Allana Loh’s neighbourhood cries out for radical change. Only one out of every two children attending her north-end Dartmouth elementary school currently graduates from high school. Three years ago, she and her friend Roseanna Cleveland raised money to finance a feasibility study aimed at securing a Dartmouth site sponsored by Pathways to Education. Now she is campaigning to bring a proven literacy program, SpellRead into her daughter’s school, Harbour View Elementary, to boost its alarmingly low literacy rates.
She and her group, the Take Action Society, experience, first hand, the debilitating effects of “unequal education.” Since 2010, they have been working to create positive change in a community that struggles with a high crime rate, drugs, poverty and lower levels of education. They have built a community garden, painted a large mural outside the school and organized community cleanups.
Now Loh is convinced that only a bold initiative can bring about the need radical change. “We would like to have Dartmouth North declared an education reconstruction zone.” Speaking out is rare, but Loh and the Take Action Society are far from alone in seeking bold and more comprehensive approaches to community-school regeneration.
A powerful new series of investigative news reports, produced by Teri Pecoskie at the Hamilton Spectator, and headlined “Unequal Education,” has ripped the lid of the problem of educational inequalities in urban school systems. “As school reformer Horace Mann famously put it, education is a great equalizer, ” she wrote. “It’s the balance wheel of the social machinery. Something that offers every child, regardless of personal circumstance, a fair shot at success. In Hamilton, though, there’s nothing equal about education. The fact is, where you are born, and to whom, can have a profound effect on your future.”
The Spectator analysis of six years of Ontario EQAO test results reveals huge gaps in academic achievement in Hamilton schools, despite significant investments aimed at levelling the playing field. When education is so important to the future of our kids and our city, why do such disparities continue to exist, and what can be done to fix them? Pecoskie spent months researching the issue and provides the answers in a special five-part series.
Through interactive graphics, The Spectator , compares, in graphic detail, student test scores with socio-economic factors in each school neighbourhood. Students at St. Patrick School in the poorer east end of downtown Hamilton, she found, are badly trailing in performance, compared to those at St. Thomas the Apostle in Waterdown, where only 15 per cent of the children come from low income households.
The stark revelations in Pecoskie’s series are not new, but they demonstrate conclusively that bold initiatives will be required to turn student performance around in these struggling school communities. Her findings also add weight and significance to the findings of researchers preparing feasibility studies foe Pathways to Education. Since its inception in 2001, Pathways has identified over 14 different neighbourhoods across Canada which qualify as high student dropout zones.
Struggling students in faltering schools cry out for more radical, innovative community-based solutions. Proven educational development programs like Pathways to Education in Halifax Spryfield , sponsored by Chebucto Community Connections, are demonstrating what a “wrap-around” child and youth support program can accomplish in a few short years. So has the pioneering community support stay-in-school venture known as the Epic Youth Peer Breakthrough Program in Sydney, Cape Breton.
School communities in crisis cannot afford to wait until they secure another Pathways to Education site, perhaps a decade from now. Armed with what we know know about struggling neighbourhoods, let’s start by identifying the potential “education reconstruction zones” and enlisting the support of a cross-section of public and private sector partners from Community Services to the United Way to the local chambers of commerce.
THe stark inequalities are clear and it’s time for action where it counts in the Premier’s Offices and our corporate board rooms. Since 2010, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Education Department have blazed the policy trail. Starting with 21 American communities and $10 million, the “Promise Neighbourhoods” initiative, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, has begun to transform poor urban and rural neighbourhoods with “cradle –to-career services.”
Allana Loh is giving voice to the voiceless, The Spectator has smashed the myth of equal opportunities, and Pathways to Education has charted the course. Struggling school communities are worthy candidates for domestic social and economic reconstruction projects. What we need is bold leadership committed to a more comprehensive, targeted “reconstruction zone” strategy expanding educational opportunities for all children.
Whatever happened to the vision of public education as “the great equalizer?” What can we learn from the findings of the Pathways to Education studies and the recent Spectator “Unequal Education” series? Will more of the same in the form of more funding for existing programs, student supports, and special education ever succeed in making a dent in the problem? Is it time to identify “education reconstruction zones” and to mobilize a wider range of resources targeted on struggling neighbourhhoods and aimed at significantly raising graduation rates?