Compared to past years, attendance numbers at the 22nd National Congress on Rural Education conference held in Saskatoon were lower this year.
That, however, is not an indication that the conference, which for years was the only one of its kind in Canada (Alberta has recently added a similar one of its own), has lost its relevance, according to conference chairperson Barb Compton, and Patricia Prowse, associate director at the Saskatchewan Educational Learning Unit.
Both point to the fact that in the current difficult economic times, such conferences fall victim to dwindling professional development budgets.
“I think there are a number of challenges in the education sector right now and we’re probably feeling an impact of that. We’re also one of a number of national conferences being held in Saskatchewan,” Prowse said. She added that there is still a good cross-section of attendees from across Western Canada and stretching into Montana.
Compton, the former director of Prairie South School Division, echoed those sentiments.
“I think these are tough economic times and so a lot of professional development has been put on hold. We know there’s going to be some challenges in the future, so time will tell.”
It’s a changing of the guard at the Congress, following the retirement and subsequent relocation of longtime chairperson and founder Brian Keegan, whom Compton lauded for the highly organized way he ran things. He made it “very comfortable to step into his shoes and so in that way it has been a smooth transition since he was such a wealth of information.”
This marks the second year of Prowse’s involvement. If you listen to her, she’s already sold on the conference, even if it’s a challenge to attract the numbers in the current climate.
“Coming from an urban board I haven’t been that connected to rural education. This conference has been a great opportunity to understand things from a rural perspective much more. We know rural education has some unique needs. Talking to delegates and keynote presenters, you develop that insight and you realize how important a conference like this can be when you consider the innovative ideas that are shared and are perhaps able to be replicated. There’s such a generosity of sharing at this conference.”
According to Prowse, the theme of Strengthening the Circle–Creating Connections has resonated with delegates from the province and outside its borders. She noted the importance of having presentations by such organizations as the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Treaty Commissioner as being key to maintaining the conference’s relevance.
“Our planning committee will be taking a very careful look at the delegates’ feedback in terms of what we might want to look at in the future and we want to be responsive to those needs. We need to keep looking forward because we know that everyone has to prioritize choices when it comes to professional development spending.”
Compton, meanwhile, cited additions to this year’s program such as including industry and the arts community in an effort to broaden the appeal.
For her own part she is an avid cheerleader, having attended for 20 years as a delegate and presenter.
“You can pick up things here from talking to other delegates that you can put in your pocket and change the way you do business,” she said, pointing to the involvement of school community councils in Prairie South as having emanated from this conference.
“It’s the diversity as much as anything that is invaluable. You sit at a table with a trustee and a person doing a graduate program, for example. That mix of people and the cross-section is how you expand your own thinking.”
Compton said that while certain school divisions might opt not to spend professional development on conferences such as this, she insisted it’s more essential than ever.
“When you think of what you learn and the networking, that’s something that remains long after the conference is over, so it goes well beyond the three days you’re here. When you are semi-retired you focus on what’s really important, and this is definitely one of those events for me,” she said.