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Archive for August, 2013

As students head back to school in September, USA Today Education Beat writer Greg Toppo recently reported that more American students than ever before will arrive dressed in a school-sanctioned uniforms.  Over the past decade, the adoption of school dress codes and uniforms in American public schools has expanded, even though the evidence of its impact on improving schools remains inconclusive.  In Canada, school uniforms are popular in independent private schools, but — with the exception of Quebec and Catholic high schools — still remain relatively scarce in regular co-educational public high schools.

MrDXavierAcademyNearly one in five American public schools required uniforms in 2010, up from just 1 in 8 a decade earlier, according to U. S. Department of Education statistics.  That’s a whopping 60% growth in uniform requirements in American state schools.  Boring deeper, more than half of public schools now have some sort of dress code.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 57% of school now have a “strict dress code,” up from 47% a decade earlier.  Comparable statistics do not exist for Canadian schools, given the provincial education silos, but school uniforms are more prevalent as a result of the gradual spread of private and publicly-funded alternative schools.  It is no accident. for instance, that the mythical Xavier Academy in the CBC-TV sitcom Mr. D. features scrubbed kids in very traditional school uniforms.

School uniforms have a chequered history in North American education.  Private independent schools associated with the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. National Association of Independent Schools, have long championed school uniforms, even though some of their member schools have adhered to more relaxed dress codes.  In Quebec, school uniforms are far more common, influenced by the classical Quebec private colleges and Montreal’s English independent schools.  In Ontario and other provinces, publicly-funded Catholic Separate Schools have tended to maintain school-approved uniforms, ranging from jackets and ties to crested collared white polo shirts.

The idea of introducing school uniforms into the public schools enjoyed an upsurge in the 1980s and early 1990s.   In the 1980s, Washington’s Mayor Marion Barry attempted to introduce uniforms to close the performance gap between public school students and those in D.C.’s Catholic schools.   While the D.C. plan fizzled, in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, introduced what is believed to be the first school-wide uniform policy as “a means of  reducing  clothing costs and social pressures on children.”  Nine years later (1996), speaking in Long Beach, California, President Bill Clinton announced his support of that district’s uniform initiative: “School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are,” Clinton said,  With this presidential nod of approval, more schools and school districts began to adopt school uniforms and stricter dress codes.

School uniforms were given a boost in Canada by the emergence in the 1980s and early 1990s of an “Academy Movement” in the public school system.  In Montreal, the decline in the English population after the Quebec Referendum played a role in the 1983 establishment of Royal West Academy and Royal Vale School, both public-private hybrid schools with uniforms and entrance examinations.  The Toronto School Board, facing competition from local private and Catholic schools, moved in 1989 to transform Scarborough’s near empty R.H. King High School into an Academy with traditional teaching, formal uniforms, and formal daily student mentoring groups.  Two years later, in September 1991, the York Region School Board did the same, establishing Woodbridge College as a traditional Grade 7 to OAC/13 school with a rigorous curriculum, uniforms, and more structured learning.  While many of these experiments faltered because of system-wide resistance and aenemic leadership, they did leave a symbolic legacy in the form of uniformed students.

Introducing school uniforms is sure to spark a raging public debate in public education, even in the United Kingdom where uniformed schoolkids are ubiquitous..  A recent piece in EduGuide provided a very handy summary of the arguments, pro and con, over the adoption of school-sanctioned, formal uniforms:

The Possible Benefits, commonly voiced by educators as well as parents:

  • Increase students’ self-esteem because they do not have to participate in the “school fashion show.” Dressing alike helps students learn that what really counts is on the inside.
  • Decrease the influence of gangs and gang violence. Uniforms make it more difficult to sneak in weapons, and easier to ban gang colors or symbols.
  • Improve learning by reducing distraction, sharpening focus on schoolwork and making the classroom a more serious environment.
  • Promote a sense of teamwork and increase school spirit.
  • Mask the income difference between families. All children dress the same, whether rich or poor.
  • Improve behavior and increase school attendance. Some students actually skip school to avoid embarrassment about their clothing.
  • Save families time and money. Many parents report that three uniforms cost about the same as one pair of designer jeans. Even some students admit that wearing the same colors everyday makes it easier to shop for new clothes.
  • Help administrators quickly identify outsiders who could be a danger to students.

The Downside, usually expressed by high school students and parents:

  • Violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • Cost too much for families who already struggle to make ends meet.
  • Merely put a band-aid on the problem of school violence and fail to address the real issues behind it.
  • Emphasize conformity, not individuality, and do not allow students to develop their identity.
  • Hide warning signs that point to problems. Often the way a child dresses can indicate the way he is feeling. Uniforms eliminate these red flags.
  • Offer ways for administrators to exert power and an unnecessary amount of authority.
  • Have not been statistically proven to decrease violence or promote discipline.
  • Fail to allow students to learn to make good choices based on their own values.

