Archive for February, 2009

February 13, 2009

February 17 Event: Neighbourhoods & Mental Health

Urban Moods and Urban Myths: Do Neighbourhoods Matter for Mental Health? Café Scientifique. Presented by The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH). Tuesday, February 17, 7-9 pm: Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. West, Toronto. Free, all welcome.
To RSVP, e-mail Tynama at smh dot toronto dot on dot ca

February 13, 2009

Ethnic enclaves in Toronto, 2001 – 2006

A packed house gathered last week at the Joint Centre for Excellence on Research in Immigration and Settlement. Building on their earlier work on ethnic enclaves in Toronto, professors Mohammed Qadeer (from Queen’s) and Sandeep Kumar Agrawal (from Ryerson) were speaking about the residential patterns of seven ethnic populations in Toronto:  African Blacks, Caribbean, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Portuguese, and South Asian. (These are as reported at the census tract level by individual respondents to the 2001 and 2006 censuses living in the census metropolitan area (CMA) of Toronto.)

While the maps in their PDF presentation were the most interesting, Qadeer and Agrawal also laid out a few key elements about “ethnic enclaves”:

  • Enclaves are defined as residential concentrations with supporting cultural institutions and services.
  • Enclaves are distinct from ghettos because they happen through a positive choice, rather than a lack of choice. Measuring this, however, is a challenge.
  • Enclaves are an important step for Canadian newcomers on the way to settlement and integration.

Using GIS analysis, Qadeer and Agrawal’s found that ethnic enclaves are extending (so that they are now more widespread) and consolidating (single ethnic groups were more likely to be a higher portion of a neighbourhood). This growth, they found, was often spurred by new immigration.

However, they also found a wide variation in the likelihood of people of various ethnic groups to live within their own neighbourhoods, and that no enclaves were exclusive. All city census tracts had some ethnic mix.

The study provokes further questions to explore, many which were asked that afternoon. Further research could be done to look at these trends over a wider range of years and among other Canadian geographies or at alternate geographic levels (dissemination areas instead of census tract). Also worthwhile would be a examination of the shifting residential patterns of the City’s largest ethnic group, those of British ancestry, and, and more compelling, whether there is a tipping point when “white flight” becomes a reality.

Finally, the study gave a quick look at the percentage growths among various ethnic groups; Russian and Ukrainian populations grew the most quickly. The largest groups are British, South Asian, and, then, Chinese. (For more a detailed description, see the City of Toronto’s 2006 census broad overview and the profiles of specific ethnic groups.)

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February 8, 2009

A Night at the School Council

I wrote this a few years ago as a Facebook Note. It seemed an appropriate time to revive it:

My son’s school is considered a high-needs school according to the school board’s Learning Opportunity Index, at the top end of the range, just edging into the middle of the pack.

The neighbourhood is full of working class families, Canadian-born or from other lands, who grow vegetables rather than landscape rocks in their front yards. Nearby homes are, increasingly, filling up with young professionals, congratulating themselves on finding homes so cheap within easy commuting of downtown.

However it is also a school that stands out. The Toronto Star says that its EQAO scores are above what they “should” be given the student demographics. The school librarian picked up a book and taught herself cricket so that she could coach the group of young boys who asked for a school team. We have family dances and great community movie nights in the gym. And we still have itinerant music teachers. My son has learned cello and steel pan for the past couple of years. One of the Grade Six teachers organized a knitting club this year, and kids knit 750 dolls, which will be used as packing for medical equipment being sent overseas to hospitals which need it. (The dolls will then be distributed to kids in those places.)

So this is what I learned at this week’s school council meeting:

1) Rosedale Public School (a small K-6 school that serves one of the richest enclaves in the country) recently contacted our school principal. They wondered if they could borrow our steel pans this summer. Parents had raised $16,000 to send their junior students to Australia for a tour. (We’ve loaned them, because we know the importance of cooperation, in a place like this.)

2) My son’s graduation trip has been set. They are going to the well-treed park, five minutes north of the school, on the other side of the tracks, and bringing some Frisbees. The price is right, and the school council is going to buy everyone a Popsicle.


February 8, 2009

Toronto's Disappearing Middle Class

For those of you who missed Sunday’s Toronto Star article with mapsThe Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization, 1970 -2000 is being updated by authors, David Hulchanski, with Richard Maaren, at University of Toronto. Their recent update brings us to 2005, and the 2006 Census data will be included by the research team later this year.

What the maps show is not a shifting middle class, as described by the Star headline, but a disappearing middle class. Toronto has become a city of growing inequality. Fewer and fewer areas of the city are “middle class,” defined at close to the average individual income of $40,000 in 2005. Areas of high income are remaining essentially stable geographically, concentrated in the middle of the City and along the Lake, while low income areas are consolidating where they were previously and spreading out through the suburbs.

February 4, 2009

The TDSB's Learning Opportunity Index

Tonight the trustees of the Toronto District School Board will be looking at revisions (and here) to the Learning Opportunity Index, a measure which ranks schools according to the needs of their students and then focuses resources on the most needy ones. (The final rankings are available here.)

I had the pleasure over the past eighteen months in helping to revise and improve it, so I have two arguments to make:  first, why the LOI is an important, and essentially Canadian, educational tool, and second, why this new version is an improvement.

The purpose of the Index is to support students who are falling behind in school because of challenges they face outside of school. This new Index will allow scarce school resources to be driven to those most in need, those who are facing some of the greatest barriers to academic achievement and who are, by our measures, doing poorly in school.

