Archive for June, 2010

June 30, 2010

The poor job that schools do…

Tonight, I met Penny Milton, head of the Canadian Education Association, and I described how a comment she had made at a recent meeting I attended had startled me – and crystalized why I am still an education advocate.

I asked if I could quote her:

The gap between kids coming out of the school system is wider than when they come in.

“It’s a huge condemnation,” I said.

“Oh, I was saying that back in 1987,” she said.

And, we agreed, why we have to keep working on these issues.

The role of the school system must be to give every child an equal opportunity and an equitable start.

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June 12, 2010

Cynthia’s Walks

On Cynthia’s passing: It was peaceful. She was surrounded by family. And it was too soon. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her memorial has been set for September 11th, 1 p.m. at St. John Norway.

She had a long stride, so she moved fast. It’s the way I remember Cynthia, arms swinging, backpack on one shoulder.

Neighbours at the 2009 Terry Fox Walk

Cynthia’s wearing her Breast Cancer T-shirt on the Terry Fox Walk. We were walking for another dear neighbour.

We walked a lot, me less eagerly, hoping instead to sit on her couch, she striding ahead, explaining that she couldn’t walk slowly. There were the shopping trips, brisk evening walks with other neighbours, and longer fundraising walks. Always walking.

When Cynthia heard about the first Jane’s Walk, she said, “We should lead one in our neighbourhood.” She had already talked to the head of a local community agency. I was working, at the time, at United Way Toronto on issues around building strong communities. But, as a researcher, stepping out in front was not my first inclination, so I demurred, offering only to speak at one of the stops. That first walk became Ashbridges to Little India. The next year, Cynthia and I led a group of forty through a torrential rain, stopping at the Mahar Restaurant for chai and samosas that Cynthia had arranged through the local BIA.

Cynthia Brouse, award-winning magazine writer, editor and my friend and neighbour for nearly fifteen years, I was proudest of a Toronto Life piece for which she hadn’t won an award: Indian Summer, the story of living in our east-end neighbourhood. (She was kind enough to omit the story of our first meeting, when, toddlers in tow, I had brushed her off and, instead, she included a quixotic story about my son and I dancing with a sparkler. And about how “dense, multiplex networks” function.)

Last year, our Greenwood Coxwell walk gained some profile, being written up by a Globe columnist, but Cynthia wasn’t well enough to lead the walk again with me. Her breast cancer had returned. Another neighbour, a historian, stepped in graciously to help, and Cynthia came to listen this time, her mother pushing her wheelchair.

However this year, within days of the annual walk, Cynthia said good-bye to her home and, for the last time, has been admitted to hospital.

Still, we talked about this thing we had joined together, this celebration of neighbourhoods, and the convergent theme of neighbourliness. I told her how this year the walk had grown again. Crazily, I had decided to do two walks, a reprise of our earlier ones and a new one I had thought up. And, crazily, two new walks had sprung up in the neighbourhood, led by others!  (The media coverage also grew with a Spacing radio podcasts of my walk and of Jane Farrow’s east end tour and also a CBC interview on Fresh Air about Jane’s Walks across the province which profiled our neighbourhood.) Our conversations had taken a life of themselves.

These ideas of local community, social networks, neighbouring, how we manage, or how we come to rely on each other, these themes were what Cynthia and I considered, continuously, until the end.

Earlier this spring, when things looked pretty gloomy, I joked with Cynthia, “I’ve had enough of sick and dying neighbours.”

Looking at me steadily, she said, “You will be happy again.”

Now, I remember that, and I imagine her offering me a cupcake to enjoy — because we can always walk it off.

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June 11, 2010

Choosing between the good, the bad and the poor schools

Many years ago, when my daughter was ready to begin school, we looked to the neighbourhood school. We attended a fun fair. I chatted with the school principal. I talked to other parents in the area. And if there had been provincial EQAO testing scores on the then-budding internet, we would have looked those up. It’s a good thing we didn’t.

