It's about the future New Brunswick

Gary Lawson Commentary - Telegraph Journal – Saturday September 6, 2014

Without substantial changes to our approach to education we will not solve our economic problems in New Brunswick.

As the provincial election date looms closer, we are beginning to hear even more about the future of New Brunswick. It’s true that we are at a crossroads on a number of issues, and there are many decisions to be made now that will affect our future.

While this is certainly true of natural resource development and mega projects, New Brunswick is also dealing with another issue that carries serious repercussions if not addressed now. Our province’s future relies on an educated and work-ready population, yet many of our children are not achieving the education they need to become active members of society, contributing all that they can and must to our community and our economy.

We must take seriously the education achievement gap and find ways to address it so that all students in school now will have the same opportunities for success.  

What is the education achievement gap? In Saint John, 28 per cent of all children live in poverty, and only five of every 10 students from Saint John’s priority neighborhoods complete their high school program in four years. This is significantly lower than those living in other neighbourhoods in our community.

The gap in educational achievement between those living in disadvantaged areas in our community and those living elsewhere must be eliminated. The gap contributes to the cycle of poverty and inhibits social and economic growth in our community. For our city, and this province, to realize a successful future, we must take steps now to ensure that all children are being equipped to succeed in school and beyond.  

The tools or supports that may be required are as unique as the student themselves, and that’s part of the challenge: there is no silver bullet for closing the education achievement gap. It could be tutoring, mentorship, financial assistance, and social, recreation, or health supports, or a combination thereof.

The gap must be closed without compromising the education of the rest of the student population, so a greater investment in education is required.

It requires a number of parties – community organizations, businesses,   and government departments – working together and taking a long view to measuring impact.

Saint John is fortunate to have many community organizations already working together and addressing the education achievement gap. But truly addressing this issue at its root is going   to require leadership from government and policies that support a long-term shift in the way we provide for our students. It’s going to require tough decisions in education, which will require understanding and cooperation from everyone, including students, parents, teachers, the community, and especially the government.

Closing the education achievement gap will not happen in a four year election cycle. Some steps may help solve some current needs but more importantly will help build the foundation for a sustainable future where   all people are equipped to be active participants in our success. But to create an education strategy that is realistic and effective, our elected officials must be willing to look beyond the election cycle and across party lines. It may take a generation for the benefits to be realized, but without action, our   future will remain in question.

We believe that this level of collaboration between elected officials and government departments is possible, but that in order to be successful, it must be sought by everyone entitled to cast a ballot on September 22. If the community acknowledges that the education achievement gap is a priority and demands solutions, it is the duty of those who represent us in government to take action.

The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI) leadership has reached out to the leaders of each of the parties to express our   views on this important issue, and we are asking you to do the same of those who have offered their name in the provincial election. Working collaboratively across government to address the education achievement gap must be a part of each party’s platform and plans for governing our province.

This issue cannot be solved overnight. It can take decades for society to realize the benefits of helping a struggling student. But a strong and prosperous New Brunswick depends, in large part, on a ready workforce. Therefore, we absolutely must make this investment in our future.

Education is the path out of our current economic problems and we all must work hard to clear that path to success, for everyone. Our request during this election is that our community urges candidates in their riding to make this issue a priority. It is time to make the necessary changes that see all of our children succeed.

GARY LAWSON is past Chairman of BCAPI. This essay is part of an ongoing series arguing that the province should work to erase its education achievement gap.

Katie Bowden