Posts tagged ‘Children’

October 13, 2016

Toronto’s Urban Diversity

European cities are struggling with the increasing diversity of their populations, places which historically grew out of national and ethno-cultural identities.

Divercities is a European Union funded project what is looking at how governance and civic structures can create “social cohesion, social mobility and economic performance in today’s hyper-diversified cities.” They hosted a conference in September at the University of Antwerp  with practitioners, policy-makers and academics.

Over the few days of discussion and debate, they asked some of us about what diversity looks like in our cities. Here below is what I said about Toronto, a place that people held as an ideal when we compared notes. I should have added “There is still work to be done!”

In February there will a larger concluding conference to present the wider findings.

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September 10, 2013

Toronto District School Board census 2011: Unsettling picture of inequality revealed

English: Park School studentsClose to 90,000 parents, or sixty-five per cent, of elementary school parents answered the Toronto District School Board’s census sent home last fall. The results are coming out now and reveal the unequal opportunities which children of different family backgrounds enjoy. A recent TDSB research report presents a startling picture of class and racial inequality among our youngest city residents.

 As part of gaining a snapshot of its students, parents were asked to report their family’s total income. Divided into five income groups for comparison, the report shows
  • 28% families reported a family income of less than $30,000/year.
  • 21% reported $30,000 – $49,999/year.
  • 15% reported $50,000 – $74,999/year.
  • 10% reported $75,000 – $99,999/year.
  • 26% reported $100,000+.

When this data was broken down by each family’s racial background, the differences became even more unsettling:

Bar graph showing self-reported family income of school board students by racial background.

TDSB research report on 2011 census of parents with children in Kindergarten through Grade Six.

The impact of these different family income levels was also reflected, as would be expected, in the out-of-school experience of children. Parents in each income group were asked about their children’s extra-curricular and pre-school activities.

Consistently, income was tied to children’s experiences outside of school. The following presents some of these marked differences. (Although the Board’s analysis covers all five income groups, figures for the lowest, middle and highest income groups are reported here as the pattern remains the same across each category.)

Child care centre (before Kindergarten)

  • 25% children in lowest income families enrolled their child in a child care centre.
  • 29% children in the middle-income families enrolled their child in a child care centre.
  • 45% children in highest income families enrolled their child in a child care centre.

Pre-school program

  • 25% children in lowest income families attended a pre-school program.
  • 34% children in the middle-income families attended a pre-school program.
  • 56% children in highest income families attended a pre-school program.

Sense of safety on their street or in their neighbourhood

  • 80% parents in lowest income group said their child is safe on their street or in their neighbourhood.
  • 90% parents in the middle-income group said their child is safe on their street or in their neighbourhood.
  • 95% parents in highest income group said their child is safe on their street or in their neighbourhood.

Sports & Recreation

  • 64/% children in the highest income families are involved in sports or recreation activities outside of school.
  • 54% children in the middle-income are involved in sports or recreation activities outside of school.
  • 38% families in the lowest income bracket participate in sports or recreation activities outside of school.

Arts

  • 59% children in the highest income in arts activities outside of school.
  • 32% children in the lowest income families participate in arts activities outside of school.

The patterns are not isolated to Toronto. Noted social commentator Robert Putnam explains, “Kids coming from upper middle-class backgrounds are living in a different world now from kids coming from working-class or less well-off backgrounds.”

However, the second part of the survey was more heartening. When parents were asked about their child’s experiences in school, the differences, by income group, were much smaller, showing only a percentage point or two difference around such things as feeling safe or welcome in the school. This area is an improvement from the 2008 census, a period in which the school board has worked to make improvements.

Opportunity. It’s a powerful idea, that everyone should have an equal chance, that every child should have an equal start. It underscores our sense of civic sense of fairness. Now, as ever, our school system must face this challenge outside its doors too.

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August 25, 2013

The Costs of Raising a Child: Bargain, Regular or Luxury

Like the debates over the poverty line, the current debate over the cost of raising a child has caused a stir. (How can you not factor in housing and childcare in these latest calculations? Bargain-shopping, seems to be the reply.)

In a previous job, I was once asked to update the Manitoba Department of Agriculture’s 2004 study on the cost of raising a child. Which child, I asked? The one that went to the local library in the summer because it was free, the one that went to day-camp, or the one that went to overnight-camp? I couldn’t do it.

Kids, it seems, come in bargain, retail and luxury versions. So, following on the concrete examples offered by academics like Peggy MacIntosh for how race affects privilege, here are some contrasts for children. Assign the costs yourself.

