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Centre for Urban Schooling

Issues That Matter

Welcome to Issues That Matter, the Centre for Urban Schooling's blog about urban education issues in Canada.  While the posts are written by CUS staff and Associates, they do not necessarily reflect the thinking of the Centre for Urban Schooling, as a whole.  We just want to create a dialogue about issues that matter to our urban education community. 

Please join the discussion by submitting your comments via the button at the top right corner of the page.  If you would like to make your own Issues That Matter contribution, send an e-mail to Dominique Riviere at dominique.riviere@utoronto.ca

Thanks, and happy reading!

Institutions Out of Sync

On March 14, 2011, the Centre for Urban schooling hosted its third annual William Waters Symposium on Urban Education.  Entitled, Institutions out of Sync:  Pressure Points for Change, the symposium took a cold, hard look at our institutions of education. Panelists engaged in a critical discussion exploring some of the pressure points currently facing educators in Toronto schools.  They brought socio-spatial and pedagogical research to the problems of discrimination widely experienced by many new immigrant groups in Toronto, and provided empirical illustrations of the current realities facing the Roma and Somali communities, two groups that bring with them histories and contemporary realities of war and persecution.  

After the panel presentation, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions, both verbally and in writing.  As there was not enough time to address all of the written questions, CUS has posted them here, so that the panelists get the chance to address them publicly.  This page will be updated with their answers frequently, so be sure to check back often!

Note:  The questions are listed in no particular order and, as much as possible, have been transcribed exactly as they were written.

  • How can partnerships between community agencies and the school community be created in areas slated to be revitalized, and the community is unsure of its future?
  • Can the panelists comment on the rising tide of social conservatism, e.g. Tea Party Party politics (but moving northward), and how to STOP it... Today, racism, marginalization and exclusion seems to be even more blatant than before.  It threatens to be overt in governing.
  • Gina, can you speak more to the school experiences Roma students have had?  Is our system much different (pedagogically)?  Also, where can we get dual language books?  OISE has none!
  • Besides the moral argument for inclusion of marginalized groups in our educational system - could one of the panelists comment on another argument that's perhaps more politically salient - economic/financial repercussions to our society if we don't do this now.
  • For Gina:  What might a life pedagogy look like for Roma high school students?
  • In the current educational environment of "so-called" academic accountability as measured by EQAO, how do we shift focus to authentic learning and engagement?
  • We hear that identities are important.  How can we as educators help to foster positive identities within the Somali and Roma communities?
  • Why aren't there Somali students in Gr 12 math?
  • Can you give an example of specific ways that schools can serve Somali students?

"Laurels" are still a cause for concern - by Dominique Riviere and Jeff Kugler, September 16, 2010

In “Education movie points the wrong way for change” (Toronto Star, Sept. 16), Dr. Jane Gaskell discusses the movie Waiting for Superman.  It tells the story of five American students and their families who believe that their only chance at a quality education is to “win” the charter school lottery.  In response to the film’s “simplistic and divisive finger-pointing at teachers”, Dr. Gaskell writes, “There is no doubt the American education system has some terrible schools and has fallen behind over the past 20 years, but many public schools perform quite well.  They are in wealthy districts and they have the support of their communities.  The failing schools are in areas where poverty is increasing, political support is lacking and the tax base is insufficient to support great schools – issues the film ignores.”

