Archive for July, 2009

July 18, 2009

Mapping jail and university admissions

The results are in from the stellar Toronto Star team again. This week-end, they released two sets of maps, in many ways the obverse of each other:

The latter map is the result of a court order, as described in a previous post and a strong contribution to  the argument for place-based interventions. Our thanks to them.

The maps looking at university admissions also support the work being done by the Toronto District School Board’s researchers who have mapped university applications and other academic indicators by neighbourhood.

These unsettling maps lay how applicants to one of the most prestigious universities in Canada live in different worlds than the the places where people are being jailed. Opportunities are literally mapped out.

The co-incidental (?) and simultaneous release of maps is evocative of the statistic that, in many American inner cities, there are more young men in jail than in college or university.

I’ll look at more of the details in these maps in another post.

July 16, 2009

One neighbourhood, many politics

It could have been an awkward conversation — me: a manager; my neighbour: a striking city worker; and another neighbour, who makes her living in the service industry, depending on tips.

The topic of the city workers’ strike, now ending its third week, had just popped into our front porch chitchat.

I froze, tried to shoo the topic away.

But instead, what started as a snipe about “greedy unions” turned into a wide-ranging discussion about the integrity in collective bargaining and the hard and very human realities of living through a strike. The exchange became a chance to soften hard lines which missed the complexity of our situations.

By the end, we were laughing, teasing, empathizing.

We were able to have this conversation because we had all know each other for over a dozen years. We trusted each other to have this hard conversation.

The Toronto Star profiled a similar encounter between neighbours. It is, though, a conversation that may be less and less likely in Toronto neighbourhoods, which are increasingly divided along income lines. (Why do we build homogenized houses of similar value in separated neighbourhoods?)

What happens in neighbourhoods which have less diversity, whether those differences are along political, class, or racial lines? Political science presents a useful concept to answer this: supermajorities (more than a majority, often 2/3).

In supermajorities, diverse opinions are not heard, and political positions harden. What was a conservative or a progressive belief becomes, in an unchallenged field, an ultra-conservative or a radical one.

Conversations like the one on my front porch tonight reminded me of one more reason why mixed neighbourhoods are important.

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July 7, 2009

A distinction between houses and homes

WoodGreen is hosting a South African delegation from a sister community agency this month, and the discussions are rich. There is much we share in common, but much also to learn from each other.

For instance, today, we watched a documentary on the Tent City residents. Over lunch, a guest confessed that he kept thinking how, in South Africa, 4 million people face this same tenuous housing situation. He complimented the sturdiness of the erected structures, but agreed that Canadian winters were a motivation for additional reinforcement. We also talked about the good work of people like Josie Adler, who recently visited Toronto and spoke to the Toronto Neighbourhood Research Network, and who works to make Hillbrow a Neighbourhood reclaiming community, building by hijacked building.

The most valuable story around community–building was how entire neighbourhoods, for 40—50,000 people had sprung up in the 1990’s building spree, with a only single school or community centre to serve new residents. As a Minister of Housing described it afterwards, government had concentrated mistakenly on building houses, rather than homes. To fix this, the Ministry of Housing was given a broader mandate and renamed the Ministry of Human Settlement.

July 1, 2009

Toronto swimming pools: Class in session

One of the strongest arguments put forward to save the school pools in the TDSB has been the issue of equitable access to a public resource. Or as the headline on the Globe and Mail article by Margaret Atwood put it, without pools, “Rich kids swim. Poor kids sink.

Critics have groused because swimming pools seem a unjustified demand on the public purse for a perk which many school boards outside Toronto do not enjoy.

However, the argument goes, school pools allow students who don’t have access to summer cottages and camp to learn a basic survival skills.

It’s a debating point that has held some sway. Last week, the TDSB voted to save twenty pools, and to put 13 more on hold while the schools look for further support. Seven pools will be closed. [Declaration of potential conflict of interest: A pool will be closing at a high school which my son will be attending next year.]

Given the relentless cuts over the years, the news came as somewhat of a relief.

A closer look, though, at the pools which have been saved gives some credence to the “pools as perks for the already privileged” argument.

The list of saved pools (Forest Hill, Lawrence Park and Humberside, among others) are in some of the toniest parts of Toronto. Similarly, the list of closing pools (Bickford Centre, Central Commerce and Parkdale among others) are in poorer neighbourhoods. Such anecdotal evidence requires a closer examination.

Using these schools’ ranks on the TDSB’s Learning Opportunity Index lets us see who has won this fight. The Learning Opportunity Index uses student-level data to rank schools according to their socioeconomic bracket. The Stats Can taxfiler data measures include the percentage of students below the Low Income Measure and the percentage of families on social assistance. The higher on the Index a school is, the more rich student population is.

A rough analysis, breaking the schools into upper, middle and lower tiers shows that schools in richer neighbourhoods are the ones being saved.

Of the 20 pools which have been saved:

  • 12 [60%] of the school pools (8 high schools and 4 elementary pools) are in the top third of the LOI (i.e. the schools with the richest students)
  • 6 [30%] of the saved pools are in “middle-class” high schools, and
  • 2 [10%] of the pools which will remain open, in high schools, are in the bottom third (the neediest schools).

Comparatively, looking at the 20 pools that are still threatened or being closed, poorer schools fared worse:

  • 2 elementary school in the upper tier have a pool being put on hold.
  • 8 pools in middle tier schoolsface a threat
    • 4 closed;
    • 4 threatened (3 high schools + 1 elementary)
  • 10 pools in the poorest tier are under threat
    • 3 closed (2 high schools + Bickford Centre);
    • 7 threatened (5 high schools + 2 elementary)

Troubling, indeed.

The sample skews in favour of schools in more well-heeled neighbourhoods, but this may be a result of a “sampling error.” Perhaps more of the  pools are simply located in richer schools and so, by saving them, more “rich pools” will be saved.

So, there’s another way to examine this.

Let’s look at the number of pools saved against the number of pools threatened in each of these three income tiers. If these numbers are disproportionate then we may have evidence of a systemic problem of classism.

Sadly, these numbers tell the same biased story.

  • In the top tier, 14 pools were threatened. 12 are being saved, or six-sevenths of them (86%).
  • In the middle tier of schools, 14 pools were threatened. 7 of them are being saved (or half).
  • In the bottom tier, the poorest schools, 2 pools have been saved of the threatened 11  + the unranked Bickford Centre for Adult Students & Continuing Education. (So one in six or 17% of these pools which serve poorer students has been saved.)

Also worth noting is that the only 4 pools in elementary schools which are being saved are all in the top bracket.  However, two “top tier” elementary school have been put on hold, as have six other elementary schools, all in the middle or bottom tier.

It’s a pretty damning picture. “Higher class” pools are five times as likely to be saved as pools in the poorest schools and twice as likely to be saved as pools in the middle tier.

How can this be so?

Part of the way this has fallen out may well be because one of the key criteria used to determine whether a pool would be saved, that is whether it could “generate sufficient revenue to offset operating costs.” Pools which serve richer populations are probably more likely to be able to do so. It was a sound decision — without the further vetting needed to assure it was an equitable one.

There’s no maliciousness here, but no one asked the question, so we have created further inequalities along class lines.

If our public education system is to meet its stated ideal of leveling the playing field for all students, another look at this decision must be taken. Rich kids are swimming, and the poor ones aren’t.

For list of school pools and their status, see more.

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