Category Bargain Retail Luxury
Housing Apartment Semi-detached in city or House in suburbs Detached downtown (and country escape) or House in country
Sleeping arrangements Bunk beds Double bed King-sized bed
Transport to (high) school Walk Bus pass Drive
School lunch Bread & butter 7 Grain bread & meat / cheese Prepared hot lunch
Tutoring After school (detention) Local university student Professional tutor
Childcare Neighbour / Family / Stay home Childcare centre, preferably licensed Nannies
Summer vacation Visit to family (again) Cottage (again) Europe (again)
Summer camp Community agency with field trips to local park Skills / Interest-based camp (Circus, Science, Video Games, etc.) Overnight “Away” camp, one month plus.
Home computer Anything 5 years old; no printer Personal Computer (shared desktop) Mac Computer (own laptop)
Outside play area Sidewalk Backyard Tennis club
Birthday present New clothes New toys New electronics
Dishwasher Family member Maytag Maid
Laundry Laundromat Kenmore Maid
High school failure Drop-out Alternative high school Prep school
Crooked teeth So? Braces, but only for one sibling Invisible braces
School supply shopping Dollar Store Staples Apple store
Birthday party Home, with games Party Room (bowling, play gym, etc.) Home (with bowling, bouncy castle, pony, clown, etc.)

Lots more examples to think of, no?

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September 17, 2012

Who are the students identified as having special education needs in the TDSB?

Are boys,Black students or students from low-income families more likely to be identified as Special Needs in the Toronto District School Board? Are children from more privileged backgrounds likely to be identified as Gifted?

A new research report from the board confirms what parents have often worried about.

This latest release confirms the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of its students are reflected in who is identified as Special Needs.

The report is drawn from a longitudinal study of the TDSB students who were in Grade 9, over 18,000 of them in 2006. It follows this cohort of students through each grade. (By now 79% of the studied students have graduated.)

According to the new Fact Sheet on Special Education:

  • Nearly 2/3 of students identified as having special education needs in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are male.
  • Students who live with no or only one parent are more likely to be in a special needs program (other than Gifted) than those who live with both parents. In fact, not a single student who did not live with a parent was identified as Gifted (These would include students who lived independently or with other family members). Gifted students were also most likely to have parents with a university-level education (77% of Gifted students compared to 44% of students overall) and a professional-level occupation (56% of students in Gifted compared to 27% of students).
  • Tracking the pattern of low-income Special Needs students are the racial backgrounds of students in special ed. classes. The starkest contract was for students of African, Caribbean and Black backgrounds. Black students were the most likely of all other racial groups to be identified as having a Mild Intellectual Delay (MID), making up almost one-third (32%) of those so identified even though they make up only 1/8 (12%) of the overall student population. Black students also made up 17% of those identified with a learning disability. Interestingly, Whites made up more than half (53%) of students identified with a learning disability although they represent 34% of the total population. This may be that as a result of parents paying for private evaluations.
  • Gifted programs show that those with racial and class privilege are much more likely to be accessing these supports (which include smaller class sizes and enriched materials). 77% of students identified as Gifted have university-educated parents. White and East Asian students make up 80% of the Gifted identifications although together they represent just over half (53%) of the total enrollment in the year studied. Seven percent of the remaining students were South Asian. Less than 5% of Gifted students were Black (to be proportionate there should be twice as many).

The release concludes with a summary of the Board’s commitment to review the processes which may give rise to these inequities and act as barriers to student success. Several areas for review include

  • the structure of congregated/integrated program delivery (whether students should be grouped together or supported in class),
  • the process for referral, identification and placements of students suspected of having a disability, and
  • ensuring student learning is culturally and socio-demographically sensitive (for instance, gifted girls tend to be less disruptive so are less frequently identified).

The publication page by the Board’s Research & Information Services department is a hidden treasure, deep within the TDSB’s website, under the Tab “About Us.” (About us — truer words.)

Keep watching this page. Later this year, the results from the school board’s second parent/student census will be posted.

There, we may find the evidence of what we have suspected, that our schools still reflect more the realities of our community than its aspirations.

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April 19, 2012

TDSB budget woes: Education assistants and school superintendents as a “nice-to-have”

My young son hated school when he started it; he hated school so much he ran away frequently. One January morning, wearing no shoes, he ran out straight out the school doors having realized stopping to grab outerwear would slow his escape. His heroic kindergarten education assistant was the one who caught him again.

So when Mike Harris threatened to cut funding for education assistants, I began a long career as a parent activist. My son will graduate from high school next year, and education assistants are being cut once more. (I don’t remember a time when school funding wasn’t being cut.)

In 2012, the Toronto District School Board is looking at another yawning funding gap, one that has now grown to over $100 million a year.

