Education Action: Toronto

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May 2014

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to know how to respond to the current Ontario election’s disappearing act when it comes to education policy. Education issues are hardly visible anywhere.

Nigel Barriffe (who is running, with our support, as an ONDP candidate in Etobicoke North) is trying, however, to keep these issues alive in his part of the part of the world (www.nigelbarriffe.com). Attached are two pieces from Nigel: In the first, he introduces Doug Little’s list of “moderate progressive” reforms that have a realistic chance of implementation. In the second he responds to Kathleen Wynne’s austerity agenda in education and Tim Hudak’s plan to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, with the biggest bite coming from education. Both pieces are worth reading.

Ontario’s elementary teachers have made a helpful contribution to a province-wide discussion of our school system by producing a full-scale election program for school reform entitled Building Better Schools. ETFO has also produced a short guide to Bill 122, also attached, which should help readers come to grips with the new framework for bargaining among school boards, their employees and the education ministry.

An issue that really ought to be on the table in this election is the destructive impact of EQAO’s standardized testing. The elementary teachers’ union – with solid membership support – and the NDP are beginning to move away from this testing. Both, unfortunately, are still willing to accept random testing as a sop to hardline neo-liberals, even though most teachers and the NDP recognize that random testing is just as mindless as full-scale standardized testing (though not as draconian) and still points teachers in the wrong direction. In this issue, we’re including Ontario secondary teacher Gord Bambridge’s recent analysis of the impact of EQAO’s international partner in standardized testing, PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment). This program strengthens business influence in our schools, undermines local democracy, presses false standards on both teachers and students, and effectively “deskills” both and guts their programs.

Issues of provincial childcare should also be central to this campaign. Martha Friendly here outlines “the dismal state” of child care programs both Canada-wide and here in Ontario. She also points to the failure of the provincial government to implement its program of “full-day early learning.” This has turned into “full-day kindergarten,” still inadequately funded, while child care has been “moved to the back burner.” Friendly calls on all parties in this election to develop “a robust, long-term, evidence-based ECEC policy framework with principles, goals and targets, timetables and sustained financial commitments” and to include child-friendly staff ratios and decent pay for childcare workers.

Another fundamental issue is that of youth unemployment, which is both a federal and a provincial responsibility. On this subject we’re attaching Armine Yalnizyan’s analysis of what the federal government could do, “if it really wanted to reduce youth unemployment.” The next Ontario government would do well take Yalnizyan’s recommendations to heart. Readers should also look over Trish Hennessy’s figures on “the skills gap trope,” especially as they affect younger workers. We now know the federal Tories have been fudging Canada’s “skills gap” figures to promote a low-wage temporary workers’ program, and Hennessy’s figures reveal the complexity of the issue of work skills, particularly the pressures on corporations to deskill their workforce, and the urgency with which we must tackle it, not only in our workplaces but also in our schools.

In dealing with how schools try to produce a corporate workforce – “human capital” as the Education Ministry likes to describe it – we need to recognize that the corporations themselves are not planning any kid-friendly initiatives on this front. On this subject, we offer Erika Shaker’s tongue-in-check reflections on the suggestion that CEOs improve pedagogy and student engagement as part of their general social outreach. We also present Donald Gutstein’s examination of Galen Weston’s adventures in educational do-gooding. We learn how Weston and his family are massively funding the Fraser Institute’s programs to destabilize the public education system and promote school choice and vouchers. Not a happy story.

In these election moments, it’s good to see the emergence of the Campaign for Commercial Free Schools, whose recent update you can find below. It would be valuable, we think, for the CCFS to ask the candidates in this election where they stand on fundraising, naming rights, and advertising policies as they apply to school spaces. So far, there is no mention of the issue from any of the parties.

As a regular part of this Clearing House, we take you south of the border, where so many destructive initiatives in education take place and then migrate northwards, if they aren’t already flourishing here. Matt Bruenig provides a dramatic set of graphs showing the impact of America’s social class structure on its children and their education. Gord Bambrick reviews Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Noam Chomsky writes on the corporatization of the university, with its increasing reliance on cheap labour, large classes, expensive layers of bureaucracy and management, and growing tuition fees. He calls instead for “shared governance,” worker control, and honest discovery in academic work that’s loved by both teachers and students. Finally, from Seattle, Diane Brooks brings us some good news – a teachers’ boycott of standardized testing that sparked a nation-wide movement.

