Sunday, January 30, 2011


There has been a recent announcement by the District School Board of Niagara about their plans to create a "DSBN Academy" aimed at educating students from low income families, and to encourage more of them to move on to college or university. This announcement came out of the air. It was not campaigned about in the recent municipal election, nor was there a period of public meetings or consultations on the topic. Again, this was yet another idea from some Sunshine Club member deciding what was "best" for low income families, especially with nary an organization that speaks for low income families in Niagara -- despite the region having the second highest rate of unemployment in Canada.

The response to this issues was predictable, according to the Board chair, but they are pushing ahead with it anyways. They have several "partners" on board, such as the YMCA, Community Care, Brock University and Niagara College. The post-secondary institutions may soon host this "school", but even that is not guaranteed. Community Care is on board, of course, so they have a permanent place for their "poor" clients, as opposed to making an effort to get people out of poverty to begin with so they wouldn't need segregated schools of this type in the first place. The YMCA also offers employment programs.

My first question was, "Did they ask a single low income family if they wanted a program like this?" Of course not. I did. Not a single one of those that I asked will enroll their children in this school. In the regular mainstream school system, there are thousands of low income children in attendance, and some schools are better than others at addressing the problem. The schools that do the worst job of it expect the parents or the students to identify themselves as "in need", and then be given "charity". Because only a small minority of such families in this position come forward this way, the number of low income families is grossly underestimated. Moreover, most of the low income families I know do not even go to food banks or other agencies for help, because of the shame and ridicule they feel they will get in response to their request for help.

Even on Face Book and on the public section of websites for the newspapers themselves that published the story about the new school, it is opposed at least 5:1 by the public, many of whom are also low income themselves. I know for the period of time in my youth when I was from a low income situation, I was not eager for others to know about my situation, so I kept a lot of my feelings and experiences to myself. I would not ever consider asking the school or anybody outside for help, nor did any of my friends that found themselves in similar situations. There is no evidence to suggest any of this has changed, where children are coming to school without boots, saying they "forgot", the same with their lunches ... easier to forget than to admit there are no boots or lunches to be found. I am also aware of at least two families with kids that say they are "allergic" to pizza on pizza days, or simply don't feel like going on that camping trip.

The school board tries to tell parents to come forward with their situation and ask for help, but in my experience through working with these families, this often came with other strings attached, such as Children's Aid getting called, teachers expecting less of the students in these circumstances, or unnecessary referrals to "diagnose" the child with some type of ADHD or other mental illness de jour. Parents know these risks. They hear it happening to others in their housing complex, or to their friends and neighbours, and then they do not want to dare. It is less costly to do without than to put onself in the spotlight of being amongst the "unwashed, unclean and generally less valued" of our society. I have heard many earfuls given to me, even when I suggest a trip to community care, emergency welfare assistance, etc. I can only imagine the horror that would be felt by their kids who would not only have to self-identify to their teachers, etc. of their situation, but to their neighbours, etc. when they see them bussed off to the "poor kids' school".

The other issue with this school is that students not eligible for enrollment if either parent is college or university educated. This continues to feed on the stereotype that people are poor because they are not educated and lack skills. I have come across many well-educated low income persons, many of whom do not even readily admit being low income because of this stereotype that also blames them for whatever it was that did not lead their status to rise with their education. Many live at home with their parents, attempting to stay off the welfare rolls. Others attempt to continue their schooling, at least on a part-time basis. Others are working in low wage, low skill jobs that don't even require any education to do, as they have been screened out of better paid work for various reasons.

The other requirement is that parents have to put in 15 hours a month in volunteer time for the new school. Again, there is a broad assumption that even though they are bussing the kids in from all over Niagara, that the parents in question have their own means of transportation to do this volunteer work. Niagara always had a belief that everybody living in the region can drive and has access to a personal vehicle, and if they don't for whatever reason, it is because the person is a drunk, a drug addict or did something criminal to "deserve" having lost their license. Most non-drivers in Niagara do not fit that description at all, yet they are ridiculed, blamed, attacked and belittled, and left out of most opportunities that Niagara's employers reserve only for drivers. The one study that I am aware of is that among adults that use employment assistance services in Niagara, 93% of them do not have both a driver's license and a car.

While their education would be streamed to college or university attendance, and these students would be guaranteed summer jobs, it would also seem to me that the resources, limited as they may be, will only be taken out of the maintstream schools where the vast majority of low income students will continue to attend. For those remaining students, or those that apply and do not get into the Academy for whatever reason, will only continue to remain close-mouthed about their circumstances and try to survive the mainstream school system that will only be more hostile to them, as there will even be less resources to go around.

