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November 1, 2012

Winning Ways at Severn Avenue Public School

Reuel S. Amdur

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Miracles don't just happen. People make them happen. That is how Ottawa's Severn Avenue Public School jumped from an Ontario-wide ranking of achievement in 2005 at 35 from the bottom, up four years later by more than 1000 schools. The ranking put Severn at 1726 out of 2778 schools.

The Fraser Institute, using a scale topping at 10, rated Severn at 1.0 in 2005.  Four years later it was at 5.5.  The Institute’s Peter Cowley was amazed.  “We’ve never seen a school come so far so fast since we’ve been doing this.”

So who were the people who made this happen?  A key is the leadership provided by the principal at that time, David Petrie.  He had just been installed in his post, and he ran with it.  Coincidentally, Anita MacLean, who was at that time President of the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa West, and fellow member Carin Goodman, were scouring statistics of the Ontario government-funded Education Quality and Accountability Office to find an Ottawa school in serious need of help to lift its achievement.  They found what they were seeking at Severn.

Many of the children at Severn come from recent immigrant families, and often the children speak little or no English when they arrive at school.  A good number of the families live in social housing projects and back in 2005 some actually lived in shelters. 

Petrie eagerly accepted the Kiwanis offer of help, and the club set up shop at the Staples store in Bells Corner, encouraging shoppers to donate school supplies.  The effort lasted a couple weeks, insuring that all students in the school would have the needed supplies.  The Ottawa-Carleton Board of Education, in allocating funds, takes into account the exceptional needs of schools like Severn, but the extra supplies were an additional boost.  Many schools rely heavily on parents to help with things like school supplies, but not all parents at Severn are able to afford such things.

Petrie told MacLean that another area that could use attention was the school library, many of whose books were out of date.  Again, the poverty of many of the families was a barrier.  In a number of other schools, parents hold funding activities to supply library books, but Severn could not count on that kind of support.  So West Ottawa Kiwanis held a series of trivia nights, a lobster fest, and other fund-raising events.  “We ended up raising a total of $10,000 over a couple years,” said MacLean.  Some of the books are in other languages.

Of course, Petrie was not solely responsible for Severn‘s great leap forward. He had a team of teachers, but his leadership served to encourage and motivate the teachers to do what it took.  Then change came.  The Ottawa-Carleton Board plays musical chairs with principals, so Petrie was moved to another school.  Nevertheless, the Kiwanis Club continues to help out at Severn.  As Petrie explained, “They were in this for the duration.”

Hanif Jamal is the current principal.  He continues on the path set, working diligently to augment resources, taking advantage of enrichment opportunities, and promoting parent involvement.  “Kiwanis has been a major supporter, along with Staples.”  Staples benefitted from the Kiwanis drives at the store, and now Staples contributes directly itself.  Various other companies and organizations also made donations this year, some of them sizeable.

Jamal is a great believer in raising aspirations by exposing the children to people who have been successful in one field or another, often people who have overcome obstacles.  His enemy is failure avoidance.  His message to the children is that they should say to themselves, “If they can do it, I can do it.” 

The arts also play a role at the school.  Pupils were able to attend an NAC performance this year and to hear various singers and musical performances.  In a city-wide arts competition, Severn students took two of the top five awards, plus an honorable mention.

Severn School has been able to involve parents.  Parent involvement demonstrates to the children that education is important, and a number of the parents involved in events this year such as a yard sale are from minority communities. 

Unfortunately, not all is well at the school.  The bus line serving Severn was one of those cancelled.  As a result after-school activities such as sports are seriously limited.  To get parents to events such as meet-the-teacher night, the school sends the school bus to bring them.  Jamal would like to talk to the top brass at OC Transpo, the city’s bus service, to see if that can change.

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