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Archive for the ‘Inner City Schools’ Category

Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days.  It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.

PeterMclarenMcLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”

McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.

Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research.  He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”

Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.

If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star.  While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”

Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.

LifeinSchoolsCoverProfessor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages.  Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association.  His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”

McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’  An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.

McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao.  His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”

What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book?  No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.”   No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”

Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.

Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”

Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.

What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor?  Why did he later renounce his role in  producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students?  Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?

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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.

PathwaysTakeAction14She 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?

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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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