BOW VALLEY – An annual academic outcomes report from Canadian Rockies Public Schools highlights a need to “dig deeper” to address student mental health.
Despite outperforming the province in completion rates for various demographics, Grades 7-12 students in the school division also reported elevated levels of anxiety and depression in 2022-23.
“We look at that, juxtaposed to some of the things I just said, and some people might get alarmed,” said educational consultant Dennis Parsons in a presentation at last week’s Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) board meeting. “But when we stop and look around and think about the journey we’ve come through over the last three years with [the COVID-19 pandemic] and the impacts of COVID, not only in our community but across Alberta, across Canada, across the world, it probably stands to reason that young people are still feeling somewhat stressed and anxious.
“The district’s taking steps to respond to all the results and this one in particular.”
Health and wellness are priorities in CRPS’ 2021-25 education plan, which includes a focus on engaged learning and student supports.
Over the next year-and-a-half, the school division will concentrate on continuing to identify and implement strategies for promoting the overall emotional and social well-being of students, and teachers.
One of these initiatives involves establishing staff advocates within schools to support students, as well as promoting family and student outreach for support. It would ensure each student has a connection to a school staff member.
“This connection to an adult will go a long way in ensuring that students are aware of and supported in accessing one or more of the multitude of resources that are in put in place within the division. And likewise, the community has many resources that support students and parents that they can make use of,” said Violet Parsons-Pack, an educational consultant who was formerly CRPS’ deputy superintendent of learning and innovation.
Superintendent Chris MacPhee noted CRPS already has a lot of support in this area.
The division has teacher and school counsellors, a divisional family school liaison counsellor, family and school wellness workers, a divisional psychologist and success teachers – a unique teaching position put in place to support Indigenous students.
Right from the Start, an Alberta Health Services program aimed at building mental health capacity, is also applied within CRPS Kindergarten to Grade 8 classrooms.
“We have an extensive staff to support our students but we’re still seeing these challenges. We’re not the only ones, in fact, I would make an educated guess that if any school is telling you that they’re not having issues in that, I wouldn’t believe them, to be quite honest with you,” said MacPhee.
Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the superintendent said it’s important to consider other variables in the Bow Valley that could play into results of the report like lack of housing, employment, and high cost of living.
“The schools recognize this and we have a number of people in place. … I haven’t been in a division that has the resources that we have, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t dig in to see what is going on,” he said.
“Canmore Collegiate High School has four-and-a-half staff members dedicated to this type of work. I don’t know any school in this country that has that number of FTE (full-time employees) dedicated in that manner. So, we need to dig deeper and see what’s going on.”
Luke Sunderland, Banff’s CRPS trustee, questioned if there might be a correlation between student perception in the education report that supports had gone down, counter-intuitive to the number of supports available.
Consequently, about 95 per cent of teaching staff strongly agreed or agreed that they have access to professional learning resources to support positive mental health through CRPS and its partners.
“It seems like maybe a missed opportunity if there’s supports and they’re not aware of them or not utilizing them,” he said.
Parsons-Pack said there will be an opportunity in January to assess student awareness of available resources, as well as identify any other supports students may need.
Acknowledging emotional and social wellbeing can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed academically, Parsons-Pack highlighted CRPS’ three- and five-year completion rates continued to exceed that of the province. Five-year completion rates for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students and three-year completion rates for English as additional language (EAL) students are also above that of the province.
“What’s of particular note for CRPS and goes to highlight some of the extra resources and focus that has been put in place by the Learning Interruption Grant and all the resources that have been put in place by the CRPS senior administration and folks at schools, is the fact that the Grade 6 PATs saw significant improvement this year.”
Parsons-Pack noted an increase in Grade 6 students who achieved the acceptable level in Language Arts, French Immersion Language Arts, Math and Science. There was also a rise in the number of students at the standard of excellence level in Grade 6 Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies.
“Coming out of the pandemic, many students were impacted significantly impacted, so their education and the results of this is a really major step forward,” she added.
Grade 12 diploma exam results showcased similar success rates.
“Of particular note is CRPS outperformed provincial counterparts in eight out of the ten exams that they wrote at the acceptable level and in six out of ten exams that they wrote at the standard of excellence,” said Parsons-Pack.
Included in the acceptable level were all sciences – Biology 30, Chemistry 30, Physics 30 and Science 30, as well as Math 30-1, Social 30-1 and 30-2 and English 30-1.
“It’s not surprising to note that with that level of achievement, parents are increasingly satisfied with the supports and services that are available to students within CRPS,” said Parsons-Pack.
The majority of students rated classroom instruction as relevant to their daily lives and there was a significant increase in the number of CRPS students who indicated that student voice counts in their school, the report noted.
“I can’t stress this enough – the importance of student voice,” said Parsons. “When students believe their voice is not important or doesn’t count, they have a tendency to tune out. But when they believe their voice is heard, and that it makes a difference, they have a tendency to engage.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.