Much has been made of the school-based research that supposedly shows school uniforms do not necessarily improve schools or student performance levels. One particular American book, David Brunsma’s The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education (2004) is routinely trotted out to support this claim.  Defenders of uniforms counter with  Virginia Draa’s 2005 study of 64 Ohio high schools linking uniforms with improved attendance and  graduation rates and fewer student suspensions.  Neither study demonstrated much impact on student academic performance.

School uniforms, as supporters of dress codes well know, mean little unless they are embedded in a school culture that affirms and supports the pursuit of high standards and improved academic performance.  Studying public schools that climb on the school uniform bandwagon proves little and the American public school world is littered with bad precedents.  In Canada, experiments like Woodbridge College go awry when the missionary leaders move on and school boards revert to “every day garden variety” progressive pedagogy and practice in schools with very average, uniformed kids.  Studying schools with Uniforms Plus higher standards, sound core curriculum, character education, structured learning, and compulsory athletics or cultural activities would likely produce far different results.

Do school uniforms, by themselves, make schools better?  Is the adoption of school uniforms in North American public schools largely symbolic rather than transformative?  Is it possible to maintain a strict school dress code without turning kids into uniform thinkers?  What would a broader study pitting traditional school methods, including uniforms, against progressive, student-centred methods actually prove, if anything?

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School closure mania knows no bounds and afflicts small schools in North American inner cities as well as threatened rural communities. In August of 2013, some 50 public schools in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, are slated to close, in the largest single school shutdown in the history of American public education.  Supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the stated goal of the initiative announced in March is to eliminate schools the city has identified as “underutilized.”  North of the line, inner city schools in the Ontario cities of Kingston and London face the axe. Moncton’s downtown high school is on life support, and five of Nova Scotia’s 14 numbered rural schools are about to be shuttered forever.

SchoolClosureChicago2013What could Chicago inner city schools possibly have in common with small schools in Nova Scotia’s far flung rural communities?  After all, Chicago, with a population of about 2.7 million, has a public school system that this year served about 404,000 students attending 681 schools,  The entire province of Nova Scotia, by comparison, enrolls some 122,000 students in fewer than 430 schools,  Whether urban or rural, small, underutilized schools do face the same threat – the spectre of a a centralizing, bureaucratic school system wedded to outdated school size models and bent on eliminating the outliers, small schools offering education on a more human scale.

One of Chicago’s public schools slated for closure is in the inner city neighbourhood of West Pullman, where census figures show the population fell by about 7,000, or 19 percent, between 2000 and 2010. Nearly a quarter of all mortgaged properties fell into foreclosure between 2008 and 2012, according to the Woodstock Institute, a housing policy group in Chicago. Deborah Moore, director of neighborhood strategy at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago expects the population to fall, as families choose to live in neighborhoods that still have open public schools. And, she said, the number of foreclosures is sure to go up because school employees such as janitors and lunchroom workers, many of whom live nearby, will be at risk when they no longer have a paycheck.

 School closures merely accelerate the urban decay, especially in African-American inner city communities. In one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Eaglewood  residents have watched as abandoned homes are swiftly stripped of everything from copper pipes to toilets. In the year since Guggenheim Elementary School closed, they say, vandals have descended on the vacant building, essentially turning it into a gang war zone.

School closures in Nova Scotia tend to afflict rural, often socially disadvantaged, struggling communities.  Little hamlets suffering gradual depopulation like Riverport, Wentworth, Heatherton, and Gold River/Western Shore become prime candidates for school closures, even though losing that school threatens the very existence of the community., curtailing its prospects for attracting new families.

The School Review process in Nova Scotia was effectively suspended on April 3, 2013, so why worry?  Surely, Education Minister Ramona Jennex can be taken at her word that the “divisive, adversarial” Education Act regulations needed to be abandoned and a better process will be found to build upon local support for transforming depopulating small schools into community hubs.   After the disaster that followed the 2008 School Review moratorium, surely we should not expect a repeat performance, simply tinkering with the status quo.

The whole School Accommodation Review process has outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned, so tinkering with the orthodox, quasi-judicial process should be off the table.  In Ontario, community school advocates have aptly labelled it the ARC Sink. To bring it back simply rebranded will not work because the public, in depopulating rural communities and inner city neighbourhoods, has completely lost confidence in it as a means of generating community-based solutions to the interrelated challenges of declining enrolment and community regeneration.

Calling a halt to the School Review process is only a half-measure that will prove meaningless unless it is followed-up with broader, more comprehensive Public Engagement Community Development Strategy. We need a  broader strategy that changes the whole dynamic from ‘threatened closures’ to community-based, school-centred, community economic and social development.

