Students in Southwestern Ontario gearing up for return to the classroom

By Brent Boles, Melanie Anderson, Kelly Pedro, QMIAgency

St. Andre Bessette catholic high school in London, cutline opens with 320 Gr. 9 and 10s next week but will grow to fill the school’s 1,100-student capacity relieving pressure on other schools. DEREK RUTTAN / THE LONDON FREE PRES / QMI AGENCY

St. Andre Bessette catholic high school in London, cutline opens with 320 Gr. 9 and 10s next week but will grow to fill the school’s 1,100-student capacity relieving pressure on other schools. DEREK RUTTAN / THE LONDON FREE PRES / QMI AGENCY

After a tumultuous year for many of Ontario’s two million school kids and nearly 5,000 schools, it all begins again next week. Kelly Pedro, Brent Boles and Melanie Anderson report on the must-knows for the year ahead in Southwestern Ontario.


Strike threats, worries about a stripped-down school year, many after-school sports and clubs yanked — parents and kids had a rough ride last year, as public teachers’ unions rebelled against the Liberal government’s wage-austerity drive hammered home with legislation that imposed contracts on them.

The good news? This year shouldn’t be as bumpy.

“I’m optimistic,” said Annie Kidder of the lobby group People for Education. “In terms of this year, it should be all right.”

But is the optimism realistic?

In Southwestern Ontario, it seems so. Teachers in six boards — Thames Valley, London Catholic, Avon Maitland, Bluewater, Lambton-Kent and Grand Erie — have ratified contracts good through one more school year, until the end of August 2014. Some details are still being ironed out.

Students were left with a patchwork quilt of extra-curriculars — some had, many did not — in last year’s dust-up over forced teacher contracts, wage freezes, fewer sick days and a move to ban strikes. “Nobody. . . wants to go through what we went through last year,” says Kidder.

Watch for two potential hot buttons early on: This fall, the province is expected to introduce new legislation on how it negotiates with teachers’ unions, and talks for the next round of contracts — which will take effect in an election year — are expected to begin in January.


More finger-painting, more recess, more naps.

You’ll find it all across Southwestern Ontario this fall, as the province continues the roll-out of its $1.5-billion, full-day kindergarten program.

Wildy popular with parents, whose kids get learning earlier and take parents off the day-care hook, the program has been introduced in stages.

Southwestern Ontario is slightly ahead of the curve in the roll-out: Another 128 schools will get the program this fall, boosting to 75% the schools in the region with full-day kindergarten compared to about 71% province-wide.

By next year, kids in every kindergarten classroom will be packing a lunch bag and staying the full day.

While Ontario has come under fire for spending money it doesn’t have on full-day kindergarten, many argue the move pays dividends later. Much of North America has had full-day kindergarten for years.

The University of Toronto’s Janette Pelletier, who’s studied how young kids perform, says full-day learners score better than half-day learners on vocabulary, reading and number knowledge when tested going into Gr. 1. Early learning experiences “can modify the expression of our genes — acting like light switches that turn off and on, and up and down, our potential,” she says.

Schools getting full-day kindergarten this fall:

Avon Maitland: 10

Bluewater: 6

Huron-Perth: 3

Lambton Kent: 15

London Catholic: 13

Thames Valley: 35


Dust off the soccer cleats and get ready for later nights — the extras are back.

Many teachers bailed on after-school sports and clubs last year, withdrawing their volunteer time for events ranging from sports, to planning graduation ceremonies and Gr. 8 year-end trips. This year, not so much.

“I know our football teams are all geared up and ready to go. It’s all good news as we start the new school year,” said Laura Elliott, education director at the Thames Valley District school board. “We’ve had no indication that, en masse, teachers will not participate.”

Because teacher time for extra-curriculars is voluntary, deciding whether to take part is up to individual teachers and schools.

After last year’s strife, that means some teachers may not be keen on the idea. But Kidder says many are “chomping at the bit” to get back to it.

“I think one of the things that got recognized last year was that school isn’t just about literacy and numeracy . . . it’s about something much broader than that and that includes extra-curricular activities,” she says.


There were no funerals or tombstones, but some area schools died this summer — the fallout of shifting demographics and falling enrolment that’s killing hundreds of Ontario schools.

The doors are locked for good at Sir George Ross vocational school in London, its students headed to Thames secondary school

Sherwood Forest public school has gone to the great playground in the sky, while low-enrolment Lorne Ave. waits in purgatory until a decision expected this fall.

In Avon Maitland, two public schools were axed.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: The Huron Perth and Lambton-Kent boards escaped unscathed, and some area students will start the year in new schools.

The births include Saint André Bessette, a new Catholic high school in north-end London. It will become home to about 320 students next week, as the Gr. 9 and 10s move in, and will eventually fill up in coming years with its capacity for 1,100 kids.

The new school — wireless, with the goal to become paperless — will take pressure off of Mother Theresa, Saint Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II.

“If you take a drive around the city . . . you’ll see where portables used to be — they’re gone now,” says Peter Cassidy, principal of the new high school.

Officials says not a single student chair or desk was bought for the building, its furnishings instead salvaged from decommissioned portables.


Sir George Ross secondary, London

Sherwood Forest public school, London


Maitland River elementary school, Wingham

Saint André Bessette Catholic secondary school, London


They’re the new umbilical cord — cell phones, laptops and other gadgets that connect kids to their friends, parents and the outside world.

Sometimes digital devices are OK in class, sometimes they’re not. A board-by-board rundown:

London District Catholic

  • Devices OK if used “in a courteous and appropriate, respectful and ethical manner, and as long as it’s being used . . . for appropriate learning purposes.” says John Mombourquette, superintendent for safe schools. “What we’re looking at is, is it being used in the right context? And secondly, they’re not abusing other people with it by taking pictures in the change room or cyber-bullying, for example.”

Thames Valley

  • Use of hand-held audio and video devices not allowed in the classroom and other designated school areas without school’s permission.

Avon Maitland

  • PEDs must be turned off unless permitted by classroom teacher with approval of school administration.


  • Cell phones and electronic devices must be turned off during classroom instruction and secured out of sight.
  • “The principal ultimately makes the call,” says board spokesperson Jamie Pettit. Teachers can approve use of the devices, “but it’s on a case-by-case basis.”

St. Clair Catholic

  • “We have a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy in our high schools, and we’re trying to introduce it into our elementary schools as well so kids can use their devices for purposes of doing research and work in the classroom,” says education director Paul Wubben. “But, the understanding is that it’s done under the guidance of the teacher.”


  • No board-wide policy; instead, principals decide school-by-school. “In most cases cell phones certainly aren’t allowed to be on in class,” says education director Jim Costello. They must be turned-off and put away unless the teachers are using them for something related to the lesson.”


Did you enjoy going back to school in September?

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