Rich school, poor school

Is a school for low-income kids a good idea? We won't know if we don't try

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You know, one of the great things about our education system is that it’s a constant source of controversy for journalists. One of the more recent brouhahas is over the plan of the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) to establish a school exclusively for low-income kids whose parents do not have a university or college education. The thinking is that pooling them in the same school will better provide the supports that socially disadvantaged kids need.

When the DSBN announced plans to launch this school with grade six and seven classes this September, critics were quick to dump on the idea. One parent activist told The Standard (St. Catharines) that he planned to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. Leona Dombrowsky, Ontario’s Minister of Education, said she was worried about the stigmatization of the children. Local MPP Peter Kormos reportedly referred to the plan as apartheid education.

I strongly believe that publicly funded education is for everyone. It’s the biggest, most inclusive societal institution where people from all ethnicities, cultures and economic classes mix together. That’s a good thing for democracy and a good thing for reducing inequities — which is always good for societies, by the way. And a strong publicly funded education system is the best weapon we have to fight poverty.
But I still support the DSBN initiative. Firstly, we’re not doing a great job of educating low-income kids. Socio-economically disadvantaged children are more likely to get lower marks, have behaviour and attendance problems, and drop out of school. The Niagara district has higher-than-average rates of poverty and unemployment, and very low rates of college- and university-educated adults. So whatever has been tried previously to improve educational outcomes for these students hasn’t worked that well. I applaud a school board with the gumption to try something new.

Secondly, schools should not only be allowed to innovate, they should be allowed to fail. I have no idea whether the DSBN Academy (that’s what they’re calling the school) will work. Maybe the kids who go to DSBN Academy will be stigmatized. Maybe it will be harder to support big groups of socially disadvantaged kids than smaller groups in neighbourhood schools.

I don’t care, I still say go ahead and try out a new way of educating kids who tend to be harder to serve. Schools and school districts should be allowed to try new approaches — such as the attempt to improve black students’ achievement via an Africentric school in Toronto. And if some initiatives fail, so be it. Trying and failing is one way of learning.

The only thing schools and school boards should be dumped on for is not admitting their innovation failed. If I were Minister of Education, all I would say to the DSBN is track your progress, be honest about how things are going, and if you’re wrong, admit it, tell us what you learned and move on.

So if the DSBN initiative fails, and it might, spare me the I told you so’s. All that will do is make people afraid to take chances. And this is a chance worth taking.