Don’t forget: Back issues of Education Action: Toronto Online Clearing House can be found on our website: educationactiontoronto.com. And, if you know anyone or any group who might be interested in receiving articles from us, please send us along their emails.

In solidarity,

George Martell, David Clandfield, Faduma Mohamed

Education Action: Toronto

Hubs not hulks: a new model for school-community relations in an era of declining enrolment?

By David Clandfield

This an edited draft extract from a forthcoming book on this subject within the framework of The Iron Cage series edited by George Martell for Our Schools/Ourselves. There are no footnotes in this extract.

The current round of declining enrolment in our publicly funded schools coincides with the neo-liberal ascendancy in public policy. So school closures need to be seen in a context of shrinking government funding coupled with increased central control and a fuller rein private alternatives to public schools or private corporate partnerships with public institutions.

In November 2009, Ontario’s People For Education posted its report on school closings. It contains the alarming news that “172 schools are slated or recommended to close in Ontario between 2009 and 2012, and a further 163 reviews are in progress.”

Now some of them (44 apparently) will be replaced by new schools being built nearby. But, even without including the replacements, the loss of schools under the McGuinty government threatens to rival the dark ages of the conservative Harris government when funding cuts led to the closing of 250 schools. This time significant declining enrolment in public schools is given as the inevitable cause. The argument is that as schools shrink in size, school boards can no longer provide specialist teachers in elementary schools or a broad range of options in secondary schools, or to pay the fixed costs of keeping so many distinct sites in operation. The debate then shifts to optimal school sizes, and research studies are canvassed to show this or that answer to the question.

But optimal size issue involves an economic balancing trick. On one hand ample evidence suggests that the smaller the school the better the results for children. A recent article summarized by Doug Little points out that when given the choice parents liked smaller schools with smaller classes and the rich ones are prepared to pay handsomely to send their children there. But the neo-liberal agenda nourishes a reluctance to have taxes raised so that public schools can extend these benefits for everyone.

How do school closings benefit private education? Come with me to two small residential subdivisions in north Toronto, on opposite sides of the Don River and further cut off from their neighbouring areas by major streets or the railway. They were built in the 1960s, 300 or so houses grouped around one small elementary school and its grassy grounds. This school was to be the only focal point for any community activity. Their names were Page and Appian Public Schools. Page was closed in 1981 by what was then the North York Board of Education. At the same time, the North Toronto Christian School was founded and has leased this property ever since, as “one of Canada’s largest independent private elementary schools.” Appian was closed some fifteen years later. It is now leased to The Prestige School. Both of these private elementary schools rent a building deemed to have enrolment too low to be sustainable as a public school. Now both communities have no public focal point at all.

But what if public schools became community hubs?

Support for the notion of schools as focal points of community services, community activities, or even community life generally is growing everywhere. It is on the lips of politicians, administrators, educators, journalists just about everywhere. You want to improve the pre-school years of children? Open “hubs for child and family services.” You want to reduce poverty? Community hubs in schools. Concerned about youth violence? Community hubs in schools. And so the story goes in provinces and territories across Canada.

The idea is certainly not new. Back in 1991 Ontario’s NDP Minister of Education, Marion Boyd, named “integrated services” as one of her policy priorities. Well before that Community Use of Schools and Parallel Use policies were all the rage on Boards of Education in the 70s and 80s. Integrating community and school life was a central feature of the Progressive Education movement in the early 20th century. Indeed, the school has been a focal point of community activity in rural and small urban communities for as long as there have been schools.

Whatever its pedigree, the hub idea has really caught fire now, whether for educational or penny-pinching reasons. Is this the public alternative to closing schools and renting them out to private interests? Let’s define terms.

So what is a school-community hub?

Do we mean allowing community access to school facilities, or the staging of events and displays of work that are open to the public? Or recourse to community institutions like the police or fire department as learning resources or to local volunteers like seniors? Is this what is meant by Community School or a Full-Service School? Or should it be all of the above and more besides?

It is worth situating hubs along a five-point continuum extending from the community use of schools to the fully integrated school-community relationship (the true hub for me).

