Superintendent Sylvia Russell knows the education system in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows as well as anyone.
She first started working in School District #42 in 1988, serving as an elementary and secondary principal, then at the district office. Her career took her away in 2005, but she returned in the top job in 2014.
Many community leaders see the lack of post-secondary education opportunities as a major void. Although she deals with children in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 realm, Russell said the school district is willing to put efforts into creating post secondary here.
“This is a significant challenge for our community,” said Russell. “The MLAs, board of education, Chiefs of Katzie and Kwantlen, along with the mayors of both cities have been focused on the issue of a lack of community-based access to college or university programming.”
Russell noted that in the the 1990s, when Thomas Haney Secondary opened, Douglas College was a partner, and college students could attend that campus. That was 30 years ago, and the community needs to “engage as fulsomely as possible in developing post secondary opportunities in our community.
“We know that most of our students will need some post-secondary training in order to train for the jobs that are available now and into the future,” said Russell.
But she noted local graduates participate at a lower level of post-secondary education than is the norm in the province, “and this disadvantages our students,” said the superintendent of schools.
That conversation began in earnest after the North Fraser Labour Market Research Study of 2014. It showed 65 per cent students in Mission-Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows go to college or university within three years, compared to rates between 78-92 per cent in other Metro Vancouver areas.
When the district surveyed its graduates, Russell said they found transportation and expense were major barriers for students. There have since been some improvements in the transit system.
“The real question is why we don’t have a post-secondary presence here,” said Russell. “The elected leaders in our communities, the leadership of the Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations, and we ourselves see the importance of having a post-secondary option in our community beyond that of our current continuing education program. We are committed to working with this group to bring this option back into our community.”
Russell is going to retire at the end of January.
She can look back on a lot of developments through her career, and calls the new provincial curriculum in particular “a positive and liberating change.”
Teachers are invited to tailor the curriculum to the passions of their students, while attending to a shorter list of curricular competencies and more relevant and updated content, she said.
“The new curriculum represents freedom to move away from the recipe book of learning outcomes, which was the structure of the previous provincial curriculum,” she explained.
The district has hired many young teachers and instructional support staff to address the need created by continued enrolment growth, particularly in Maple Ridge.
“We are focused on supporting the development of our new staff and on ensuring they have the core skills they need to work effectively with the range of learners in their classrooms,” she said.
“We know that these young educators will be with our school district for years to come and want them to have all the support they need to be successful in their roles.”
The provincial curriculum included, for the first time, the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning. This has refocused efforts on incorporating Indigenous perspectives and knowledge into teaching and learning, said Russell.
Building a stronger relationship with the leadership of the Indigenous communities – Katzie First Nation, Kwantlen First Nation, Golden Ears Metis Society and Fraser River Indigenous Society – has been a priority.
Russell said the biggest area of new potential in the district is in graduation rates.
For the past several years the district has focused on improving the chances of all students to graduate from high school with the skills they need to pursue further education or meaningful work. It has focused on better understanding the needs of those students who have the hardest time graduating, and offering them interesting and relevant programming.
“We have had significant success in this area, which is something that we can be proud of and celebrate as a school district,” said Russell.
“Our school district has a great deal of work to do, but we can be proud of the year-over-year improving results – especially for those students who haven’t typically completed school, such as those who face mental health challenges or students who are challenged by significant special needs.
“Our results for students who self-identify as Indigenous are a point of pride. With this group of students there has historically been a gap between the numbers of students who achieve graduation and the overall graduating class. We are very close to closing that gap and will be one of the few districts in the province to achieve that goal.”