Greater Victoria School District board chair Edith Loring-Kuhanga with former superintendent Piet Langstraat at his retirement party.                                School District 61 Photo

Greater Victoria School District board chair Edith Loring-Kuhanga with former superintendent Piet Langstraat at his retirement party. School District 61 Photo

Outgoing school superintendent reflects on changes to SD61

Langstraat used transparency to bring in change

In three years Piet Langstraat helped usher in a lot of change in the Greater Victoria School District.

On July 31 the former SD61 superintendent retired for good, ending a career in public education that started with a teaching position in 1984 in Red Deer, Alta. Shelley Green, former deputy superintendent, assumes that role, and Langstraat is free to spend more days at the campground, where he’s been a lot this summer, with his wife and trusty dog.

“More time for camping, that’s one thing we’ll do,” Langstraat said.

When he arrived in Victoria in 2015, Langstraat came to the job interview with the idea that the vision and direction of SD61 was critical. While Langstraat’s time at SD61 was far briefer than his predecessor – John Gaiptman held the position for 12 years until 2012 – Langstraat came at a time of pivotal change for the district.

When Langstraat arrived, SD61 staff and its board of trustees had already started the development of a strategic plan that included operational plans, the long-term facilities plan (building upgrades), technology plans (for classrooms), an international student plan and the supports for students with special needs and diverse learners. While some of the policy changes SD61 made during Langstraat’s time were seen as controversial by parents, most of them weren’t, and all were changes that needed to happen for the district governing 56 schools and 20,000 students with an annual budget of $134 million.

“Some of the things I’m proud we were able to do were to create equitable distribution of resources,” Langstraat said. “It’s remarkable what the board was able to accomplish, I’m pretty happy with where we got to.”

When it came to technology, not everything was equal, he added.

“Two things that were really important were the equity and inclusion, and when I first came to the district there was a huge disparity of schools,” Langstraat said.

“There were more programs and technology materials on the east side of town, while schools on the west side would have less.”

The school board took an equitable approach, first to technology, providing all teachers access to laptops (not all had them). Then it moved to school classrooms as only some had access to projection devices, and on to the students, by establishing a ratio of technology to students for things such as tablets.

Of course, there were the more controversial items.

While the school board voted on prioritizing schools for seismic upgrades, it also collected a lot of public input on how to proceed with the prioritizing of students (as well as upgrades, such as Vic High, for registration in their schools.

Among those changes were SD61’s recently introduced, and re-organized, priority of student registration, and proof of residency.

The priority of student registration was a matter that went back and forth, and ultimately adjusted to adhere to parental concerns, though the district did not give in and grandfather the clause, as it could have lasted 15 years in some cases.

The move ruffled feathers with parents, but was something SD61 needed to reorganize with an enrolment growth of 2,000 students anticipated over the next 10 years.

And that was of no surprise to Langstraat, who was part of a catchment review in his previous role as a superintendent in Red Deer, which he held for five years prior to arriving here.

“Yes the catchment review was seen as controversial, but when people can see it was an open and transparent process, even if you don’t love the decisions, you can see it was open with feedback from thousands of people,” Langstraat said.

“That’s what we strove to do, to make sure it was open and transparent, to involve the people who were affected by the decisions that were going to be made.”

Some of the decisions were harder, such as the removal of years-long wait lists at Cloverdale Traditional and South Park Family schools of choice but again, SD61 wanted an equitable and consistent policy across the district moving forward.

There is also a review of catchment boundaries, which may be reviewed again, if schools such as Richmond and Uplands are to be re-instated.

Among the additional SD61 achievements Langstraat is proud of are the areas of inclusion and relationships with Indigenous people.

“We did great work on the inclusion front with gender identity policy and the dress policy, and were focused on the notion that everyone belongs and feels welcome,” Langstraat said.

“All the work with the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, we worked hard to build a relationship there. We went from hardly ever speaking to regular meetings speaking about reconciliation, and learning what outcomes that they want from their kids.

“In the end it’s about the learning outcomes for kids,” Langstraat said.

reporter@saanichnews.com