Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Alternative Education

A few days ago, the Toronto District School Board unexpectedly announced staffing cuts to its alternative high schools. These schools come in a wide variety, from French Imersion to Afro-Centric; Oasis, on whose community council I serve, focuses on Arts and Social Justice, Triangle serves the queer community, and the Skateboard Factory employs a business model in which students design, build, then sell, yes, skateboards, along with offering an academic program. Some schools serve high performing students, while others offer re-engagement opportunities to those who have done poorly in, or dropped out of the mainstream schools.

The staffs of these alternative schools are generally quite small, with as few as five or six teachers, who perform administrative functions as well as teach. Cuts of a single position to such schools theaten to gut curriculums, exacerbate safety concerns and, in some instances, threaten the very viability of programs.

So a call went out this week, for supporters of these schools to attend a meeting of the Board's Alternative Schools Advisory Committee. And the response was tremendous! Teachers, parents and supporters all came out and spoke eloquently, advocating a reversal of the cuts, and citing the many reasons why these schools are essential.

But most impressive were the voices of the students themselves, who presented themselves singly and in groups to defend their programs. Several of them spoke about taking their education seriously or finding it meaningful for the first time in their lives. They spoke of the special relationships they'd formed with teachers; how they'd been instilled with confidence, ambition, an eagerness to learn. They spoke of feeling safe, able for the first time to express and to explore their differentness, free from pressures and threats to conform. They spoke of their schools as families, and as loving communities, where they felt loved, valued and validated. They were bold, spirited, eloquent, and they moved the audience powerfully.

At the end of the evening, the Board President, Chris Bolton, led in the scripting of a motion to express the sense of the meeting, which he committed to introducing in the meeting of the full Board on the following night. The deal is not yet done - another board member present rebutted that, due in part to falling enrollments, the entire school system faced a serious budgetting challenge, and that alternative schools ought not automatically be exempted from cuts any more than mainstream schools, which he felt had come under attack during the meeting. It remained clear however, that the meeting was an effective exercise in citizen activism. One student present, who attends Oasis school, was open-mouthed with astonishment as she listened to Bolton taking up the cause. "I didn't think we could actually change anything," she exclaimed. And that lesson, in and of itself, made the entire chain of events worthwhile.

Below is the letter I submitted in opposition to the staffing cuts:

                                                                                                                                    12 April 2011
Dr. Chris Spence
Toronto District School Board
Dear Dr. Spence,
I am writing you as a concerned member of the Oasis Alternative School Community Council, in response to the surprising announcement of staffing cuts to this school and to other alternative schools in the District.
I must say that I am shocked at this action, which threatens to undermine the viability of Oasis, and, I imagine, of the other schools that will be similarly affected. From a board that has so often, in so many ways, celebrated and championed efforts to create accessible learning alternatives to all children and youth throughout this most diverse of cities, this move comes as a disappointment and surprise.
Please allow me to share my particular perspective on why schools such as Oasis are so desperately needed, and why their staffing and resources need to be increased rather than cut. My background is in the social services. For approximately thirty years I have worked in detention centres, group homes, in schools and community agencies, with children and youth who for various reasons have found themselves out of the mainstream.
My presence on the Oasis Community Council came about as a direct result of my work for two years as a colleague of Dr. Vanessa Russell at the York University Teacher Education site in Regent Park. During and prior to my work there, I worked in Regent Park as a Youth Program Coordinator for Dixon Hall, and as the Coordinator of Community Engagement for Regent Park Neighborhood Initiative. In those roles, I worked closely with the staffs of the Nelson Mandela Park School and the Lord Dufferin School, and with the Pathways to Education Program.
All of my work, at these programs and in previous social service roles has underscored for me the vital importance of alternative routes to education. That such routes exist, and in as plentiful forms and configurations as possible, is so vitally important that I sometimes mistakenly assume that it can go without question. But sadly, as this instance indicates, that is not the case.
I know that others of my colleagues on the Oasis Council will be weighing in with you on the importance of the work that Oasis does. So I will seek to add a perspective which they perhaps will not. This is the perspective from my current work as a Street Outreach Coordinator for the City’s Streets to Homes program, where I work with the Youth team, serving individuals twenty-five years of age and under. My clients come from among the youth who live in the streets, parks, ravines and under the bridges of this city. They are heavily street-involved, meaning that they are heavily impacted by the drug culture and the criminal cultures. They are subjected to incredibly high rates of violence, both by others frequenting the streets and by police. The incidence of addiction and mental illness is very high among them. I could go on.
There is no question but that, along with housing, one of the most successful and certain means by which the lives of these youth can be turned around, is to get them enrolled in an educational program. And when these youth seek educational opportunities, the alternative schools of the District are absolutely their main resource. And while there are a number of successes that stem from enrolment in your various educational options, it is also clear that there would be more of such if there were even more, rather than fewer options for these youth.
A final point, which I think ties all of this together, has to do with the allocation of resources. So often, when critics look at programs like Streets to Homes, as when they examine alternative schools like Oasis, there is the complaint about the inordinate expense of these programs. The per capita staffing needs are higher. The costs brought about by the failure of clients to follow through and stay on track (absenteeism and dropping out) are enormous. Wouldn’t these resources be better spent on those clients (students) from a more reliable and dependable and success-oriented demographic? But what’s forgotten, or intentionally overlooked in these calculations are the extreme costs of not serving these ‘hardest-to-serve’. If schools like Oasis are brought to the point where they can no longer deliver quality programming through the cutting or staff and other resources, ultimately, the youth who are not served will suffer, and the costs to our society will show up in the building and staffing of more prisons, psychiatric facilities, and in funding lifetimes spent on social services, disability, and in treatment facilities.
In closing, I add my voice to what I hope will be a chorus of protest about this most ill-advised decision, to cut staffing where more staffing is urgently needed. Thank you for your attention.
Craig Kirby
Oasis Alternative School Community Council

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