Archive for March, 2010

March 26, 2010

TDSB ARCs may push out the poor

Recommendations from the Toronto District School Board’s ten Area Review Committees (ARCs) are beginning to emerge, and some communities are looking at school closures.

When the TDSB set out to evaluate “which locations should be closed, consolidated or upgraded,” some wondered how equitably this would all play out in the course of these difficult conversations.

Were the schools in poor areas being singled out first?

Parents in some Toronto communities said so. Reporters poked at the story. Some trustees grumbled.

And, it turns out, they were right.

Twice as many schools under review are in the bottom half (the poorer half) of the school board’s Learning Opportunity Index (LOI) as compared to those in the top half. And, of the 16 schools being reviewed in the top half of the LOI, they are all less vulnerable to closure because they have higher enrollment and utilization rates.

The numbers don’t change much however you slice them, by quartiles or quintiles.

But, of course, it’s more complex than that.

The schools under review are grouped with others from across the range of need.

While four of the ARCs contain schools from only the bottom end of the LOI, five other ARCs have poor schools grouped with richer schools. (Only one ARC (at Yonge and Davisville) is reviewing schools from only the top half of the LOI. Perhaps, not surprisingly, because they had higher enrollments, they have recommended no closures.)

Schools which are able to mobilize their parents to attend numerous evening meetings have actively participated in the process, printing buttons and flyers. Other schools, where parents may work additional jobs or evening hours or not be able to afford child care, have not been not in the room, to describe their vision for the future.

By reports, the dynamics at many of the ARCs have not been not great.

What started as a democratic and inclusive process has turned into a long, drawn-out, and divisive process. Staff at one community agency reported to a recent Toronto Neighbourhood Centres meeting how committee members were told they could not speak at a public meeting. Trustees complain openly about each other where ARCs cross ward boundaries. Blogs have been set up. One ARC has moved from outright hostility to a sullen withdrawal from the process.

So, poorer schools have faced a double jeopardy: more poor schools are under review, and they are also far less likely to be participating in a process which requires a strong and active participant voice.

Before the ARC recommendations come up for adoption in May, someone should review the decisions, with an equity lens, to ensure that those with the fewest resources aren’t being cut again.

December 2010 post-script: Schools which were announced to be closed from this round of ARCs are:

  • Brooks Road Public School
  • Heron Park Junior Public School
  • Peter Secor Junior Public School
  • McCowan Road Junior Public School
  • Pringdale Gardens Junior Public School
  • Silverthorn Junior Public School
  • Arlington Middle School
  • Kent Senior Public School-Alpha II

No schools in the Top quintile were closed; two in the Upper income quintile, one a middle school and one an alternative school; one school in the middle-income group; three in the lower-income quintile; and three in the Bottom (closing in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood have been postponed pending further review).

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March 9, 2010

Back again at the Board on the achievement gap

Given the pace of many meetings, I find it’s therapeutic to make dishcloths because, at least, by the end I have done something concrete.

So, last Saturday, I packed up my yarn and went to the public hearings of the TDSB’s Achievement Gap Taskforce, Breaking the Cycle. I wasn’t optimistic that it would be more than some self-congratulatory self-effacing exercise, the kind the Board does every few years but, still, I wanted to listen.

About 25 presenters came to talk to the Taskforce. Others who weren’t quick enough to sign up also sat sprinkled in the audience. A few trustees, the Board Chair, and the Director rotated through during the day.

As should be expected, many deputants appealed for additional resources, calling for more tutors, smaller classes, mentorship programs, and more interpreters.

But the arguments were also more nuanced. Students talked about the disengagement of their fellow students, the lack of responsibility, the lack of motivation.  Staff talked about ensuring the “academic dignity” of their students. Community agencies reminded panelists that if student are having a problem, their families are having a problem – yet they often treated separately. Community members raised the need to understand “lateral violence.”

Others recognized that identified needs would always outstrip available resources, so called for better coordination and a sustained commitment of program resources. Support programs come and go, and the lack of consistency and rapid turnover means that word-of-mouth referrals may often be out of date. Parents are left, not knowing where to turn.

Grade 8/9 transitions were identified as challenging because students are suddenly thrust into a larger environment, with higher expectations and less monitoring. Others called for a shift towards learning to learn.

The strongest theme, among the students who presented, was the need for connection to their schools. Their stories and those of their classmates were about the need to belong and the cost when students are not engaged. Their words underlined what we already know about the importance of building relations to students and community.