School trustees might choose to face down the current Liberal government, to refuse to implement a funding formula which systematically underfunds high-cost urban areas like Toronto. But the last time the Board did that, it was put under provincial supervision. And nothing changed.

So, instead, trustees are faced with staff layoffs. (Lay-off notices went out this week to over 700 education assistants, school secretaries, high school teachers and other staff, some with almost three decades of work at the Board.)

This will get worse. The first announced wave has moved the Board less than halfway to their budget target. Board staff and committees are looking now for another $60 million to cut.

More staff will fall, and it’s going to get ugly. For instance, senior staff came under ruthless attack at the last Board meeting, the quality of their contribution to the education enterprise being debated, as they sat there behind the trustees. Superintendents are an easy target. If women who chase into a snow storm after a small angry child are a “nice-to-have,” then these senior staff have little chance of showing they are a “must have.”

Really, the debate over central service staff is a mug’s game which the non-profit sector has been playing for years. Funding for core administrative staff pays for people who run the payroll, pay bills, hire staff, keep computers running, conduct health & safety inspections or maintain harassment prevention offices. Core staff are the ones who let others do the work of the organization, whether teaching or serving clients. Yet they are not seen as “mission critical.”

Trustees will be faced with tough choices. This, now, is the time they cannot be parochial or arbitrary in their decisions.

One of the key tools they have at their disposal, then, is one they adopted a few years ago: the Learning Opportunities Index (LOI), which ranks schools according to communities’ needs. The LOI was created because the school board was looking for better criteria to drive resource allocations. Trustees chose, as the framework for its decisions, the principle of equity, the idea that those who are stronger can do with less.

Almost three decades later, during the latest revision, the Board renewed that policy commitment and strengthened it, adopting a policy which said

In order to provide a more equitable distribution of resources, the Learning Opportunities Index shall be used when resources are being allocated to school.. [going on to describe a few exceptions: those where allocations are universal (for all schools), required by legislation and collective agreements, and finally where a better measure of need can be found.]

The LOI has to be used as filter for these discussions of where budget cuts are going to hit.

This is not going to be a popular tactic, but it is in accord to the Board’s own policies and history. It is also a just and judicious approach. As they wrestle with these hard questions, that’s what trustees must hang onto.

May 11, 2010

Stealing our lunch money from poor kids

I write this cautiously because it is not my preference to call people out on their actions or the values they hold. Still this is an election year, and candidates must be prepared stand on their record.

But I hope to find common ground here, as well.

This week, the Toronto public school board trustees on the Program and School Services Committee had a chance to do the right thing. They didn’t.

Asked by the Inner City Advisory Committee (ICAC) to commit more resources to the poorest students, they balked.

The motion from ICAC, a formal body of the Board, calls for a higher proportion of the provincial Learning Opportunity Grant (LOG) to be committed to the poorest students and the poorest schools in the Board.

The ask was small, compared to what is transferred from the province through the LOG. ICAC’s motion sought a commitment that 22% of the LOG (just over one out of every $5 of the grant) actually be spent on our most vulnerable students. The range of targeted programs extends for several paragraphs in the motion.

Among two of the lead objectors, Trustees Josh Matlow and Micheal Coteau asked, what would happen to all the other students, those who weren’t poor if these funds were so committed? Indeed, Trustee Chris Bolton had made similar seemingly petty objections when the Learning Opportunity Index was revised, after it turned out that schools within his own ward would not receive as many additional resources because they were no longer identified as among the neediest. It reminds me of the old snackfood ad where one hunter asks another for a potato chip. The happy muncher huffs, “If I give one to you I will have to give one to everyone,”  waving his hand over the tundra. It’s a liberal logic I struggle to understand.

To be fair, Trustee Campbell also chose to vote against the ICAC/LOG motion, citing, instead, worries about the three-year financial commitment, and even Trustee Dandy questioned how the needs of poor students in middle class schools would be addressed (but she voted for the motion after all).

And the motion failed. (While a few friends gave me a long list of reasons for the political nuances among the trustees, it’s hard not to notice that the issue split along gender lines: Cathy and Maria (and Sheila who couldn’t vote) ranged against Michael, Josh, John and Chris (who also couldn’t vote). )

But if I work it through, Trustees Matlow, Coteau, and Bolton were reacting eminently reasonably, within a ward-based election system. And, it is too easy an answer to dismiss their views as the short-sighted or parochial actions of small-time politicians.

For, in at least two previous years (2007, 2009), the full Board has voted to protect funding to students in its poorest schools. This is a fight that parents and activists have fought in every budget round since the early 1990s, alongside their trustees.

