Chilliwack School District superintendent Evelyn Novak.

Looking forward to a new school year

Chilliwack school district superintendent Evelyn Novak sits down to share her strategies and challenges for the upcoming year.

Chilliwack school district superintendent Evelyn Novak has been at the helm of one of B.C.’s only growing school districts for one year. With 14,000 students and 1,800 teachers in the heart of the Fraser Valley, the district presents a unique set of challenges.

In the year since she moved from the Prairie Spirit school division, outside Saskatoon, Novak says she has settled into her new position in Chilliwack. She has developed an open and trusting relationship with the board of education and staff, and is expecting a fruitful and constructive year.

Below is an edited interview with Novak on what parents, students and staff can expect in the 2013-14 year.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

We’re excited to be implementing early French immersion (EFI) in our district. We’ve set aside the funding for that, so we’re looking at developing some plans around that.

There are a number of decisions that have to be made and thinking that needs to be done. We have to put some personnel in place to support the implementation. We’ll be looking at school sites. We need to finalize those decisions, so parents can determine whether or not they want their children to participate.

The approval of EFI at a board meeting in June was a surprise after the program was rejected just one month prior. Is an EFI program absolutely confirmed for Chilliwack?

Once the board provided the funding for it, it is our intention to make this the best early French immersion program that we can have. And we’re excited about it because it’s providing another learning opportunity for our students. So we’re going to ensure that it’s implemented well and that our parents will be happy with the outcome.

Will the program be ready for Sept. 2014?

We’re working towards that date. We know that parents are committed to it. There’s a group of parents and children that are ready to begin. We really want to capitalize on that.

What are some lingering challenges?

Personnel. We know from what other districts have experienced, hiring early French immersion staff, early French immersion learning assistants, teachers, resource assistants, can be a challenge. We’ll look inside (the district) first. We hear that there are some folks inside who are interested. But if we need to, we’ll go outside as well.

With its increasing enrollment, SD 33 is continually facing a shortage of adequate space for students. How is the board handling this?

We need to continue to advocate for additional schools and additional spaces and additional classrooms in Chilliwack. That’s something the board will continue to work with the government on. It’s exciting to be in a district that’s growing.

Have you received any response from the Ministry of Education on Chilliwack’s $56-million dollar long-term facilities plan? This includes two brand new schools, and a long list of major infrastructure upgrades to existing facilities.

That will be coming forward in October, I believe. Other than it was received and approved in principal, the next step is the funding piece, and we have not heard anything around that.

Are you still optimistic the plan will be funded?

Absolutely. Because we are one of the few districts in B.C. that is growing, we are optimistic that we are going to be looked at carefully and supported.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), including the Chilliwack chapters, have been deadlocked in difficult contract negotiations with the Ministry for months. Is there anything the local school district can do to aid the process?

We have a very long standing and positive relationship with our teachers’ association as well as with our CUPE. Regardless of what has been happening provincially, our staff have worked hard locally to ensure that we work together. Everyone’s interest, as far as supporting our students, continues to be at the forefront. There may be some directions given to us by the government on what we need to do, and we will follow through and ensure we do our part.

Do you have a contingency plan in case either group decides to strike?

Because of this transpiring during the summer months, our board hasn’t had an opportunity to get together to discuss it.

Historically, the Chilliwack school board has had tension between trustees. Are you seeing improvement there?

From what I have observed, I think our board has demonstrated that they engage in healthy debate, healthy dialogue. We need diverse ideas and diverse thinking around the table in order to come to a best idea, and I think the board has demonstrated that. So I’m pleased with the direction we’re headed.

When I came to this district, I came in hopeful and positive. I’ve always believed in positive, open and trusting relationships. And that’s how I approached working with this board. The board has welcomed me, and has responded in the same way, and I think we’ve forged a positive relationship. I’m quite proud of the way the board is working together, and looking at its work, and building a vision to move forward.

You’re not worried such healthy debate is counter-productive?

No, not at this point in time.

The district completed a major review of special education last year. How will the district use the findings this year?

One of the first tasks we did was to implement a special ed working committee. Now we have also a special ed advisory committee. Parents are included in that. That’s going to really address the parent need to have input and feedback into what’s happening around special education in the Chilliwack school district.

We are also providing specific professional development. This week, for example, some of our staff were involved in autism training. Education assistants are included in that.

We want to give our parents the confidence that we are listening, and being very strategic and intentional.

Do you have any final comments?

I’m really pleased with our leadership overall in our district. I think we have a strong staff. I am extremely impressed with the caring and passionate community, the groups and partners that recognize the additional supports that they provide are healthy to our students, such as the Bowls of Hope feeding program.

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