The LOI deserves continued support because:

  • Our Canadian ideal of public education is to allow every student a fair chance to participate in our broader society. To do this, we have to make sure every child has a good start. Because the effects of poverty are cumulative, building exponentially, poor kids in poor schools face the largest learning barriers.
  • This is a best investment of educational dollars. Investments in poor kids make a bigger improvement than investments in kids in other income brackets – they just have more room to grow.
  • The LOI is and has always been one of the most cutting-edge educational measures in North America, mimicked in other jurisdictions, because of its statistical validity and reliability. It does the job it’s supposed to do: leveling the playing field.

The proposal going forward to the school board tonight should be supported because it shows an even stronger relationship between external challenges and academic achievement. The revisions should be supported because they:

  1. strengthen measures of poverty
    The current LOI measures income, looking at average and median incomes in the neighbourhoods where students live. These measure the middle of the pack. However educational research shows that low income is one of the main drivers of poor academic performance.

    • The proposed LOI keeps median income, for stability and consistency, but strengthens the measure of low income, adding
    • the percentage of Families who fall below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure (those living with incomes that are less than half the median Canadian income, i.e. those who are in the bottom quarter of income earners), and
    • includes, for the first time, a measure of families receiving social assistance.
  2. eliminate variables which confuse the issue
    Variables with a weaker correlation to academic performance were dropped; the new LOI is better able to predict how students would perform academically.

In recent years, housing type has become a poor variable because of problems of under-reporting and because no distinction is made by Statistics Canada between high-rise rental apartments and condominiums. Housing type no longer shows a strong correlation to academic performance.

Immigration is also a poor predictor of how students will perform. For instance, students from some areas of the world outperform students from other parts of the world, including students who are Canadian born. So, immigration status alone does not accurately predict academic problems.

The removal of immigration and housing type will mean that school located in areas with high immigration and multiple story dwellings may not be as high on the LOI if those income levels are not comparable to other parts of the city. However, when we looked at the academic performance of these same schools, we found they were performing more closely to the level predicted by the revised LOI. In actuality, the LOI is now a more accurate predictor of those students’ academic potential.

Some critics have also raised the issue of race as one variable that is missing from the proposed LOI. Educational research shows this can also be a factor in academic achievement because it is a substitute measure for racism. (i.e. one’s race does not predict one’s academic potential, but it does predict the barriers to academic achievement). Even though I chaired the school board’s equity advisory committee for a number of years, I feel comfortable with leaving the variable of Race aside for the moment for two reasons. First, the Board is being asked to make a public commitment to look at the variable of race when Toronto data is available, and I believe this should and will be done. Second, and sadly, because visible minority status and low income are so closely correlated in Toronto, that by strengthening the poverty measures, the proposed LOI captures many of the same students that a race variable would. In effect, race is currently a fair proxy for poverty, and so the strengthened poverty measures capture many of these same populations.

In another post, I will explain the mechanics of the LOI that make it work so well.

(Update on the TDSB’s LOI, after its release: Belonging Community: School board releases new Learning Opportunity Index)

February 1, 2009

Local school reviews: the problem of declining enrollment, pt. 2

So, if school enrollments are dropping across the country, what are some of the emerging solutions?

As I mentioned in my last post, our local grade school, one which has stood in the east end of the city for more than one hundred years, is facing an accommodation review. As its enrollment has been dropping over the past decade, like the majority of Canadian school, it’s not much of a surprise. (For more on this trend of declining enrollments, see People for Education’s special report published last spring. Full disclosure: I worked with this great group of parent activists for years.)

However, what’s different now, compared to the panic of ten years ago, is that the school board review is not simply about how to close this neighbourhood school. The proposed solutions are far more creative:

First, recognizing the trend a few years ago, the school began to hunt for magnet programs, which could boost enrollment. French Immersion was rejected as an option (on account of the perhaps-stereotypical image of idling SUVs ferrying children from nearby wealthy neighbourhoods), but the school council has recently been exploring housing an alternative school.

Second, the school board has agreed, through the accommodation review, that students  attending the local school can stay at the school until grade 8, thereby increasing the number of students inside its walls.

A cynic (or someone with a long memory) will rightly point out that this is only an option because Design & Tech  and Home Ec. programs have essentially been eradicated from Senior Schools (grades 7/8).  Dedicated, specialized classroom space was de-funded during the Harris years, and most schools cut these programs. Ergo, grade 7/8 schooling can now be delivered in any general classroom. In sum, there is no longer any reason to ship kids away to bigger, more specialized schools at the end of grade 6. So why do it?

There is a real upside to this decision though; that is, that it minimizes the number of shifts students face within a short scope of years (at the ends of grades 6 and 8). Keeping students at their local schools means they can maintain the social relations they have built over years.

One of the best studies to demonstrate the importance of strong relationships in building the resiliency of children and youth was done two years ago by Resiliency Canada, Toronto Public Health and Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services, called A Community Fit for Children and Youth. Children and youth in this age group who felt connected to their families, their schools and their communities were the least likely to participate in risky behaviour. Yet at the age of twelve or thirteen (just as they were leaving grade six and entering grade seven), they were also beginning to  feel disconnected from these same supports. Part of the challenge from the reports’ recommendations was to families, educators and communities was to examine how to maintain these important connections.

I learned this on a deeply personal level,  one day, when my son was still in grade school, he and I began to talk about the people that he knew in our neighbourhood. It began as an idle question, but soon, gifted souls that we are, we began to make a list of everyone he knew. By the time we got to one hundred people, we stopped, exhausted and awed at the strength of these visible ties he had to our community. Those sorts of social connections need to fostered, and our local school review may just provide the opportunity to do that.

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