Engagement, achievement prompted choice

A regional think-tank has ranked Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School as No. 1 in the province.
The Antigonish school, with its 800 students, earned an A-, taking top spot in the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ ninth annual report card on high schools released Wednesday.
The school edged out Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire, which stood at the head of the class for three consecutive years.
“Their engagement was the top in the province, and this was driven by their high attendance marks and the proportion of students that are choosing high-level courses that will better prepare them for post-secondary studies,” Jamie Newman, a policy analyst for AIMS, said of this year’s winner.
“Their achievement mark was also high, and that was primarily driven by their language arts school marks . . . and provincial exam marks. As well, they had high achievement in post-secondary studies.”
The news was a pleasant surprise to principal Gerard Ryan, who’s been at the school for two years.
“Nobody’s in here collecting trophies today or anything like that, but we should feel good that (with) the measuring sticks that AIMS uses in this report card, we’re getting some good grades there,” he said.
In all, 54 of Nova Scotia’s English schools were included in the rankings. Another 18 weren’t ranked because of incomplete data or their small size.
In a separate review of the province’s 10 francophone high schools, only one — Ecole NDA in Cheticamp — met all the requirements for a final grade and rank, receiving a B.
Looking at data collected in the three academic years from 2006 to 2009, AIMS scored schools on student engagement and achievement, enrolment, student-teacher ratio, attendance rate, average teacher certification, socio-economic factors, achievement of feeder schools, provincial exam marks and school marks from teachers.
It also looked at post-secondary success (based on graduates’ first-year marks in college or university), the number of Grade 12s who graduate based on the number who enrolled at the beginning of the school year, the proportion who take university-preparatory courses, and the proportion who go or intend to go to college or university after graduation.
The top schools “do more of these things well than many of the other schools” but every school has room for improvement, Newman said.
This year’s top school needs to work on “making sure that (students) are moving on and not flunking out,” he said.
Even three-time winner Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Inverness County has “fairly low math provincial exam marks and math school marks as well,” Newman said.
When it comes to the schools at the bottom of the list, “it’s never one characteristic that causes them to be down there.”
“Like the top schools, what it really speaks to is the importance of looking beneath those final overall grades and ranks and saying exactly what are we doing well in and what are we doing poorly in and what can we do to improve these things.”But even schools at the bottom of the barrel achieved some success:
Oxford Regional High School in Cumberland County was ranked 54th of 54 schools with a C-. But there was a bright spot, as the school’s provincial math exam results were ranked second in the province. (The school closed in 2010.)
“Dead last in achievement” is how Newman described Pugwash District High School in Cumberland County, which placed second last overall. But the school got an A+ on the language arts provincial exam.
“It’s a great demonstration that despite the overall poor performance, there are definitely areas to capitalize on and areas for celebration, so that’s a great achievement for them . . . and we encourage them to build upon that success,” he said.
Part of the goal of the report card is to get people engaged in educational issues and identify what is and isn’t working so schools, boards and governments can make decisions to help students succeed in school, Newman said.
It’s also about accountability.
“And coming to your education bodies and saying ‘We got a C overall’ might not be quite as effective as saying ‘We’re far below average when it comes to math provincial exams. . . . Why is this? Explain this to me.’ You’ll get at least a more specific and direct answer.”
Principal Ryan credited his staff, community involvement, past administration, the work of feeder schools and board support with the school’s success. And he pointed to the efforts of St. Francis Xavier University and Nova Scotia Community College to promote their programs and services so students continue to achieve after high school.



Nova Scotia’s top five schools, as ranked by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies:

1. Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School, Antigonish: A-

2. Cape Breton Highlands Academy, Terre Noire: B+

3. North Colchester High School, Tatamagouche: B+

4. Auburn Drive High School, Cole Harbour: B+

5. East Antigonish Academy, Monastery: B+

The worst of 54 English schools ranked by AIMS:

1. Oxford Regional High School (this school has since closed): C-

2. Pugwash District High School: C-

3. Pictou Academy-Dr. T. McCulloch School: C

4. Duncan MacMillan High School, Sheet Harbour: C

5. Cole Harbour District High School: C

Note: Eighteen anglophone schools were not ranked for various reasons, such as incomplete data or the small size of the school. Of the 10 high schools in the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, one — Ecole NDA in Cheticamp — met the requirements to earn ranking this year, with a B grade.