The ICAC motion was felled because, in its current state, the LOG has a terrible shortcoming. (See More below for a description of the LOG.) The LOG is “unsweatered,” that is it may be spent as the Board chooses. So, in actuality, only a small undetermined percentage of the funds reach the students for whom it is targeted. It is an exact parallel to the situation Social Planning Toronto found in its 2005 report when it looked at how ESL funds were spent (or not) on English as a second language learners. Instead, the Board uses these funding streams to cover other financial gaps, such as the rising costs of heating and teachers’ salaries.

In sum, school trustees across the province are left with the narrow choice of funding the vulnerable or balancing the budget – something they are required to do by law. Another set of TDSB trustees will face this same hard dilemma again this week when the ICAC motion is likely to be raised at the Board’s budget and AFA committee meetings.

So, agreed, there is no malfeasance in the actions of Trustees Matlow, Coteau and the others. They are striving valiantly to meet their legal obligations.

But the school board’s trustees have gotten snookered by the provincial Ministry.

The Ontario government gets a lot of mileage out of saying that is has dedicated increasing millions of dollars to poor and marginalized kids through the LOG and other poverty reduction strategies. The funds are handed over to other orders of government (municipal and schools boards) to be used for this great good. Fabulous P.R.

The Ontario government wants every student to have a quality education. Some students need additional help from their school in order to do their best.

The Learning Opportunities Grant provides funding to school boards to help students who may be at greater risk of not achieving their educational goals.

And so, then, school board and trustees are left to do the dirty work, to pinch the money from wherever they can, to make up for provincial funding shortfalls.

As Mel Hurtig’s book described the dilemma of poverty, should the Board “pay the rent or feed the children?” Should the Board run programs for poor kids or keep the lights on in the building?

But this is a discussion about some who have and some who don’t. It’s time we stopped stealing our lunch money from poor kids.

The evidence, the economics and the politics all line up behind the value of investing in poor kids. As I argued in earlier posts on the Learning Opportunity Index, doing so brings greater returns even than in students from middle or high-income families. And where there is concentrated poverty, a greater investment is required and greater learnings emerge.

A large body of research supports this. At the local level, TDSB’s recent evaluation of its own Inner City Model Schools show students’ being streamed out of special education classes and academic grades rising a full grade point, at even the worst school. The additional funds TDSB trustees provided proved the power of investing in kids.

So, yes, spending the LOG on the use for which it is given may well hurt other kids and the broader school system. Salaries do have to be paid, buildings heated. And, yes, higher income parents may pick up and move out their children of a divested public school system. These are real dangers that the trustees must consider.

But that is a vision with little faith in the Canadian ideal of fair play. I believe we are better than that, that we will agree to share the pain, to instead make other hard choices, to agree to do the right thing.

I believe we can demand a school system that doesn’t require we poach off the poorest among us. In this, our values must trump our accounting.

Declaration of conflicts of interest:

1) I am a former co-chair of the Inner City Advisory Committee from which the motion came.

2) I have agreed to act as Chief Finance Officer for the incumbent trustee in my ward, Cathy Dandy.

I based this post partly on my remarks to the Program and School Services Committee on the evening of Wednesday May, 2010.

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April 1, 2010

Social spaces of apartment-dwelling children

Vertical Living Kids, a new report out of Melbourne, Australia, got a lot of international media play today. Researchers Dana Mizrachi and (former Montrealer) Dr. Carolyn Whitzman look at how children living in apartment buildings interact with their surrounding environment. Mizrachi and Whitzman pursued this question because, like most urban apartment buildings, these homes were not designed with children in mind.

The preliminary report focuses on forty children, aged 8-12, living in public and private market apartment buildings over three stories tall. Children’s excursions were tracked using GPS devises, travel diaries and surveys of parents. Mimicking Photovoice methodologies, the children also used cameras over the course of a week to document parts of their neighbourhoods which they liked and disliked.

The children described their sense of ownership of public space, their comfort travelling across neighbourhoods and using public transit. Children in private and public housing showed some parallels (social natures of excursions) and some differences (range and proximity of areas visited). The researchers found all the children raised “legitimate concerns about amenity and maintenance” of these spaces.

More than half of the children in public housing complained about quality of the play areas, yet none felt comfortable enough to range further. For instance, the report describes

None of the 13 children we interviewed in Carlton housing estate walk 500 metres to Carlton Gardens, with its large and new adventure playground and the Melbourne Museum, both of which are free to children. Instead, they cluster in the rather tired playground equipment on their public housing estates and play in the leftover spaces between residential buildings.

