puzzle of their kind of overall well-being and interactions that um families can problem-solve together around other ways to connect with students that and friends that might not be in their class. Um And if it's needed to connect with the school to offer um any insights as you did to the teacher when your daughter uh was in a class with somebody that, that she was struggling to get along with. Um But it really came down to this idea of communication, Deanna that um there's so much communication within the school team that goes into making these classroom assignments, there's communication up into the board-level in terms of what the pitcher is looking like from a class size perspective and what flexibility there might be those types of considerations. And then there's also that communication between home and school and school at home, if there are others kind of special considerations or worries that might come up. Um but also the opportunity to build those coping skills together and, and kind of stay, stay the course as as students build um those those skills and the ability to navigate, feeling a little bit uncomfortable or disappointed in where things started. That doesn't mean that that's where it's gonna end up. that there's lots of joy that can come from those new connections and, and new opportunities.

Deanna: Yeah, we have some amazing uh teaching, DECE educational assistant staff in our system. So they recognize and, and kind of lead and, and share and, and just really nurture our children, to be their best self. So they know what they're walking into with all of the data that we provide. And then they, you know, work with that to build community within their classroom regardless of what that classroom looks like. It's interesting when you have split classes as well because some, you know, parents think, oh my goodness, that's the worst thing. And yet it's such an awesome opportunity for the students to develop independence, others to get extra support, uh, to just kind of spread their, you know, their wings a little bit and, and just really experience something new and different.

Chantelle: Oh for sure. Um, over the course of my 10 years with the board, I've, um, got to work at some of the smaller schools that had multiple grades in a classroom. Um, and so it's pretty amazing what educators and administrators can do together to support the needs of students when you're spanning sometimes two or more grades in, in those classes. So, certainly, lots of wonderful things are possible with each having such a unique opportunity for learning and growth even beyond the academics. Right?

Deanna: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Chantelle: So, Deanna, I'm wondering, is there anything that, you know, as we kind of came together to talk about class assignments and helping parents go kind of beyond the bell and into kind of the world of, uh, when, when this happens, is there anything that you hoped I asked about or that you wanted to touch on that. Um, we haven't covered yet?

Deanna: I, I think we've covered everything. I think we're in a good space and I think that we're set up for success every year. I know that, uh we're always, you know, excited to make sure that we have, you know, everyone in a seat feeling welcome on that first day of school. That's the big piece. And then if we do, for a variety of reasons, have to make any changes in September again, we try to handle it very delicately. We think seriously about who might need to change and how to inform everyone that a change is going to happen, which, you know, happens quickler than you think.

So, some parents might say, oh my goodness, why didn't they tell me this two weeks ago? And it's like, well, we just found out yesterday or late last night or, and now we have to do it today. So just patience on everyone's side and, and ready to experience something new for a new school year, fresh start. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And um, as we wrap up remembering that students were at the centre of the thought process at the beginning, and they continue to be at the centre of the thought process throughout and sometimes that's an individual student, and sometimes it's more the collective cohort of students or students within the school. But certainly regardless it is students at the centre of this process.

Deanna: As it should be. Yes. 

Chantelle: Well, Simcoe Muskoka families, we hope that this episode helps give you an inside look at the factors, processes and outcomes of class assignments in elementary schools across our school board. 

Was there something that surprised you? I know I'm very much aware that this process is a lot more complicated than what it might be assumed to be. At first glance.

Thank you to Principal Verardi  for being here with us on this episode and don't forget to subscribe so that you do not miss any Beyond The Bell Adventures in the future.

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Beyond The Bell is brought to you by the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. You can find our show notes and previous episodes on our podcast website, 

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