Posts tagged ‘Schools’

February 9, 2014

My neighbour, Jeffrey Baldwin

If I peek through the branches out my son’s bedroom, I can see the room where Jeffrey Baldwin lived, and died, he, the five-year-old who died from neglect, in my backyard.

At that time, when he lived, my children were close to his age, and I knew some of the hardships of this community and of our school. I remember the mother who asked me for $2 so her child could enjoy the school’s hot dog lunch. I remember the girl who carried the last bits of a bag of corn flakes to school for her lunch. I remember the boy who didn’t go to school because he had no winter coat until he got a hand-me-down — how he danced along the block then in that ugly corduroy coat! And I remember the kindergarten child whose mother was always ‘sleeping’ as she wandered our street, joining snack time on our porch.

But I don’t remember Jeffrey Baldwin, who also lived here in my neighbourhood. Instead, I vaguely remember the noisy crowd of adults that sat on his porch (one of them, Jeffrey’s aunt, trained in Early Childhood Education — another shocker).

Later, I learned that Jeffrey’s sisters were at the same grade school my children were, although, in different grades. We would all have gone to the same school concerts or gathered together out in the playground. Each day, Jeffrey’s sisters would have munched on the same daily offering of muffins or yogurt and carrots or apples from the small kitchen on the main floor where volunteers chopped and baked for the snack program.

At the inquest into Jeffrey’s death, a pediatric nutritionist said that this classroom food program probably saved Jeffrey’s sister; she too was targeted, neglected by her grandparents, but, unlike Jeffrey, she was ‘allowed’ to go to school, and so she ate.

I remember the snack program donation envelopes carried home in my son’s backpack each month. And I remember the hunt to fill it with the requested $20 donation each time. Times were lean in our household, but I knew some of my neighbours had it worse than we did so I felt that obligation.

Now, years later, having heard how the snack program had sustained Jeffrey’s sister, I sobbed aloud. I hadn’t understood the role of those scrounged pennies. “One doesn’t know,” I said to myself, “what makes a difference.”

I think Jeffrey’s awful death has stuck with me, not only because of the revulsion we all feel, but also, more personally, as a neighbour who failed him.

I remember a part of the murder trial for Jeffery’s grandparents, the testimony from another neighbour, who described how one day, Jeffrey’s grandmother asked her if she would take Jeffrey, then still a baby. She considered, but refused, having no way to know the atrocity to come.

‘We didn’t know’ seems an awful, sorry excuse. Bitter lessons.

In the closing days of the inquest into Jeffrey long neglect and death, Irwin Elman, the provincial children’s advocate said  “We expect and demand more. More from the child welfare system, more from the educational system, more from the neighbours, and more from the family who stood by and watched Jeffrey starve and die…We can do better.”

Elman’s right.

What neighbourhood-based solutions would have helped?  Better snacks? Better registration and attendance records at school? The parent-child drop-in where I found solace? Neighbourliness (what sociologists describe as stronger social connections and reciprocity)? More ‘eyes on the street’? Even, just more old-fashioned nosiness? Those questions continue to gnaw at me.

Some of the answers lie in the formal and informal networks of a neighbourhood. Perhaps, the inquest’s results will tell us more.

For now, a new family, full of kids, lives in Jeffrey’s house. They know the sad history of it, but, as another neighbour explained to me, they are re-writing it, making it better this time.

We all must.

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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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June 5, 2013

TDSB Census 2011 highlights student isolation

The most recent TDSB census of parents and students shows improvements where the school board has influence, such as including students’ experience, welcoming parents into schools, or creating an environment where students feel safe. This part is a good news story that shows that concentrated educational efforts can make a difference.

However, as media reports have highlighted earlier, students are also feeling more stressed. The census results also show that physical health and nutrition drop in higher grades. Similarly, students are more likely to report being tired, having headaches, or being less happy in higher grades.

One-third of students don’t want to go to school, regardless of their age.

Students are also less likely to report having at least one adult whom they “feel comfortable to go to for personal support, advice or help.”
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 46% of high school students said they have no adult in whom they could confide.
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 31% of high school students said they had one adult in whom they could confide.
  • 31% of Grade 7/8 and 23% of high school students said they had more than one adult in whom they could confide.

Students report being less comfortable participating in class, especially those in high school.

According to the census, overwhelmingly students feel safe in class, but do report feeling less safe in other parts of the school building or outside on the grounds.

These are startling initial numbers. The impulse will be to psychologize the results, to describe the deficits in TDSB students and in their families. However, I want to suggest an alternative.

The social science of sociology might shed better light on how to support students to succeed: When students feel they belong in their schools, they will thrive. Foresightedly, some Board staff and trustees are already taking some good first steps and so have struck a working group to look more closely at the issue of how school relations shape better learning.

While the comparisons have not yet been explicitly made, this committee might start with the widening demographic gap between teacher and students. Increasingly divided by age, culture and socioeconomic class, students have a pretty good reason to feel disconnected from the adults in their schools. It’s up to the adults to fix that.

