The following are comments I presented on a panel at the recent Social Planning Toronto symposium on schools as community hubs:
We know the research. Concentrated disadvantage, growing inequality, all shown in reports like Poverty by Postal Code, the Three Cities, and Social Planning’s own work, the ten year social demographic retrospective, authored by Beth Wilson, this past summer.
These are entrenched problems, ones seemingly intractable. In his book, The Persistence of Poverty, philosopher Charles Karelis uses the metaphor of bee stings to explain how poverty cannot be cured through a singly-targeted effort. If one has many bee stings and only a little balm, it’s not worth trying to soothe just one of the stings. Each of the stings of poverty, the lack of a job, the lack of childcare, the lack of housing, the lack of a safety net, has to be treated at the same time.
This is why place-based interventions, like community hubs, make sense.
It’s startling to see what passes for common sense these days:
Hubs — Co-locating services so people don’t have to travel? Neighbourhood centres have been doing this for over 100 years.
Full-day kindergarten — Offering learning opportunities and childcare in the same space? Who knew this, but a parent?
Because funding structure and legislation have focused on populations and singular, simple problems, we have not made the traction we want on issues of poverty, things that are true to the common good and our civic values.
So, in response to the first part of this session which posits “If Hubs are the Solution….,” what problems are community hubs supposed to solve?
Using a place-based lens, hubs offer the ability to address complexity and entrenched problems. (Place-based solutions can rightly be critiqued for their own drawbacks — that many issues are beyond the scope of the local — but that’s another panel session.)
Hubs are one form of other institutions that use a place-based, wrap-around model; others are such as neighbourhood centres, settlement houses, multi-service agencies, community health centres, and even, once, community schools. (My children’s school was built in the 1960s so that the school library could be used as a public library, with a separate entrance build into the structure. That failed and now the library is down the block.)
The “system” has now adopted hubs as an answer that makes sense. Within Toronto, that means bringing community space to the inner suburbs where infrastructure supports, like meeting space and community programs, is too scarce.
The Strong Neighbourhood Taskforce and the resultant Strong Neighbourhoods strategies at the City government level and at United Way Toronto promoted hubs as one strand of the solution. The POL funds, major donor gifts, and funding through the Youth Challenge Fund helped to realize these new resources.
When the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce examined service levels across the city, in comparison with the needs of the local population, the one map that showed coverage, washed calm blue instead of fiery red, was the map of access to local schools. Schools are in every Toronto neighbourhood.
That’s why the concept of schools as community hubs makes such sense.
The Toronto District School Board has grown this idea, through initiatives such as Sheila Cary-Meagher and Cassie Bell’s Model Schools for Inner City initiative. (Note these schools do not rigidly fall within the Priority Neighbourhood Areas – poor kids are more widely dispersed in the city). And, more recently, Director Spence began to open Full Use Schools. Both these programs open schools to the community and the community to schools.
The Ontario Ministry of Education has also recognized the sense of this. They have funded the Community Use of Schools program, which opens up school space to community agencies in the summer and after school, and, more recently, launched the Priority Schools Initiative, which provides support to grassroots groups to do the same.
“Schools as hubs” is on the radar.
In the midst of this municipal election, we hear candidates talking about schools as community hubs. The City has still to figure out how to work with the school board – the Community Partnership Strategy, for instance, is skirting this boundary issue as it maps out the resources and assets in Toronto’s neighbourhoods.
So if there is all this wisdom, what’s the problem? Why are there not more hubs?
This summer I had the chance to work on a report on community hubs for the ICE committee, and that will soon be forthcoming.
But here’s a short list of some of the challenges:
Parental resistance – we still have to figure out how to work through the “stranger in the school” problem
System coordination – The multiple orders of government and even the silos within them make an integrated take, like this, challenging. Competing deadlines and funding criteria don’t make this easy.
The Funding Formula still funds school boards on a per pupil basis with targeted special grants laid on top. When school boards lost their taxing authority, they lost much of their flexibility to be innovative about local issues.
The burden of moving all this forward falls upon on two already burdened, under-funded sectors (education and community service agencies).
Listen to this semi-facetious “To Do” list for anyone developing a hub. Here’s what they have to develop:
- Capital dollars fundraising
- Operating dollars
- Location identification
- Community consultations
- Resident engagement
- Needs assessments
- Zoning/permits, Design & space allocation
- Service planning
- Governance model
- Administrative model
- Feasibility studies
- Lease agreements
- Cost-sharing ratio
- Program space design and allocation
- Operating hours
- Outreach and communication strategy
- Itinerant partnering protocol development
- Staffing models
- Job descriptions
- Source funding
- Emergency preparedness plan….
And we wonder why it can’t get done.
My job today was to provide evidence of why hubs are a good idea.
But we know they are. That’s why we’re all, three hundred, here.
This is less a rational debate where we need to convince each other of the merits of a good idea, but much more a discussion about our civic will and priorities and the administrative structures and resources required for this “good idea” to be realized.