Public schools in Thunder Bay lag behind their Catholic counterparts, according to a recent “report card” for Ontario’s schools.

The report by the BC-based Fraser Institute shows nine of the city's top 10 schools are part of the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board.

Report author Peter Cowley, who's also executive vice president of development and marketing at the Fraser Institute, said the situation in Thunder Bay is unique in the province.

"This is unusual enough to be interesting,” he said.

“And to ask the question — and this has to be asked of the folks involved in the Catholic school board, the principals and the administrators — what do they think?"

mckellar public school

McKellar Park Central School was the lowest ranked of 32 elementary schools in Thunder Bay on the Fraser Institute's 'Report Card on Ontario's Elementary Schools 2014.' (Adam Burns/CBC)

Omer Belisle, the superintendent of education with the Catholic board, said the board's success is due to a number of factors, but he points to one in particular.

"It's commitment by the teachers, and the support staff, and the principal in the school,” he said.

“[There is] a commitment to improving, and really it's a commitment to challenging kids."

But Belisle dismissed the idea the Catholic board has any kind of edge over the public schools.

"I don't think there's an advantage. I think the schools throughout our city are the same,” he said.

“We deal with the same challenges. Despite those reports, there are challenges in each of our schools that we continue to work on. And that's something that we have to account for, and stay focused on."

Numbers don't tell the whole story

An associate professor of education at Laurentian University said one thing that could explain some of the difference between the two boards is size.

"One could make the argument that the public board is much larger than the Catholic board,” Serge Demers said.

“And any time you want to implement changes within a system, the smaller you are, the more nimble you can be at making those changes."

The superintendent of Lakehead Public Schools said the Fraser Institute bases its rankings on test results from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). Sherri-Lynne Pharand said those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

A.J. Keene

McKellar Park principal A.J. Keene says he didn't spend more than 10 minutes thinking about the Fraser Institute report card. (Adam Burns/CBC)

"When EQAO results are reported publicly, they report the number of students who achieve level 3 and level 4 which, if we think about it like a report card, that would be a B or an A. But when we receive the results ... one of the first things we look at are, what is the percentage of students that are achieving levels 2, 3, and 4, which would be the report card equivalent of a C, a B or an A."

Pharand said the Fraser report ignores those “C” and even “C-plus” students, which she said is not quite fair, because many of those students are just on the cusp of a B.

She said in terms of percentage points, it's not that much of a gap.

"The difference between a 68 or a 69 and a 70, doesn't really demonstrate that much difference in understanding. So what we're looking at right now is, what is that nuance in learning? What is it that students are able to demonstrate to get that B versus that high, high C-plus? And how do we help them unlock that understanding?"

'We're doing a good job'

At McKellar Park Central School — the lowest-ranked of 32 Thunder Bay elementary schools included in the annual Fraser report — principal A.J. Keene said many C-students go on to do great things.

Rocky Baxter

Rocky Baxter has two daughters at McKellar Park Central School. He says he likes the school's approach to conflict resolution, and respect for aboriginal issues. (Adam Burns/CBC)

"I don't really worry about it. I worry about the parents in the community. And I think the majority of parents in this community feel we're doing a good job for their kids. ... That's the public that I really answer to: my parent community."

One parent who can vouch for Keene’s approach is Rocky Baxter.

When his daughter got in what he called a "scuffle" with another student, Baxter said he was impressed with the way the school handled it.

"[The process] got a lot of things out in the open,” Baxter said. “Everything [was] out on the table … [and] there was no bitterness or animosity."

Baxter said he also appreciates the school's respect for aboriginal culture, and he believes parents can influence test scores as much as schools.