What concerns us is that these same issues are then ignored when Dr. Gaskell argues against the director of Superman’s suggestion that the film is an early warning system for Canada.  She cites our consistently high rankings on international assessments of educational achievement as evidence that we have “set the standard for how to educate a highly diverse student population in an equitable manner”.   This “standard”, however, includes persistent low academic achievement, credit accumulation, and high-school completion rates for many students across the country, particularly if they marginalized by race and ethnicity, citizenship status, and/or socioeconomic status.  It includes punitive forms of assessment, unrealistic curriculum requirements, large class sizes, and the gutting of programs that provide students with invaluable academic and social support.  It also includes draconian policies for classroom management and school discipline, the deprofessionalization of teachers, and market-driven educational reforms that privilege private, individual “choice”, over the collective public good.  All of this serves to maintain the wealthy school/high academic performance vs. impoverished school/low academic performance divide that Dr. Gaskell ascribed to the United States, but which is very present here in Canada, as well.  While our divide may not be as large as the one south of the border, it still requires immediate and serious attention.  The recommendations of the Toronto District School Board’s Achievement Gap Task Force report are a step in the right direction.  They include:  training in culturally responsive instruction and leadership for all teachers and principals; enhanced support for secondary schools with the largest number of racially marginalized students who are not meeting provincial academic standards; consulting with Aboriginal communities in order to improve their educational opportunities and outcomes; and ensuring that students who live in economically marginalized communities have equitable access to programs and supports for their needs.  It is this kind of work that will make our high international rankings truly meaningful.

Centre for Urban Schooling Presentation to the TDSB Gap Task Force Hearings - March 6, 2010

The TDSB has created a Gap Task Force to develop a Report for the Director of Education this spring looking at recommendations for closing the achievement/ opportunity gap.

The Task Force will:

• assess the achievement gap based on research;

• identify initiatives within the system and externally which address this issue; and

• make recommendations for system implementation, policies and practices which will be effective in closing the opportunity gap for our underserved student communities.

In seeking out in-put from external sources hearings the Gap task Force held hearings all day on Saturday, March 6.

The following deputation, with recommendations, was made by the Centre for Urban Schooling to the Gap Task Force.

Approaches to and Recommendations for Closing the Opportunity Gap

Focus on Haiti - January 25, 2010


The Centre for Urban Schooling would like to begin a conversation about how we might support Haiti in its ongoing struggles for political, social and economic justice.  As a first step, we feel that it is important to discuss the broader history of Haiti and, in particular, the impact of its relationship to its former colonial power and other Western countries. The following articles priovide a succint overview and analysis of this:

The Centre is interested in how to raise awareness and develop networks of activists to collectively advocate for structural change in Haiti.  Here are some questions for discussion and action, adapted from a message posted to the University of Toronto's Caribbean Studies Students' Union (CARSSU) listserv: 

1. How can representations of Haiti as the western hemisphere's poorest country be reframed?  What forms of media and communication might we use to highlight Haiti's significant contributions to the world (e.g. their critical aid to Simon Bolivar in his liberation of Latin America; the participation of Haitians in the American Revolution)?

2.  What is the role of schools and teachers in facilitating their students' critical understanding of the commentary surrounding Haiti?

  • How can teachers use this as a "teachable moment" to help students understand that the overwhelming poverty and lack of social/economic infrastructure in Haiti did not come about by accident? 

  • How can teachers help their students to make broader connections between Haiti's history and patterns of unequal relations of power at home and abroad?

3. How do we develop institutional partnerships with Haitian schools and universities, thus lending our support to the re-building of formal education in Haiti? 


Important Links

Haitian Action (US) – www.haitiaction.net

The Guardian - Our role in Haiti’s plight

Caribbean Diaspora Connect - The hate and the quake

Stabroek News - We must stand with Haiti:  Solidarity, not Help

Toronto Haiti Action Committee - www.thac.ca


A Response to "Panic in the Blackboard Jungle" - by Jeff Kugler, January 14, 2008

I just read Margaret Wente’s response to the Final Report on School Safety: “Panic in the Blackboard Jungle” (The Globe and Mail, 12/01/08, Page A23). I find it so interesting that she is so quick to condemn the entire Report based, it seems, solely on her identification of the Panel’s Chair, Julian Falconer, as “a familiar face from the race and social justice set”.

Instead of examining the possibility that the Panel found out some important information on school safety, and the possibility that the Panel’s recommendations may, in fact, help to create a school system that is healthier, fairer and yes, safer, Ms. Wente can only condemn the report because of her own bias, it seems, against the notions of the value of social justice.

The panel on School Safety engaged in what can only be described as a thorough and comprehensive examination of the situation at the Toronto District School Board with regard to school safety. This examination necessarily led the Panel to look at other factors connected to creating safer and healthier schools.

