In his latest series of rantings, which have included blog posts, AIMS reports, newspaper articles and radio interviews, self-proclaimed researcher Paul Bennett has seen fit to attack the SchoolsPlus initiative with his usual misguided fervor. For those of you who have not been following, SchoolsPlus is a relatively new initiative from the DOE which is starting to make inroads into helping struggling kids and their families access the services they need from a variety of agencies. The theory is that the various schools boards around the province have chosen a group of schools to start as the SchoolsPlus development model. These schools get a SchoolsPlus facilitator and SchoolsPlus outreach workers who set up programming that is tailor-made to each community. Together, they work with community agencies in an attempt to better connect resources with those in need, particularly in the area of mental health. In early June, Bennett penned what he referred to as a “comprehensive” and “fair” report about the progress of the program for The Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, and then proceeded by any and all means to promote it.
His report was, it turns out, neither comprehensive nor fair. It was, in fact and on many points, downright wrong.
Let’s begin with the piece he wrote for The Chronicle Herald on June 21 which relied heavily on his own report. In it, he criticized the SchoolsPlus program for “… limiting public access (to public school facilities) to regular school hours.” Accepting that access to buildings is not even in their control, a quick look over the SchoolsPlus web site shows numerous activities that actually are taking place in schools across the province, both during school hours and after.
So strike one for Paul.
In the same piece he suggested that SchoolsPlus should engage “… with new, less familiar community development partners, like Pathways to Education.” Had he bothered to check, he would have discovered that there is already a partnership there. In fact the Chebucto Pathways to Education partnered up with Schools Plus just this past May to host a two-day workshop on mentoring boys and young men.
Finally, he concludes that expanding the program without assessing its success “does not bode well for the entire venture.” Wrong again. The Schools Plus Program has been evaluated for success every year since its inception, using input from a wide variety of sources including parents, students, a steering committee, and three independent external evaluators.
There are other errors, in his article, in his report and in some of his on-air commentary. Most notable of these is his continuing reference to what he calls “a failing grade” given by the external review team to the larger “transformative” goals of SchoolsPlus. Those goals are not actually even supposed to be anywhere near achieved until at least five years from now, and the program, to its credit, has made positive inroads in one of those areas already. But what gets me the most is not the poor content. It is the target of his attack that is so irksome.
The SchoolsPlus program has received rave reviews from many sectors, and the “common consent form” that they have developed is actually being considered for adoption by other jurisdictions. In the past, those seeking services would need consent from a wide variety of service providers, such as mental health, probation, community services etc. This was exceedingly difficult for those most in need of service, and there have been attempts in the past to get this goal accomplished. None has succeeded before SchoolsPlus.
As one can imagine, seemingly “small from the outside” achievements such as these have made a tremendous difference in individual lives, and even within the short-term of its existence the individual stories of success are many. Bennett, in his report, scoffs at this individualized approach. Citing what he calls “private mutterings” he writes:
“Giving hungry children lunch money, paying for their summer camps or driving parents to the local food bank do meet those immediate crying needs, but they also do little to help break the cycle of poverty and social service dependency.” Bennett, 2013
SchoolsPlus is also, by its very nature, a program that helps those most at risk, and those most likely to be turned off a hopeful program by negative press that sounds knowledgeable, but is, for the most part, tripe. It would not be quite as bad if Bennett were not constantly using the tragedy of Rehtaeh Parson’s suicide as a means of pushing his views. In an interview with a local radio station on June 26th, Bennett managed to allude to her death as evidence that the program was not working. Again, if he had bothered to check, he would have realized that the program was actually not in place in any of the schools Rahtaeh attended. Indeed, one of the main points of the program is to try to prevent such senseless loss from happening again.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me what kind of researcher Paul Bennett is, or that he seems to be wrong about some basic facts, or even that he apparently can’t read a report card. I’m not signing his paycheque, nor is he teaching my child. However, the SchoolsPlus program is working. I just hope that in his latest grasp for glory, Bennett hasn’t caused some of those in need to turn away from a very promising helping hand.