First, adopt a ‘Whole Community’ revitalization strategy where small schools are considered public assets and the basis for inter-generational community hub development.  Deciding on school closures would  no longer be the prerogative or sole responsibility of either the Education Department or the school boards.

Next, develop a new School Design Model recognizing that smaller schools, half their current size, would serve inner city and rural communities much better.  Following the recommendation of American secondary school principals, high schools should be built or re-modelled to accommodate from 450 to 600 students; elementary schools downsized to between 120 and 250 pupils.  The savings in student busing costs alone would be substantial and schools far healthier for students now walking to school.

Then establish a Community Development Partnership Authority ( like the innovative models in the UK)  bringing together the talent and resources of six different departments, Municipal Relations, Economic and Regional Development, Education, Transportation and Infrastructure, Health, and Community Services.  The priority would be to find and create community-based plans for economic and social sustainability.

And finally, institute a legitimate Public Engagement process aimed at identifying community problems and finding mutually-agreeable solutions. Some struggling schools will still close but let it be those unable to demonstrate their viability or produce workable renewal plans.

Building and retaining smaller community schools, supporting local enterprises, modelling sustainable living practices, and tapping into networked communities is the best way forward.  With the clock ticking, the time to start building community-based education on a more human scale is now.

Why are schools in struggling urban and rural communities so often the prime targets for school consolidators?  What happens to inner city and rural communities when their schools close?  What’s wrong with the School Accommodation Review process and how can it be fixed?  Would a major re-thinking of our current school closure policies produce better results for children, families and communities?

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A small American school district in Arkansas recently captured the headlines by attempting to arm 20 volunteer teachers and staff with handguns starting in August 2013. That initiative has simply reignited the North American debate about the best way to protect children and ensure safer schools. The school under the microscope, Clarksville High School, would be the first in the state to take this step under a state law that allows licensed, armed security guards on campus. Teachers in the program would, after undergoing 53 hours of training, function as security guards as well as educators. It’s merely the latest response of school districts to the horrific shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012.

GunsinSchoolsThe wave of parental concern after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings prompted Superintendent David Hopkins to re-evaluate the Arkansas district’s school security procedures, even though the town of some 9,200, about 100 miles northwest of Little Rock, is not regarded as unsafe or dangerous. State officials, respecting the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) and the local law, were remarkably slow to step forward to block the plan. It will likely be aborted because Arkansas School Commissioner Tom Kimbrell favours deploying security officers rather than arming classroom teachers.

Arming teachers remains controversial, even in the American Deep South and Texas. It was proposed by the National Rifle Asociation in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. State bills in Texas and Michigan fell short of passage after generating resistance from leading educators and warnings from insurance companies about the impact on premiums. The cost of supplying weapons ($1,100 per gun) and providing training also proved to be impediments. In spite of those factors, the strategy of deploying guards and arming teachers still has its supporters, especially in rural, conservative-minded American states.

Putting guns in schools strikes most Canadians as totally bizarre, even those living in troubled inner city communities. Speaking on CTV’s Question Period in December 2012, Stu Auty, founder of the Canadian Safe Schools Network
claimed that it was a matter of “weapon availability” as well a continental cultural differences. School shootings like the horrific one in Taber, Alberta, do happen in Canada, he acknowledged, but they tend to involve illegal hand guns rather than high powered assault weapons. Concealing weapons is also still extremely rare on Canadian streets.

Since the 9/11 Security Crisis and the 2005 Dawson College mass shootings, most K to 12 schools have significantly beefed-up security and instituted new internal and external emergency response procedures. Electronic security is visible at school entrances and all doors are locked except the controlled access front entrance. Many big city high schools now have armed police officers on or near the school grounds.

There is a marked difference, however, in the approach taken in Canada to ensure school safety and security. Safe School policies in Canadian school districts have tended to follow and mimic the guidelines promoted by Stu Auty and his Safe Schools Network. Most of the strategy is preventative rather than deterrent, focusing on allieviating the root causes and minimizing the risks of violence in and around the schools. Deploying guns is not part of the strategy and the intent is to keep children safe by ensuring that schools are essentially “weapon-free zones.” It is not unknown for high school students to carry concealed weapons(mostly switch-blades, or knives), but they do so knowing that they are strictly prohibited and aware of the consequences of violating that rule.

What impact can excessive security measures have on schools? Back in December 2012, Doran Horowitz, Director of the Centre for Israel-Jewish Affairs, put it best. “We try to avoid barricaded schools and classrooms,” he told CTV’s Question Period. ” It’s important to avoid adopting the ‘Fort Knox’ mentality in schools.”

Why are American school districts increasingly deploying guns and armed guards in the schools? Is arming teachers a sensible or an effective strategy? Do we know how students react to their teachers when they come to class armed with concealed weapons? Does it create a chill that discourages student engagement in learning? What is really achieved by barricading the classroom and looking upon the outside world with a fearful set of eyes?

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