I was a Principal for many years in the Toronto District School Board, and have worked in “marginalized” and “racialized” communities. (By the way, for people who live and work in these communities “marginalized” and “racialized” are not terms used in order to be politically correct, as Ms. Wente would have people believe but, rather, terms which reflect the day-to-day reality of living and working in those communities.) The TDSB is not responsible for creating the huge social issues in our society connected to racism, sexism and classism. The TDSB is, however, responsible for how it responds to those issues within its schools. What the Final Report on School Safety does, in fact, is challenge the TDSB to act on its Equity Foundation Statement and Policy, one of the best such policies in North America. At the Press Conference at the TDSB on Thursday, January 10th, the Director of Education, Gerry Connelly, responded to the Report by saying that the TDSB always uses an equity lens in all the decisions it makes. This assertion is simply not true! If the TDSB had an equity practice in the forefront of its work, most of the recommendations of the Panel on School Safety would be redundant and unnecessary.

Unlike Ms. Wente’s analysis, there are huge social issues in our schools that are very complex in nature, and which cannot, in any way, be simplified by pointing the finger and allowing readers to think that school problems are caused by single parent families, poor parenting, a particular group of Jamaican youth, etc. The problems of student disengagement are not connected to a particular kind of family structure, to a particular section of the city, or a particular cultural or racial group.
Schools need to learn how to connect to their students and their lives. Schools need to validate the experiences that students bring to school from their homes, families and cultures. Students need not be expected to leave their identity at the door of the school building when they enter. The TDSB Student Census Ms. Wente speaks of in her column talks of a student body that has fundamentally changed over the last years. The former minority is now the majority in our schools, and – generally – what goes on in schools and in classrooms has not changed to reflect this huge demographic shift. In the TDSB Census, students speak clearly of how their culture or the culture of others is rarely taught or talked about at school; they think they would connect better to school if it was taught and talked about. The recommendations in the Report about providing anti-racist training for all staff, about teachers needing to reflect the students in their classes, and the implementation of a thorough curriculum reform based on the Equity Foundation Statement will all go a long way towards creating school spaces that are inclusive and safe.

The problem is not the Report or its recommendations. The problem is the implementation of the recommendations. We have not yet heard encouraging comments from either the TDSB or the Minister of Education in embracing this call for the fundamental changes necessary to making a difference. It is now the responsibility of all Toronto citizens who wish to create safe and equitable learning spaces for our young people to work together to pressure for a sincere and systematic implementation of these recommendations. The young people of Toronto deserve nothing less. 

Gender and Violence in Schools – by Dominique Rivière, January 17, 2008

I read the Executive Summary of the School and Community Safety Advisory Panel’s final report with much interest and optimism. Despite some of the report’s troubling findings (e.g. the number of undetected weapons, especially guns, in TDSB schools), I was glad to see that it emphasized the need to focus on the systemic roots of violence in schools, and refused to rely on simplistic, short-term, reactive solutions to this problem.

I was particularly glad about the inclusion of a section on gender and school safety. The Toronto Star (January 11, 2008, p. A1) excerpted part of the report on sexual violence in schools, which includes the following passage:

“… the majority of work on school safety tends to use a gender-neutral approach, and concentrates most of its efforts towards the types of violence […] primarily between male students. As such, ‘guns and gangs’ concerns receive a disproportionate amount of attention, funding and intervention as compared to the types of violence that young women experience, including the gendered violence, such as the sexual exploitation of women, associated with gang activities.”

While I was thrilled to see the Panel highlight the gendered – and sexualized – dimension of school violence, I was concerned by the conflation “gender” with “female”. This is a fairly common occurrence: social difference is conventionally perceived as something that only applies to marginalized people. For example, only Black people “have” race, only queer people “have” sexuality and, as in this case, only women “have” gender. While I think this is an understandable outcome of taking seriously the discrimination that marginalized groups face in their everyday lives, taking only this perspective reinforces the idea that dominant groups are natural, or normal, and neutral. This is not the case: White people do “have” race, straight people do “have” sexuality, and males do “have” gender.

