Mathieu-Martin, JMA Armstrong also rate high in annual AIMS rankings

The report card is in and Petitcodiac Regional School has been named the top English-language high school in New Brunswick.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ (AIMS) eighth annual high school report card, released today, has the small rural school at the top of the list with a solid B .

“We were thrilled,” says Petitcodiac vice-principal Kent Howatt. “Obviously we consider that to be a huge feather in our cap.”

Although the results were not made public until this morning, AIMS did place a call to Petitcodiac on Monday to let them know they topped the rankings.

Howatt says it didn’t take long for the good news to filter down to the school’s 604 K-12 students.

“The word is out and they’re all very proud of themselves, as they should be,” he says.

Petitcodiac School jumped up the rankings from sixth last year.

Howatt attributes the school’s success to its school community.

“I know how dedicated our staff is to the education of our students and providing education for all students, so I can’t say I am totally surprised (at this),” he says. “A lot of congratulations needs to go out to our entire school community… I think that our teachers have high expectations for our students and I think that parents are on board in a supportive way in terms of our children’s education and support us in our efforts to provide a quality education.”

While urban schools are thought by many to offer a better quality education than rural schools, the AIMS report consistently ranks rural schools as some of the best in the province.

“When people think about schools that they consider good, they think just on the surface without looking at the data behind them,” says Bobby O’Keefe, AIMS’ manager of government performance and accountability. “It tends to be the schools with big new buildings and a lot of students and a wide range of programming, those are the ones that people tend to say are good schools.

“But when we look at who is performing, it is often the smaller schools that come out on top.”

Students at Petitcodiac, for instance, tend to do very well when they move on to post-secondary studies, a testament to the quality of their secondary school education.

“I think there are a few things at Petitcodiac that people forget would be positive,” says District 2 superintendent Karen Branscombe says.

District 2 administers English-language schools in southeastern New Brunswick.

“There is only one school, a K to 12 school, and the community embraces the school and the school is the centre of the community. The teachers and families are used to working with each other from K to 12 and the teachers get to know students, so there is a lot of consistency. Some teachers stay there for their career.”

District 2 high schools were pretty much middle of the 46-school pack. Bernice MacNaughton, Riverview, and Moncton High were ranked 20th through 22nd respectively, closely followed by Tantramar Regional and Caledonia Regional at 24th and 25th. JMA Armstrong/Salisbury Middle School was ranked eighth, up from 18th last year, while Harrison Trimble was ranked 33rd.

MacNaughton climbed nine places, up from 29th place last year, and Caledonia jumped from 42nd to 25th, while Riverview High dropped from eighth to 21st.

It is perhaps no surprise that most of the schools in the district are within a few spots of one another.

Branscombe says the eight high school principals work together and share what they are doing with each other.

“Because of that we are seeing some consistent initiatives,” she says. “We would certainly want someone to go to any high school in District 2 and have a similar experience. They should be able to move from school to school and have the curriculum well taught and be well prepared for work.”

Branscombe says seven of the district’s eight high schools are at the provincial average and one, Harrison Trimble, is just below it.

She says the report card is one more tool that principals can use to identify issues that need work in their schools.

One of the things that hurts Harrison Trimble in the rankings, for instance, is its dropout rate, something Branscombe says the school has been working very hard on.

“It’s one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle they can examine,” she says. “They can learn from what is being done well or look for improvement.”

In District 1, which administers French-language schools in southern New Brunswick, École Mathieu-Martin in Dieppe was the top-ranked local school at fourth, though Saint John’s École Samuel-de-Champlain and Fredericton’s École Sainte-Anne are also administered by District 1. École L’Odyssée in Moncton was at the very bottom of the pack among the 21 French-language high schools that were ranked.

If one thing is notable in this year’s rankings, it is that the gap between schools is smaller. The top ranked school in the province is a B , while the very bottom is a C-. While there are no A schools this year, neither are there any Ds.

O’Keefe says it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that there are no A ranked schools.

“We’re looking at a wide variety of measures and when you do that, you can’t really hide from your weaknesses,” he says, pointing out that even the top-ranked schools have one or two areas where they could use some work.

“I would say that the top school only being a B isn’t indicative of it being the best of a bad bunch, it’s just that no school out there is perfect; they all have things they can do better.”

O’Keefe says the lack of high school provincial exams in the English-language school system in New Brunswick continues to be a big issue for AIMS.

He says while there are plenty of provincial assessments at the lower grades, there is nothing to measure how students are doing as they leave the system.

“They don’t get the full picture of what the results of their changes have been,” he says. “Students have left without you knowing for sure if what you did worked.”

O’Keefe says there is always the debate that money spent on exams is money not spent in the classroom, “but no matter what you do in the classroom, if you don’t have any means of evaluating what you’ve done, in the end, you may be throwing away dollars and you’ll never know it.”

O’Keefe says it is a little easier to compile the rankings for the province’s French-language schools because they have a bit more information available. The French-language school system still does provincial high school exams.

O’Keefe says one of top-ranked Samuel-de-Champlain’s strong points was its A showing on provincial exams. On the flip side, its school marks had them as low as a D ranking.

In this particular case, a D might not actually be a bad thing, when taken in context.

“Sometimes that is a case of teachers being a bit more strict in their marks. They are not inflating grades and that helps prepare students when provincial exams come,” he says.

One of the things AIMS advocates for is school choice, something O’Keefe says New Brunswick students have to some degree because of the dual French and English-language school system.

A choice between systems isn’t available to all students, but O’Keefe believes it can help spur schools to excellence.

He uses Samuel-de-Champlain as an example. Located in Saint John, O’Keefe expects many students at the school would likely be able to speak English well enough to move to an English-language high school, which puts pressure on the school to keep delivering quality programming in order to keep students there.

Branscombe says District 2 tries to accommodate students as far as possible when it comes to choosing a school with its out-of-boundary students policy.

Students can request to go to a different school and as long as the school has room for them, the request is usually granted.

It’s not a true school choice program, but it does offer some flexibility to students and parents.

O’Keefe says there has been a definite shift in attitude since the institute first began preparing its report eight years ago. “Even with the lack of information in terms of the exams in some places or other types of information, it is now a given that information is important and keeping information within the system and not releasing it is hardly a part of the debate.

It is a question of what should be available rather than should it be,” he says.