To me, more work needs to be done to get the PARENTS out of poverty, as opposed to trying to stop what some call a "cycle of poverty". The cycle needs to stop at the children's parents, not at the children themselves. If a parent has financial resources, then there will be less of a need for a "poor kids' school" in Niagara. While politicians continue to pretend the recession is over for people in this region, as well as most of Canada, they ignore the fact that there has been little job recovery. I am still talking to adults that don't even care if they work minimum wage, etc., who are having major trouble even finding part-time minimum wage work at a Tim Horton's. If there was a job recovery, there would be nobody like this.

The problem that people do not see is that I understand people's lives from an ethnocultural approach. This is how people live out their lives on a day to day basis, what they talk about, what they look forward to, who they hang around, how they set up their homes, etc. If you speak to people who live in long term poverty in Niagara, they do not talk about being part of anything, like a community group or even a church group. They do not talk about working out a gym, nor do they talk about going for a recreational swim or a skate. They purchase most of their clothes at thrift stores, if they have extra money at all. Most have never been to other parts of the region, measured in lengths of time in years, not weeks or months. They have friendships, but they are usually unstable, or only with people who are in similar circumstances. Only a minority of them attend agencies for assistance; when I ask them why, they say that the agencies in question "won't do anything". They never talk about going to the movies, eating out, going on vacation, or anything.

When I speak to people of the middle or upper middle classes of Niagara Region, they speak of activities they have enrolled their children in, some involvement they may have had with their children's schools, a recent trip the family took up north to "relax", or a garden they are attempting to grow in their backyard. They talk about books they've read, meetings they've attended, or items they recently heard discussed on the news. Some like to talk about their "gadgets", as many people like to use electronics that seem to be falling in price over time ... they talk about their iPods, iPads, Black Berries, cell phone plans (and which ones are a rip off), as well, where their family went to eat last weekend. Occasionally, there may some discussion about investments, particularly in who is best to work with, and how badly or how well they fared in the recession.

Among the better educated middle and upper class, politics, economics, theories and medical advances become more of a topic of discussion, and these people appear to be more inquisitive and open about different ideas. Among the lower income people, I only hear questions, "Do you think McGuinty is going to give us a raise? What do you think is going to happen to my special diet allowance?". To these people, the "rich" are a monolithic group of people, who the lower income people perceive to be receiving a disproportionate amount of help for their issues. Whenever I try to explain that people are very different from one another even within their respective economic positions, the lower income people find it hard to believe. That there is as much unhappiness among the middle and upper classes is hard for them to believe as well, although the source of their issues tend to be very divergent.

However, among lower income people, the issues are less divergent, as lower income people are unable to experience the same range of experiences as people in the middle and upper middle classes. Low income people don't concern themselves as much about the stock market, or the economy, because they do not feel they are a part of it, even though many of these issues also have some impact on their successes as well. It is not that they do not want the same things as anybody else. They do. When I ask low income people what they want, their answers are very similar to what the answers are from middle and upper income families. They want their own homes, good schools for their kids to go to, good health, an interesting job, to take a trip somewhere, etc. The difference is that the lower income people often don't have the range of experience with many of these issues as others do, and tend to involve themselves less with their children's schools, with the community, etc. than others do.

However, because the lower income people want the same things as others, they do not want to be be distinguished by others as "poor", and they are very much aware of how most others think about them. If you were in a situation where others would typically think negatively about you, would you be public about belonging to this disadvantaged group? Mental illness is a good example. Many people suffer from this issue, or have family members that do, yet many people, regardless of wealth or lack thereof, refuse to seek help from the traditional "mental health system" because of its power to label one and deem you to be "different" and "not like other people". Poverty has a similar impact on one's experience - most try to hide it. A recent study on food insecurity found that 1 in 8 people are insecure with respect to being hungry at least part of each month. Yet less than 1 in 5 of those food insecure persons ever sought help from a food bank.

I do believe if there was a voice for low income people in Niagara, this "poor school" would be a non-starter. The lives of Niagara's poor have been and continue to be depicted and assumed by Niagara's non-poor, usually those that have some degree of power. To me, this is unacceptable. The poor should have their lives determined by others, no more than the lives of other people of at least some means should be. If the education bureaucrats really wanted to find a way to decrease the drop-out rate among poor students and get more of them to attend college and unversity, there are other ways to do this. One great example is called Pathways to Education, which was started in Toronto's lower income neighbourhoods, and has since spread to other communities. The success of this program is unprecedented - drop-out rates have been cut to less than 20% of the percentage they were prior to the introduction of Pathways, and the number of participants going on to college or university have substantially increased to a level that is closer to those from non-poor families.

The difference with Pathways is that it is conducted in the child's home school. They do not go anywhere else for this program, nor do they line up for a special class or some other tell-tale location for this program. Nobody has to know about the child's participation in this program if the child chooses to keep it this way. The why of Niagara's public board choosing the segregated option is obvious to me; they why not of choosing the integrated option is not so obvious. Hopefully, there will not be enough poor families registering for this school to make it worthwhile, so it would have to be cancelled and perhaps, Pathways be put on the table.

Your thoughts?