Students also described the importance of role models; one young Black student, upon seeing the meeting chair was also Black male, said that made him want to be the one who “rang the bell,” too, to signal time was up. A youth worker veered off his comments when he saw a former teacher and coach in the room, saying that this man in the corner had made the difference between the life he now led as a college-educated community worker and one where he may well have ended up in jail or worse. The room melted at the end of the presentation, when they hugged, student towering over teacher.

Lloyd McKell, the Chair, pressed respondents further for solutions.

The network of Aboriginal and Metis Educators highlighted the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Aboriginal Education Strategy, a concrete framework ready for implementation. They reported that the Toronto Catholic school board already offers Aboriginal Grade 11 English and Grade 9 Visual Arts as core courses rather than as options. Pens scribbled when the network pointed out that enhanced funding is offered to school boards for offering these courses. The network also underscored that these learnings are important to students of all cultures.

Mirroring the Director’s call for a parent academy in his Vision of Hope, a presenter from Hispanic community spoke about a weekly, Spanish-language community-based program for parents which addressed issues such as mental health or multiple intelligences. The need to create supportive social networks was identified as a need for parents as well as students. [At my own daughter’s high school, we once tried to facilitate linguistic groupings at parent information nights, allowing people to find a space where they could network more easily.]

Among the day’s presentations were also some disheartening moments.

Speakers from the Somali community reminded taskforce members that twenty years ago, they had forwarded a similar set of recommendations. They were not implemented, so they were back.

Another presenter explained that when members of the Hispanic community met with one of the then Directors of Education, fifteen years ago, about their concerns for students in their community, they were reportedly told that if the school board did something for them, then the Board would have to “do something for everyone” too.

An final unfortunate note was that since microphones were not available, some speakers, especially women, were difficult to hear.

On the upside, I got two dishcloths done.

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March 1, 2010

TDSB Achievement Gap Task Force

Update June 1, 2010: The Achievement Gap Task Force has released its draft report for review and consultation. Comments will be received until Oct. 31, 2010.

Dr. Chris Spence, the Director of of the Toronto District School Board, has a vision, a Vision of Hope. It’s hit a few bumps, knocked for proposing of a boys-only school and skewered by a trustee, in the media, for doing teacher P.D. in a sports arena.

Still Spence has set some hard targets.

An important part of the Director’s vision around student achievement focuses on building effective schools, as described by Ron Edmunds 30 years ago. Edmunds, Lezotte and others laid out a framework containing the following elements:

  • Clear and Focused School Mission
  • Safe and Orderly Environment
  • High Expectations
  • Opportunity to Learn and Time on Task
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Frequent Monitoring of Student Progress
  • Positive Home-School Relations

But as the saying goes, coming up with the idea is the easy part. The hard part is the administration of it.

So, working on a tight timeline, Spence has set Lloyd McKell, the Executive Officer of Student and Community Equity, to work with an internal staff team to look specifically at the underachievement of racialized and marginalized students.

The taskforce will report to the Board, through the Director, in April. The workload is daunting, including a literature review, a survey of current school programs and public hearings. The hearings are set for March 6. (See More below, for further details.)

A cynic would wonder why they are doing it. Do we really need another study?

As a student of Edmonds, Spence must understand that the first challenge is creating the political will. In Some schools work and more can, Social Policy (1979), Edmonds wrote:

Whether or not we will ever effectively teach the children of the poor is probably far more a matter of politics than of social science, and that is as it should be. It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements:

(a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling

is of interest to us;

(b) We already know more than we need to do that; and

(c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

So what remedies might we begin to consider? Our ideas must move beyond platitudes and be specific.

Speaking recently at OISE, Linda Nathan, a principal from an innovative arts school in Boston’s inner city, provided some insights into producing a strong urban education. She explains the problem is not one of an achievement gap, but of opportunity.

In her book The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test (Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences writes the jacket blurb), Nathan prescribes school administrators:

  • Develop a clear strategy, for students, parents, and teachers, of active engagement and ownership of the educational process.
  • Investigate the possibilities of incorporating, for example, an arts-based, science-based, or technology-based curriculum
  • Require a rigorous Senior Project that successfully reflects academic and non-academic learning as well as addressing a community need, recognized and documented by the student.
  • Build an assessment system that doesn’t determine student achievement and knowledge exclusively through the results of standardized tests.
  • Mandate paid time for teachers to talk about their practice and their students, and struggle with difficult questions.
  • Advocate for our public schools to equalize educational facilities, expand curricular opportunities, and reduce class size to match our best schools, this providing every child with the necessary education and skills to participate productively in our democratic. This necessarily costs more money!

Within a few months, we’ll see how the TDSB and Torontonians respond to the challenge of providing a good education to all its children.

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