Education Action: Toronto

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My Experience of Bottom Streaming

by Fowzia Mahamed

In the year 1993, our family moved to Jamestown, in Etobicoke North – a low-income, metro-housing, inner-city community. It is one of the three targeted at-risk communities under the Mayor’s Neighborhood Action Plan for its high crime rate, shootings, killings, poverty, desperation, desperation, gangs—the list is endless. Jamestown is also a place where the bottom streaming of its children, including my brothers and sisters, is very real and apparent to us all.

In one of our elementary schools some 43% of children are placed in special education/IEP programs – programs where what is expected of students is reduced or “modified” and the prospects of moving on to good programs in high school and good jobs are minimal). At the same time, there is no placement in ESL programs, when over 87% of the children come from non-English speaking backgrounds. There is also a 56% drop out rate in the local high school I attended in addition to its substantial bottom streams. Among the youth in my own Somali community there is a 40% drop out rate across the city. The end results of this bottom streaming are dead-end jobs, no jobs at all, or detention centres. Perhaps its greatest impact is on children (like me) who have come from war-torn, immigrant backgrounds. I have been one of the lucky ones, who made it through to university – mostly because of a couple of really supportive teachers, who kept me going when so much of the system worked to hold me back. A great many of my friends and my neighbours’ children were not so lucky. And let me tell you, their families cared about their children getting a good education and worked hard at encouraging them to do well at school. But in spite of their concerns and their hard work, we know the results: the massive overrepresentation of their children into bottom-stream programs that offer no real hope for the future.
As a youth and community worker I have spoken to a great many students and parents about bottom streaming. They are very aware of it, but feel powerless to do much about it. Many have told me about choosing the Academic stream for their children in high school, only to have their children placed in the bottom Applied stream without their knowledge or permission. They have also told me how worried they are about their children being placed in Special Education programs that define their children as not bright enough or too disturbed to do well in school. Their kids seem ok to them and to the rest of their community, but they don’t know how to defend their children against these labels. Among the students, so many have told me how humiliated they are by these labels and don’t understand how they ended up with them. Parents are also very conscious of how their limited knowledge of English hurts their defense and support of their children in school, especially around program placement. Finally, almost everyone talks about the pressure they face to put their children into these bottom-stream special education programs, if their work falls off at school. This placement is presented as the only option. I’ve recently moved into a York West neighbourhood. And as I look around me, I know that so many of its schools face the same problems with bottom streaming as my childhood schools do. I hope that across the city communities like ours can take this issue on and work to support strong regular classroom programs for all our children

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