With respect to the School Safety Report, then, framing gender-based violence in schools only as male violence against females almost normalizes male violence against other men (it also doesn’t consider the gendered aspects of female violence against other females). Thus, in addition to focusing on the former, attention must also be paid to the gendered dimensions of male-on-male violence. Doing so will force us to take a critical look at how we think, talk and educate boys about masculinity, and about what it means to be a man.

Teens Feel Like Criminals in High-security Schools - by Kathleen Gallagher, January 22, 2008 (Submitted to The Toronto Star)

"The Falconer report on school safety has provoked a fascinating range of reactions. It has been called naive by some and applauded for its candour by others. It has, in other words, opened up a much-needed conversation about schools, communities, youth and our city".

To read the complete article, click here: http://www.thestar.com/article/297240.






A Response to "New York Educators call report naïve, unrealistic" - by Kathleen Gallagher

It is always disappointing, if unsurprising, when progressive ideas are called ‘naïve and unrealistic’. There are a few ways in which Saturday’s article, ‘New York Educators call report naïve, unrealistic’ is a mischaracterization of the Falconer Safety Panel’s final report on school safety in Toronto schools. From my reading of the document, a significant number of the 126 recommendations cast an eye towards measures of prevention and find an important middle ground between the ‘culture of silence, fear, and denial’ at the one end, and at the other, the over-zealous installation of security technologies that considerably alter the learning environments of our schools, stigmatize particular communities, and represent a social disinvestment in youth. A culture already fearful of youth has served to rationalize a regime of security measures while also entrenching a criminal view of urban youth in and outside schools. In our schools, we would do well to remember that we are "in loco parentis;" we are acting, and have always been acting, in the place of parents. Let us not forget this; it is a significant foundation upon which to build a system of education.

Let us also be clear about how the ‘sniffer dogs’ - far from ‘Alabama-style martial law’ - offer an important and arguably less intrusive alternative to the so-called ‘smart technology’ of metal detectors and ‘identification swipes.’ The report makes plain that these dogs are 30-pound Springer Spaniels trained to search out weapons in lockers while students are in classes. Two TDSB-owned dogs, handled by TDSB employees, could complete an entire school in two hours and at an 80-90% effectiveness rate. These mobile and cost-effective dogs could travel to any school in the city, which is undoubtedly important given how the data from the report offer conclusive evidence that weapons are a ‘city-wide’ problem. Obviously, it would be prohibitive to install metal detectors across 150 schools in the GTA. The already-scarce resources would then be diverted away from the many important recommendations for prevention that place equity for marginalized communities at the centre of the school safety project. Private security companies, and those who manufacture the ‘smart technologies,’ would certainly stand to lose a lot should the TDSB decide to take up this particular recommendation and channel necessary resources into prevention and support for Toronto’s most disenfranchised school communities.

But there is a much more significant story here and one that requires the voices of young people to fully appreciate. Beyond the less intrusive use of sniffer dogs, the exorbitantly expensive installation of metal detectors and their unproven record, the necessary funds directed away from desperately needed school programs, the issue of how young people see their own health and safety is at stake. The safety report is aptly named A Road to Health. School safety, as I came to learn over the course of my 3-year ethnographic study in New York and Toronto high schools (2002-2005), has everything to do with the social health of schools and classrooms. Through this research, funded by the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I heard from countless youth about how they feel criminalized and further disengaged in their new ‘high-security’ schools, despite the discourse of ‘turning violence problems around’ that such technologies propagate. I also came to understand the gendered and racialized violence of such ‘smart technologies.’ In my 2007 book, The Theatre of Urban: Youth and Schooling in Dangerous Times, I document my work in four Toronto and New York schools, paying particular attention to young people’s accounts of their experiences of school. My research began as a study on social cohesion in schools and the role that drama plays in the lives of young people, these classrooms being richly fertile spaces in which to study how students interact with one another. But the conditions of urban schools that I found when I began the study forced me to think differently about what I might be there to learn.