(1) Community Use of Schools. Most Canadian school boards use a permit system that allows eligible community groups to use school space after hours: a public meeting in the auditorium, a sports event in the gym or outside, or a craft demonstration in an art room. The process requires formal application to use a specific space for a specific time on a specific day.

(2) Parallel/Shared Use of Schools. This extends the permit system into something like a time-share lease: a community dance class or a yoga group in the gym every Saturday morning; a continuing education regular program of night classes in classrooms; a municipally run pool or daycare centre on school premises; a refugee counselling centre for two days a week.

These forms of contact between school and community are to some extent market-driven. There may be preferred permit holders and lessees, and there may be limitations on which groups are eligible, but on the whole they run on a first-come first-served basis. The school has unused space available at certain times for use by outsiders, often for a fee to cover overhead costs. Increasingly, these are run like businesses.

(3) Co-location of Community Services. One site houses, say, a school, a daycare centre, a public library, a swimming pool, a community centre, each operated by the school board or a branch of the municipality. The choice of these services to be built on a single site may be justified by community need and demands for an efficient use of space. Public agencies pool resources in a planned, mixed use site, without necessarily limiting facilities to those that serve primarily the needs of school-aged children and families.

(4) Full-service schools. I make this distinction between from number (3), although not everyone does. The full-service school does usually build its array of services around the needs of children and their families. Family services supplement the daycare centre; children’s screening programs (vision, hearing, dental health) and immunizations may take place on school premises; settlement services for newcomers, and nutritious breakfast and snack programs in needy neighbourhoods, likewise.

In these two cases, the market-driven system has yielded to a public policy model. These uses of schools are planned and chosen by public agencies – school board, municipality, board of public health, etc. – to provide services for the welfare of neighbourhood citizens. Community consultation may have occurred at the outset. But the uses have been institutionalized and usually limit themselves to providing what a public body considers beneficial for the target community.

Nothing so far integrates classroom education with community uses of schools. There are overlaps: nutrition classes may be based on the breakfast program; a preventive health screening may lead to units on ears or eyes. But overlaps are not required. The sharing can and usually does remain parallel. It may even create tensions, as between regular day teachers and night class instructors. Moreover, what happens in school often seems independent of life in the school neighbourhood or the parallel users of the school space. So the element of mutual benefit is lacking.

What we need is:

(5) The two-way school-community hub. This is where schools contribute to community development beyond those benefits secured by children’s education. And community activities contribute to children’s learning within the school. Let’s have a look at some of these.

What can school-community hubs do?

Usually, the hub-building begins with daycare services located in schools, for both pre-schoolers and school-age children. Seamless integration is realized through “school readiness” programs for the former and a co-ordinated day for the latter wrapping around school hours. This service is often now extended to include on-site group counselling for parents and other family services delivered by health and social workers. This is where we are in mainstream public policy. In England, a further extension may include participation of retired seniors, grandparents, say, in intergenerational programs. Children visit retirement residences; seniors volunteer as mentors in daycare centres or as reading tutors in the elementary school. School-community osmosis occurs when the school incorporates these intergenerational exchanges into an across-the-curriculum program.

Within such hubs, settlement services for newcomers of all ages can be added. Public health services including mental health counselling and referrals are another logical extension. Here, too, the integration of curriculum development and community development is the key to the full-blown realization of the hub.

Community health and well-being tie into food production, preparation and consumption. Schools are re-discovering community kitchens and gardens, once a regular feature of village schools everywhere. Vegetables are grown in learning gardens or on school roofs. Produce is harvested by a school caretaker or by classes or in conjunction with community volunteers. It can supplement the snacks and meals prepared in the community kitchen, which is also available after hours to local groups. The two-way benefit is glaringly obvious.

A wide range of fitness, sports and recreational programs are run out of school premises by community associations and continuing education departments. Literacy and mathematics programs do not need to invent complex abstract data for pupils to manipulate. Family participation in fitness programs can lead to descriptive writing. The calculation of frequency and intensity of use of school facilities can be subject to mathematical calculation and reporting. The social determinants of personal health and community development finds a place in science and social studies.

