Archive for January, 2009

January 26, 2009

Local school reviews: The problem of declining enrollment, pt. 1

Our local school is undergoing a Local Accommodation Review, one of those bureaucratic phrases which raises the specter of school closings. It’s the sort of thing, not long ago, during the Harris years, which would have brought parents out in swarms.  It passed nearly unnoticed last week at a school board sub-committee meeting.

Of course, there are fewer of us to notice now. When my high-school-aged daughter started school there, enrollment was twice what it is now.

Neighbourhood demographics have shifted, and homes which housed one or more families in apartments now house singles, childless couples or smaller families. Babies are still being born into the neighbourhood, however our homes are now considered “starter” homes, with a large homes in the neighbourhood have three bedrooms. By the time the babies are ready for school, new siblings have arrived, and families move away.

Most schools around the province are seeing declining enrollments. Birthrates are down everywhere. The only schools left with portables are “receiver” communities, where Canadian newcomers are settling or where new (and bigger) housing is being built.

Declining enrollment continues to hurt the idea of neighbourhood schools. The Liberals have yet to substantially change the funding formula, which is still driven by the number of students enrolled in a school board.

Year over year,  school boards have had to continue to cut back as their revenues dropped, even while some of their costs remained the same or grown: fixed costs such as a full-time secretary or janitor or rising costs such as energy and maintenance of older buildings. And it has meant that school are undergoing Local Accommodation Reviews.

What this calls for is creativity and the willingness to look at new ways of managing these resources which sit at the centre of every city neighbourhood. But perhaps what it also means is that government, school boards and communities will demonstrate a willingness to take some risks to preserve the idea of local schools.

More on these solutions to come….

January 19, 2009

Toronto Police Services Board ordered to release crime data

Last summer, The Toronto Star’s investigative series on Crime and Punishment showed incarceration rates in east-end Toronto (between Riverdale and the Beach) comparable to that of some of the City’s Priority Neighbourhood Areas. It was just one of the startling findings, found through hard data analysis – the sort of data to which most researchers do not have access.

This week, pursuing an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal, reporter Jim Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team won another victory for researchers interested in looking at the interplay of crime data with other social variables.

Back in May 2003, using a Freedom of Information request, Rankin requested police records on arrests and occurrences, with identifying information removed, in order to do an analysis of the prevalence of racial profiling. When the Toronto Police Services Board refused, Rankin appealed to the Privacy Commissioner. The Police Board was ordered to comply with the request. Instead, they appealed and won at the next level. Last week, on appeal, Rankin (and the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner) won the case against the Toronto Police Services Board. The Police Board was ordered to comply and to reimburse court costs to Rankin.

The request for the police data was found to be reasonable and appropriate under the Freedom of Information Act,  in accordance with the principle of open government processes.  As underscored by the Supreme Court in a different case,  Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance), “Transparency and accountability are vital to the democratic process.”

The pursuit of this data is a bit of a Holy Grail. Researchers who work at a neighbourhood level look to crime data as an important part of the social profiles of neighbourhood, its residents, and the shape of any program interventions. Yet, for years, I have sat in meetings with other social researchers who described the runarounds and their failed efforts to access police crime data. It’s not that the data isn’t there. One Superintendent I met at a public meeting assured me he looked at that kind of data regularly. So how come the pursuit felt more like Monty Python’s Holy Grail?

The Toronto Star has been one of the first to be successful in the quest for this sort of data, initially tracking their own news reports and mapping Toronto homicides in Googlemaps. Perhaps provoked to it, the Police Services website soon began to publish similar data, with disclaimers.

Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team deserve much praise for their faithful quest of these hidden treasures.

January 17, 2009

Only in Toronto

We all know the stats. Half of Torontonians were born in another country (and an additional number of us were born elsewhere in Canada.) How we negotiate this diverse urban landscape plays out in daily life.

For instance, awhile back my Facebook status noted that I had listened to live music from four continents over the course of a week-end.

Or, at Christmas, I hosted guests from Russia, Malta, Israel, Tunisia, and Columbia.

Or one of my favourite moments on the TTC happened when a kindergarten class, tired from a long class trip, sat waiting for their stop. The little guy who sat in the seat by me fell asleep on the long ride. The streetcar was crowded, so the teachers were nervously shepherding their charges. As their stop neared, all the children were roused, but my little guy nodded off again – repeatedly. I tried. Other nearby adults tried as well. None of us spoke each other’s language, but we saw the problem, nudging him and guiding him to the exit where his classmates were clambering off. After the streetcar pulled away, him safely on the sidewalk, we all smiled at each other, nodding, and our task accomplished.

But this pattern of wide and disparate intersections, centred in this city, resurfaced yet again today.

This morning I popped in for a cup of tea with my neighbour, Daryl, and, as he often does, he began to reminisce. The cold weather had put him in mind of his rural childhood, in New Brunswick. He spent hours skating along the river which ran by his house with only a pail with lunch and some tea bags. When he and his friends and brothers got hungry, they would stop in the curve of a river, scavenge through the nearby forest for some dry branches, make a fire, boil some tea and eat. He explained in detail, as well, how a rabbit snare is set, with a bit of carrot as the bait. Anytime he caught a rabbit, his mother made a bony stew.

Then this afternoon, I learned from a fellow researcher that he had done his Master’s in India, writing about modern-day debt slaves, many who worked in the quarries of India. He spent fifteen years doing community development there. And finally, this evening, I sat at a mainly Afrocentric celebration, listening to a tall, young Native woman drum for us.

All this, in one day.

I try not to be awed. It’s such an unsophisticated response. But it does amaze me, the breadth of all of us, here.

The writer Dionne Brand, talking about this diversity, said it best: Toronto is “a city that has never happened before.”

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