In contrast, children in private market housing were more likely to list greater access to a broader range of play spaces, including pools, tennis courts, skate parks, commercial enterprises, and public libraries. Those who live further from school were more likely to feel isolated from their immediate neighbourhood and so, perhaps, were more likely to travel.

One of the principal findings of the study was how children viewed dedicated/designated play areas: for many of them, the attraction of these spaces is the presence of other children rather than the equipment provided. Playgrounds, playing fields and such places are primarily social spaces for children, and the authors recommend, rather than being hived off from the broader community, should be designed as such.

Mizrachi and Whitzman’s study is particularly relevant to Toronto urban planning for two reasons: One-third of our city population live in such apartment buildings and, two, the critique of many newly-built condominiums that are not child-friendly.

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June 21, 2009

Community hubs recommended for young and old

The same week the Pascal Report on the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario was released, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) released a Call to Action on building age-friendly communities. Bracketing opposite ends of the life cycle, the reports shared some very similar recommendations.

Both reports emphasized the role and importance of community hubs and the integrated delivery of services. Pascal recommended that schools serve families and the broader spectrum of their needs, while the OPPI called in a series of recommendations for government services to be delivered locally and for seniors and children’s services to be co-located. Both also addressed expanded learning opportunities for each age group.

The reports underscore the point that a focus on place-based strategies aids those who are most needy and least mobile: the elderly, parents with strollers, newcomers with more limited social networks and low–income people who rely on transit.

The benefits of this strategy are also shared. As the former mayor of Bogotà, Columbia, eloquently explained about some of his innovative strategies:

“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people.”

—Enrique Peñalosa to Yes Magazine

___

A few other praiseworthy notes on the report by Dr. Charles Pascal, the Premier’s Special Adviser to the Ontario Premier on Early Learning:

  • By addressing the entire 0—12 age range, Pascal affirmed that the introduction of full day kindergarten was not a panacea to the challenges that many children face (he cites Willms’ research estimates of up to 60% of all children are vulnerable). As, as economist James Hechman shows, early investment must be followed up to be effective [emphasis added].
  • Pascal also recognized and named the summer learning loss which occurs for most low–income kids. The opening of schools as community hubs should bridge some of that gap.

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May 16, 2009

The annual summer learning deficit looms for low income students

Soft summer days will soon be upon us, schools will let out, and poor kids will be left to fall further behind academically.

In a recent summer, my own son was able to collect a number of free T-shirts when he attended consecutive weeks of science, computer and basketball camps. He was provided with a rich range of experiences, excursions and learning opportunities.

In contrast, this week, I put together a funding application for one of my agency’s summer camps. The budget broke down so that each child would allocated bus fare for one return trip/week with an additional $8 per child for admission or other costs, $5/day/child for food (because food security is a real issue), and $2/day/child for supplies for arts & crafts, games and recreation. We’re hoping to be given the $10,000 maximum grant. Otherwise these amounts will have to be cut.

However, these are differences of opportunity between poor kids and their more privileged counterparts that are apparent even in schools within the public education system.

The real inequity emerges from the learning shortfall or “summer slide” that occurs when school is out in July and August. The students from more privileged backgrounds continue to gain academic ground through the summer, boosting their verbal, organizational and other learning skills. At best, students from low income families tread water. More often they backslide.

Learning disparities accumulate each summer so that by high school, the summer learning gap strongly predicts whether a student will take an academic course load, finish high school or attend post-secondary education.

Perhaps most startlingly, the implications from the research are that if schools are able to help low-income students catch-up when they are in session, then supporting these learning opportunities through the summer break may be more important even than the early learning initiatives, which first gave kids their leg up, but which are not as long-lasting.

This issue of the summer achievement learning gap has some respectable backers:

In February, the Toronto District School Board received a staff report on year-round schooling. Unfortunately, the report was limited by an examination of whether the current 185 days of instruction should be spread throughout the calendar year, rather than looking at whether additional instructional days might have an impact.

While not making a formal recommendation, the door is still open. The Board report left the possibility of moving to a different calendar if a school community requested the scheduling change.

The summer learning gap is not an issue that can be easily addressed at the board-level. Funding and teaching contracts are provincial matters.

However, within Ontario,Toronto probably has the most compelling reason and capacity to act on the issue. The TDSB’s leadership on inner city and urban issues offers the opportunity for the board to lead on this issue, in the best interests of low income students.

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May 3, 2009

Urban neighbourhoods: The long view

Urban neighbourhoods characterized by poverty, rapid residential turnover, and dilapidated housing suffer disproportionately high rates of infant mortality, crime, mental illness, LBW, TB, physical abuse, and other factors detrimental to children’s well-being (Shaw & Mackay, 1942).

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