Community culture is another resource. Visiting artists or artists-in-residence work with teachers and children in the creation of public art in and around the school, or in off-site exhibitions. Schools not only put on their own drama, dance, concerts, recitals, musicals and operas, but also welcome community associations and groups to do the same. In doing this, they need not stay close to the tried and true repertoires, but try out fresh material or revive forgotten gems. The school then works with the community in a process of shared cultural discovery and self expression.

Schools house community history museums, turning classroom projects into reflections of the neighbourhood, incorporating archival and family photographs, artifacts and narratives, oral or written.

Eco-schools in Toronto are certified for environmentally responsible waste reduction and management and can incorporate these processes into their daily curriculum as well as their practice. But the school is a fully realized hub when it interacts with its neighbourhood to have the same beneficial effects there too. Some schools promote cleaner forms of transportation, build and install their own bike racks, monitor and set targets for diminished car use by staff. Green energy hubs are now being considered for school sites, whether in the form of solar panels on the vast flat roofs, geothermal units under the extensive grounds or even wind power. But an energy hub is part of a school-community hub when it’s a vehicle for learning and a perceivable benefit to the surrounding neighbourhood. Excess electrical generation can be sold into a local community co-op that co-finances capital costs. Boards with neo-liberal reflexes simply rent out their roofs to private companies that make money selling off excess production without reference to the interests of either the school or the neighbourhood.

Who’s in charge and who’s paying?

Schools and local school boards need to re-organize their thinking for hub development to feed into curriculum development and community development. New communication channels must be opened, old silos dismantled, policies and procedures re-thought. The forthcoming book will explore this further.

The greatest barriers to fully realized school-community hubs lie in their financing and governance. This is where the difference between a public, democratic approach and a market-oriented one become starkest.

Of course, school-based councils must enter the process of planning. They will need an expanded membership and mandate to incorporate a genuine community focus, assessing the needs and strengths of neighbourhood communities to build the two-way hub relationship. They will be school-community councils. In Ontario, the provincial government manages declining enrolment by getting school boards to set up Accommodation Review Committees (ARCs) including representatives of several adjacent schools undergoing significant decline. Most people realize that this process is the harbinger of school consolidations and closings. It is deeply destructive of every community morale, all the more so if any of them were already hoping to develop new school-community hub initiatives. The ARCs would be better used to convert some of the school space for the kinds of services and activities mentioned above. Such civil society mechanisms as co- co-operatives or local community partnerships are in use, not only for daycare, but also community gardens and kitchens, and could extend into green energy projects and a whole range of skills exchanges. Better still, in place of ARCs in selected schools, all school communities would engage in their needs and strengths analysis at regular intervals.

School closings and their leasing or sale (once preliminary offers to other branches of government have been turned down) can lead to privatization, marketization, competition, selection by ability to pay or by academic prowess, and through these either creeping or galloping inequality. Currently, for example, the Toronto board is leasing former public schools to seventeen private fee-paying schools, many of which regulate admission by tests and interviews to assess the suitability of pupils. Some only came into being when the chance to rent a ready-made public school came up.

Local government and the School Facilities Joint Board

But, local community school-based planning will not be enough because the financial resources are not readily available in many communities. Indeed, hubs stand to benefit most the communities with the fewest resources already in place, communities where the knowledge gap between the school curriculum and their members is highest, and where there is the greatest social and cultural difference between school staff and neighbourhood. Such communities are often the poorest, and so the chances of finding community support other than through the whimsical filter of private philanthropy are poor.

But in Ontario, school boards cannot fix the level of provincial transfer grants or the property taxes levied on their behalf by the province. Moreover, the province insists that capital improvements to public schools be funded by the sale of surplus property, using a formula that disadvantages the old schools that often serve poor or remote communities.

However, a cursory glance at the kinds of partnerships that school boards need for hub growth will be with departments or arms-length branches of municipal government. And municipal government does have control of a residential property tax base. All public proponents of school-community hubs mention the need to develop working partnerships between school boards and municipalities, but without saying what form they could take. That is the task that we shall be fleshing out more fully in the forthcoming book.

We’ll start with the knowledge that in many European countries the construction and maintenance of school premises has been the business of municipal governments. Schools were seen as an integral part of local public space or infrastructure. I use the past because in England and France, at least, massive moves are afoot to reduce the role of elected local municipal governments. This direction was undertaken by the recent Mike Harris Government in Ontario with removal of the taxation powers of school boards and with restrictions on commercial property taxation by municipalities. It is now being reinforced by McGuinty’s Liberal government with restrictions on the decision-making powers and political freedoms of school boards and trustees.

