Monday, February 28, 2011

There was an interesting article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday (Feb. 26th) regarding a new, and controversial, school in St. Catherines Ontario.  As with most controversies in education, no matter which side of the issue you find yourself drawn to, many valuable ideas, and some troubling concerns, are raised.  The school in question, which isn’t even slated to open until September of 2011, is a public school, (DSBN Academy) which is geared specifically to low-income students and their families.

“The academy promises extra supports, tutors, mentors and a golden ticket to university for low-income students in a region with withered roots in the manufacturing industry.”

Proponents of the model argue that an environment such as this is exactly what is needed to provide low income students the extra academic and social supports they need to have a closer to equal chance of moving on successfully to post secondary education.  While critics argue that such an environment is just one more way in which poor kids get stigmatized and ghettoized.  Both sides are correct.

Parents whose children would qualify for the school, but are nevertheless wary of the negative impacts, hit the nail on the head when they demanded of trustees why these kinds of supports are not available at their kids’ current schools.  The simple answer is that it is expensive to implement these kinds of supports at all schools, it is far cheaper, or more “cost effective” (depending on your political bent) for schools to specialize in dealing with various populations with different needs.  The article mentioned Toronto’s Africentric School as another example of a school catering specifically to the needs of the local community.

It’s true that different populations have different needs when it comes to schooling.  All kids need structure, support and opportunities for engagement in their lives.  For low-income kids, especially those with single parents, these kinds of supports are often not available at home.  A single parent (often working two jobs) simply does not have the resources (time, financial, material etc.) that middle and upper income families can provide.  If these can’t be provided at home then we, as a community and a civil society, must help provide them at school.  This is what is being proposed for DSBN Academy.

What many find troubling is that in order to give these low-income students extra support, should it really be necessary to move them into a school of their own?  If we’ve decided that ‘inclusion’ (in any of its many forms) is what we believe in as a model for schooling, isn’t this a step in the wrong direction?  After all, opening up a string of ‘specialized’ schools is essentially saying that inclusion does NOT work and that students do better in more homogeneous populations.  The school is being modeled after a similar school in California.  This in itself is a red flag for many.  After all, given the current state of public education in the US, do we really want to start modeling schools after a system that is in such great turmoil?

To me this whole issue boils down to realism vs idealism.   Given neo-conservative pressures from governments over the past 20 or 30 years, is opening up schools like the DSBN Academy just one more in a limitless series of small steps in nickel and diming to death the public school systems we’ve spent so many years building?  Or are current economic realities such that we should ignore idealistic goals and create schools that do the best job for students academically, despite possible long-term divisions and social stigmatization? 

Deep down I’m an idealist, so my vote would be with the former.  After all, specialization of schools is just what any acolyte of Frederick W. Taylor would recommend for purposes of efficiency.  But one thing more people need to accept is that education should not be a matter of efficiency, it should be a matter of efficacy, and efficacy may cost a little more.