Archive for November, 2009

November 30, 2009

A harder case to make for boys' school in the TDSB

New Toronto District School Board Director Chris Spence is showing himself fearless in the face of controversy. But he’s got a hard case to make if he is going to convince Torontonians that a boys’ school is a good way to address underachievement.

As part of the his move to open the discussion, Dr. Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, was invited to address Toronto parents and trustees last week.

It didn’t go over well.

Perhaps most scathing was Trustee Mari Ruka’s summary of the talk (see More below). (Trustee Rutka is infamous for her arguments against the separate nature of Africentric schools, saying that if the school board proceeded, it should, by the same logic, set up schools for students who are “fat” or “red-headed.”)

Several OISE graduates have also begun a Facebook string on the topic of boy’s schools.

Pointing to the fact that both populations face underachievement, Spence used the same arguments used for the Africentric school launched earlier this year in the TDSB. Learning styles, which is what the boys’ school advocates seem to centre on, are not the same as the cultural inheritance arguments put forward for Black-focused schools. The arguments for separation are blurrier because gender identities are blurrier. (Sax’s ill-received attempts at humour probably failed because they too predictably relied on gender stereotypes.).

Black-focused/Africentric schools are also open to all students – different again from Spence and Sax’s arguments of how (some) boys may need a “girl-free” environment.

As the parent of a son, I have often argued for more “boy-friendly” learning environments. However, unlike my stance on Africentric schools, I still wait to be convinced that he, and boys like him, would be best served in a single-sex school.

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November 29, 2009

Bed Bugs: A call for action in Toronto

The reports are in: bed bugs aren’t just found in nursery rhymes.

In case you missed the media hyperbole a few weeks ago, it was stunning. The National Post led with the story of the spread of bed bugs on transit vehicles and other public spaces. CBC’s The National covered the release of the two reports, released simultaneously, at Toronto City Hall. A section of the print story on the CBC website was subtitled “psychologically terrorized.”

The stories reflected the panicky mood of the 100+ crowd who attended the launch of the reports, commissioned by Habitat Services and WoodGreen Community Services.  Many of those in attendance felt compelled to speak from the floor after the presentation, and boxes of reports disappeared by the armload.

The two bed bug reports focus on the policy responses required to combat the spread of bed bugs and, also, on what to do if you are battling the pests.

The message was clear: bed bugs are back. Toronto Public Health has already agreed to direct some of its scarce resources to low income residents faced with the high costs of extermination.

Both reports are available on the WoodGreen website in the What’s New section. [Full disclosure: this is the agency where I work.]

November 10, 2009

An opportunity gap – not an achievement gap

OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling packed them in for a lecture tonight by Linda Nathan called Grappling with the Hardest Questions: Why Must Schools Talk Openly About Race and Achievement and What Happens When They Do.

Nathan is co-headmaster of Boston’s Arts Academy (BAA), a small public high school located across from Fenway Park, where kids from all economic and racial backgrounds can take advantage of the kind of specialized education institution to which upper and middle class parents often send their children.

In a school with such diversity, BAA has worked to ensure all students achieve. In the No Child Left Behind ethos, this means making sure students achieve. As Nathan writes in her new book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test:

For the majority of educators of good will who are teaching in urban schools—many of them, though obviously not all, white women—the achievement gap is a hugely personal issue. The notion that today’s schools are not helping to equalize opportunity in the way American schools are supposed to do is not just a frustration. It haunts us.

If schools are going to ensure the achievement gap is closed, she writes, it will take more than the piles binders of disaggregated data which simply reiterate the problem.

Instead, Nathan argues schools need to

  • frame the problem as an opportunity gap, recognizing the challenged and unequal backgrounds some students come from. Address inequality. So, for instance, admission to BAA is not based on skill, developed through years of private lessons, but on a student’s passion for the opportunity before them.
  • address how race affects learning, rather than test scores. This means, for example, instead trying to close the gap by teaching testing skills, that teachers have the training and time to think through complex learning issues as a school team.
  • plan explicitly to raise the performance of African American boys. For instance, when honour roll assemblies are held, she underlines the importance of Black male achievement, not to the detriment of other students, but to emphasize what they can all do.
  • Find a common vision – BAA developed an ethos called R.I.C.O., which stands for Refine, Invent, Connect, and Own. These are values applied to all of school life.

Teachers and students became involved in the difficult conversation about race and opportunity at BAA.

“If we don’t speak the truth we all see,” she explained to the audience, “we won’t make sustainable change.”

Nathan urges us to think about the structures that create opportunity.

More than artistry, BAA teaches citizenry.

Schools, she said, must be places where we want to belong. The stories she told (and others) emphasized the participatory and democratic natures of the schools where Nathan has worked. (She felt odd, she explained, telling these stories without the students with her now, but cross-border travel does present complications.)

94% of BAA’s students go on to post-secondary studies—and Nathan says there is still room for improvement.

The lesson, unnerving as it may be for Canadians, is that when race is explicitly addressed, when students are fully engaged, and when opportunity is created, there is no achievement gap.

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November 1, 2009

Mixed picture on mixed income: Moving in on poor neighbourhoods

Early one morning this week, I drove a neighbour (and, of course, friend) to a downtown hospital for a medical test.

We were distracted from the quiet between us by the car radio. CBC’s Metro Morning was broadcasting from Regent Park, the downtown neighbourhood with a scope of need that is almost double any other part of the city. We zoomed right through it, along Shuter Street.

Metro Morning was exploring the community’s revitalization. The first stage was underway, and 1 Cole Place, the new condominiums, were opening. The morning’s interviews demonstrated the deep history and vitality of the neighbourhood and, also, the new interest that has been sparked in the community.

As I drove back home alone, I decided to stop the car and go watch the broadcast from Nelson Mandela Park school.

Host Andy Barrie was the efforts to create a mixed income neighbourhood in Regent Park. He was interviewing a young University of Toronto doctoral student and Trudeau scholarship winner, Martine August, and long-time resident and community organizer, Sandra Costain, about the impact of the looming arrival of higher income residents (and their homes).

It was a sobering interview, one which just whet my appetite. August cited studies from her literature review, and Costain concurred from experience, but they both painted a gloomy picture:

  • People segregate themselves according to their separate identities. In 14 studies August looked at, interactions between higher-income newcomers and lower-income residents show that interactions don’t occur.
  • Very often when people of higher incomes do move into a poorer neighbourhood and exercise their political muscle, it’s to push social services, which low income people need, out.
  • Community programs which were universal, free to local (low-income) residents begin to require documentation of need, fees introduced, and stigma grows.

What was left unsaid in the short interview is what might mitigate these colonizing forces.

For instance, in his work in school, Clyde Hertzman found that children from poor families did better when in a mixed income school. He attributed that to the “sharp elbows of the middle class,” which act to protect a full range of services.  By extension then, those who buy homes in a poor area need to see further than their property values, but to a common good.

Discussing this electronically with Brian Eng at the Wellesley Institute afterwards, he said that this tendency of mixed income neighbourhoods to push out poor people further underscores the importance of community development.

Eng gave the example of the co-ops around the St. Lawrence Market as a good example of a mixed income community that works. In fact, commentators on CBC’s website, gave the example of the Woodsworth Coop, in the same area, that has monthly business meetings to discuss community business, shared common task (such as cleaning) and regular celebrations with food.

Where opportunities for interactions are created and fostered, stronger communities emerge, a place with, as one American social justice organization called for Better Neighbourhoods, Same Neighbours.

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