But this same government is firmly committed to the school-community hub concept, and its public realization will require local government reform.

Our proposal here is for a School Facilities Joint Board (SFJB). It is still embryonic and will need more work for the forthcoming book. Its final shape would come through a public debate and full participation by all interested parties. Briefly it goes like this.

Responsibilities of the SFJB

Responsibility in a given municipality for the maintenance of all school board properties, capital improvements and new construction would pass to a joint board of representatives from both public and catholic boards and the municipality. Equally, central responsibility for the development of school community hubs would fall to the SFJB.

Composition and voting powers of the SFJB

Board members would be delegated trustees and councillors from school boards and municipality. There would be more trustee members from each board than municipal councillors, because the educational priority for the use of schools would have to be expressed in the board’s composition. School sites would still belong to their respective school boards for the same reason. Municipality-wide policy decisions would be voted on by all board members, while decisions affecting only a school or schools owned by one board would require trustee voting to be limited accordingly. As a final safeguard, school boards would still need to ratify SFJB decisions within a reasonable period, particularly where educational priorities were at stake.

Obviously, this works where school board boundaries and municipal boundaries are the same. What is missing is a structure for the constitutionally established French-language school boards (both public and catholic). They cater to widely dispersed small francophone populations in much of the province and their boundaries are by no means the same as those of other local governments. The same is true of more remote parts of Ontario. The SFJB may work best in big cities, but the principle of institutionally sanctioned joint management must be the guiding principle for other models more suitable to rural areas or for the inclusion of French schools and boards.

Where would the money come from?

That portion of all provincial grants to affected school boards for the maintenance and capital construction of schools would be transferred to SFJBs, although only after they have been improved to meet the real costs of a phased plan to clear the massive backlog of deferred maintenance.

That portion of all provincial grants to affected school boards for what is now called the Community Use of Schools would also be transferred to the SFJBs, although it should be enriched by grants from interlocking ministries that support the kinds of programs that can be accommodated in school hubs. Such ministries as these come to mind, and there are probably more:
Health and Long-Term Care – Health Promotion – Children and Youth Services – Community and Social Services – Citizenship and Immigration – Culture – Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – Municipal Affairs and Housing – Environment

In addition to these funding sources for hubs and facilities, the portion of property taxes that can be attributed to hubs and facilities would also be transferred to municipalities for use by the SFJBs and the responsibility for assessing the amounts to be levied would also rest at the municipal level. Responsibility for community development, and for deciding how much communities will pay as their share for its development, should rest with communities through a democratically elected local government.

But not all decisions will be made centrally in the municipality. A portion of the budget must be distributed to the local schools for use at the discretion of the local school community council in each case, following broad criteria established by the school board.

To conclude, in all of the forthcoming public debates about hub development, it is vital to ensure that public assets are used for the public good. Public support for schools will increasingly depend on the daily public perception of the value that schools bring to community members whatever their age, family status, class, race, gender, condition or ability. Hubs can deliver that, but only if their activities and services associated cycle into and out of the school curriculum and into and out of community enhancement. Models of funding and decision-making must make that possible.

The old barriers between school board departments, between public and catholic school boards, between school boards and municipalities, and between provincial ministries must come down. That is why support for the hub concept must be clearly articulated at the highest levels of government.

But equally efforts to bridge the gaps between community and school locally must be stepped up. New forms of local initiative and partnerships within civil society at the neighbourhood level must be strengthened and public funds must circulate openly and accountably at this level, too. Only then can the long road to overcome the depredations of decades of neo-liberal market fundamentalism, in the name of a more just society and education for all in everybody’s schools.

David Clandfield is currently policy chair at Education Action: Toronto and is a founding editor of Our Schools/Ourselves

We also recommend Chris Spence’s discussion paper on Full-Service Schools. Spence is the current Director of Education at the Toronto District School Board.

Also see the School Closings Report of November 2009 published by People For Education.

To see a set of slides that accompanied a public presentation to the Inner City Advisory Committee of the Toronto District School Board on November 17, 2009 by the same author, click here. Click on your browser’s return key to return here afterwards.


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