In Toronto, greater reliance on technologies of surveillance has interestingly coincided with the disappearance of people from school hallways. Parent committees are less active, user fees have prevented community groups from sharing school space, shared administrative staff and decreased custodial staff have made the outside and the inside of schools more barren. These changes have had a real impact on how we all experience school space. In one New York school, the morning metal detector routine began at 7:30am for some 3000 students, who were then held in the school auditorium until classes began at 9am. Drama classes could, therefore, no longer use the school auditorium because it was in terrible disrepair. The students knew it for what it was: a holding cell. Empty corridors is the new and desirable norm, and the ‘Office of Security and Discipline’ ensured, through their routine ‘sweeps’, that no students could be found in the hallways. In this same school, there was no need for searches of student lockers because the lockers were permanently sealed. The students had to carry all their books in their knapsacks all day. On my first visit, the ‘smart-technology’ at the school entrance singled out a young Black girl when she swiped her I.D. card for admittance, insisting she was suspended and not permitted on school property. She pleaded with school officials, insisting that the computer had to be malfunctioning and she desperately wanted to get to her classes.

Given the prevalence of sexual abuse of young women uncovered in the Falconer report, there is also an important gender analysis to be made here. As in McCormack’s (2003) study of an urban school in New York, she found that young women regularly experience the “twin abuses” of sexism and racism during these kinds of ‘security’ activities that both criminalize and sexualize the female student.  In other words, young women who are already being sexually harassed in significant numbers, so we learn in the report, would feel further violated by the school’s security practices. Participants in McCormack’s study felt that security guards “…can get closer than they can ever get in a normal way…” and that young women often build up a “shield” to protect themselves from these routine procedures. McCormack’s school, too, had routine “sweeps”, a term, she notes, that has been borrowed from police lexicon.

There is no more time for denial or silence. There is both symbolic and real violence in schools in Canada and the U.S. and weapons in schools lead to serious, and as we now sadly know in Toronto, fatal consequences for youth. As the report clearly articulates, “…conditions must be altered so that youth trust the safety of their environment enough to part with the weapons.” Schools need to be safe for young people and teachers, free of violent incidents. They also need to be free of the structural violences of institutional racism and sexism. How we go about making safer and more humane school corridors and classrooms remains, therefore, the central question. Punitive measures and policies, without the necessary supports for ‘complex-needs’ students, lack the language of ethics and social justice that schools desperately need; they do not represent a social investment in youth.

A New School Year and an Important Election - by Jeff Kugler

On October 10th, 2007, Ontario voters will go to the polls to elect a new provincial government. As education is a provincial jurisdiction, this election can have an important impact for urban/inner city students, schools and communities.

The provincial government has many grants that it provides to District School Boards (DSBs) every year. There are two grants, however, that are of particular interest to inner city schools and communities. One is the ESL grant and the other is the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG). These grants are the only ones that deal with the socio-economic inequalities that exist within and between our schools. They are also two grants for which the Ministry does not hold DSBs accountable for how they spend the money.

For example, over at least the last six years, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has been granted well over $100 million a year as its share of the provincial LOG grant. The former Comptroller of Finance at the TDSB made it clear to members of the Task Force on Model Schools for Inner Cities that very, very little of that money has been spent as it was intended. He told us that the money has gone to help cover the gap in teacher’s salaries and the gap in the funding provided for heating school buildings.

This is a completely unacceptable situation. The neediest students and schools are not receiving their fair share. The Ministry is aware of this and has done nothing to rectify the situation. The Ministry knows that the LOG will be used to pay for other funding shortfalls, yet they benefit with the public each year by being able to announce the amount of money they send to DSBs to support creating some form of equity through the LOG and ESL grants.

Given this reality, it is essential in this current election campaign for the Minister of Education to declare that DSBs will become 100% accountable in allocating the ESL and LOG grants for their intended purposes. It is incumbent on all Ontario citizens who care about creating a more equitable and democratic education system to raise their voices to demand an end to this funding charade. We must all work to make urban/inner city education an important issue in this election campaign.

It is one thing for a government to attempt to respond to crises as they develop in our schools and communities. It is another thing to provide adequate funding in order to adequately support the important day-to-day prevention work in our schools and communities.





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