The school, it turned out, was a great school, and we hit it during its heyday, when the principals valued social equity, the teachers were committed, and parents were welcomed inside.

Yet, if we had only judged this school on its provincial EQAO scores, we may never have gone.

No, it’s not that it was a bad school, but it was a poor school — a school with a large number of students from low-income families. And everyone from the C. D. Howe Institute to the Ontario Institute in Education has shown that poor kids don’t do well in standardized tests such as the EQAO.

The reality is that the richest schools have the best academic outcomes, and lock-step down the income ladder, except through feats of teaching heroics, test scores and other markers of academic success drop.

Excellence in test-taking predicts….excellence in test-taking. It has much weaker correlations with overall course grades, graduation, or later success in life. This is why tests like the SAT (Standardized Aptitude Tests) are slagged even by university admission officers as a lousy way to find academic excellence, yet it is one of the only one consistent measures available.

But, still, when new parents move into the neighbourhood, they want to know (as I did), “Is it a good school?”

It’s a fair question.

Every year, the provincial tests administered to Ontario students by the EQAO attract a ton of media coverage. We all want to know how our school do.

With the installation of provincial EQAO tests, a wealth of other websites have emerged, happy to advise the worried parents of wee ones.

The EQAO scores at my family’s local public school have improved over the past decade, so much so, that when the Premier (the “Education Premier”) visited last year, the first comment he made publicly was how well test scores had improved at the school.

And yes, teachers have tried harder, new programs have been introduced, and scores have risen. What McGuinty didn’t say, but was just as important, was that the average income in the neighbourhood has also been steadily rising. And so predictably, our scores have risen.

Parents who are hunting for the best school might as well ignore the scores. A lot more than what can be captured in a provincial test goes into an effective schools.

In my more mischievous moments, when people ask me what makes a good school, I want to advise them to ask how students were suspended (data that is hard to find again) or, in high school, how many students committed suicide in the past year (never published, of course).

Instead, go see how many parents show up to help for the pizza lunch, see how many school clubs are run, and see how the principal welcomes parents. Think about the value of knowing other families in the local community.

Most of us are happy with our schools. It’s why such a high proportion of Canadians still send their children to publicly-funded schools.

And this is not to say that there are not bad schools in the system, places where principals suspend inordinate numbers of their students or impose bans on parents entering playgrounds when faced with their sharp criticism, places where the physical plant has deteriorated to embarrassing levels.

But the value of a neighbourhood school is best known by those closest to it. As  the OISE Survey of Public Attitudes towards Education in Ontario continues to find, those who are closest to the school system are the happiest with it.

The research bodes well for any worried parent.

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June 7, 2010

Alone we go fast, together we go far

Political parties are a bit of an oxymoron. They are not actually that fun.

The newest version of political incubators are camps: NetChangeChangecamp, Govcamp, Agendacamp. Camps, these big messy open meetings emerged from other sectors, like Torcamp and Democamp works with developers, designers, investors and other interested folk. Even the legendary TEDs qualify as part of these innovative models, I think.

Described as “un-conferences,” here, networking and creativity trumps long debates and secondary motions which mires so much political action.

The idea behind Changecamp’s is to “re-imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation” and last fall it drew over 200 people to the Metro Toronto Reference Library.

Changecamp is spreading across the city now.

On Saturday, June 19th,[June 14th Update: Sometime soon] it will be landing at the Centennial College Centre for Creative Communication in the old east end of Toronto.

Michael Cayley, founder of the east-end Riverdale Rapids ning, and Mark Kuznicki, a member of the Centre for Social Innovation are two of the key leads who cooked up this community-level version.

The camp will be a great chance to meet neighbours and to talk about ideas.

And, as Al Gore reminded us, alone we go fast, together we go far. So, let’s have a chat.

For more info and to register: Go to the Riverdale Rapids events page.

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