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June 2, 2013

Community heros lifting above their weight: The story of a community hub in Hamilton

Don MacVicar once broke three world records, lifting 10 times his weight combined in a single competition. Now, he’s doing bigger things. He’s lifting a community on his shoulders.

The familiar hallways of a school now open into community resource rooms.

The familiar hallways of a school now open into community resource rooms.

For the past eight years, McVicar has led a renewal project in the industrial north end of Hamilton, Ontario, creating a hub in the  Robert Land school when it was faced with closure. Re-named the Eva Rothwell Centre, the former school now hosts a job resource centre, recreation programs, youth drop-in, summer camps, community health programs, police services (staffed by chatty volunteers, with handouts on everything from crime prevention to bed bugs), and a clothing bank.  It’s also one of the sites of Pathways to Education (the strange rumour in the community being that the tuition bursary may be abolished). There is even a miniature railroader club in the school’s basement, art out of metal, rails and wiring and a full-size railway car on delivery, to be a new literacy centre. And, yes, of course, there is a weight room.

This is, like many stories of community change, the story of heroes — how often local improvement is made by the determined efforts of a small group of people. (In fact, that Margaret Mead reference is on the home page of their website.)

When the school faced closure, MacVicar and a group of community member approached the Hamilton school board and proposed to buy it. Private donors stepped in with some quick funding to pony up close to $350,000, giving the community association time to incorporate as a non-profit corporation.

Two weeks ago, the centre hosted five bus loads of elementary students from the Toronto District School Board to attend the ribbon-cutting for a new draw: Team Canada 72 room filled with hockey memorabilia and team players.  It’s part of MacVicar’s plan to make the centre a destination where people want to visit. Next fall, he hopes to bring in the Stanley Cup.

Heroic as these efforts were, the visit to this re-purposed school highlighted two key lessons, at the micro-level and the macro-levels.

At the micro-level is the importance of taking action. Asked how he had accomplished this, MacVicar softly explained “If I join a committee, and they’re not doing anything within three months, I quietly move on.”

The second lesson, though, is broader. This good work needs to move beyond the efforts of small groups. Community hubs, such as these, should be supported at the system level because relying on local heroes to make this happen shouldn’t be a record-breaking event.

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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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June 25, 2012

Student graduation rates in the TDSB showing improvement across the board

Research staff at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are producing a series of fact sheets to give an early peek at some of their drop-out data, and, as elsewhere, it’s good news: Student graduation rates are up.

Of the more than sixteen thousand students who started grade nine five years ago, 79% had graduated, up 10% from a comparator group seven years earlier. Those doing a “victory lap” held pretty well steady at 7%, so the decrease was in the number of students dropping out, down to 14% of the group in this study from a high of 23% in the earlier cohort.

However, while the groups examined are all showing an increase, not all groups of students are performing as well as each other. These research snapshots show some the differences among student performance within the system.

Board staff were also, for the first time, able to link these students profiles to the student census data.

Further analysis and more reports will be produced over the coming months, looking at issues like special education, race and ethnicity, and sex. This first brush looked at a wide range of variables: academic level, gender, age in grade nine, sexual orientation, racial background, language, and region of birth.

The numbers are more confirming than surprising. Eighty-eight percent of academic stream students graduated on time, compared to 59% of applied-level students. Girls had higher graduation rates than boys (83% vs. 75%).

Straight students had an on-time graduation rate of 82% compared to self-identified LGBTQ2S students of 69%.

Students who spoke English as a first language had a below-average graduation rate. Students who speak Chinese, Hindi, Serbian, and Bengali had the highest on-time graduation rates. Those who speak Spanish or Somali had the lowest rates.

The racial categories showed similar variation, but are less reliable because factors such as poverty or parental level of education were not controlled for. However, the numbers confirm that schools are not graduating Black or Latin American students in the same proportion as other racial groups.

The third fact sheet shows similar patterns when looking at the students choices around post-secondary education. 2005 and 2006 were the first years that a majority of TDSB students applied to post-secondary education on-time (the researchers measured rates of application from 17-year-olds).

The most interesting findings in this third fact sheet confirm how parental occupation and education levels seem to be major drivers in students going to university. 65% of students with parents in professional occupations confirmed an Ontario university after graduation, while only 46% of those with parents in “skilled clerical” occupations and 38% of those in unskilled occupations. These numbers are almost mirrored when looking at parental levels of education.

English: Missouri S&T Students at Fall'08 conv...

Students at Fall’08 convocation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, while one out of eight (14%) of students from professional families chose not to apply to university, one-third of students from unskilled/clerical families chose not to.The pattern for college applications did not show such stark contrasts.

TDSB staff plan to continue to release these early glimpses into the student and parent census over the course of the next school year.

Next up for release is a report on Special Education and how socio-economic demographics interplay with those identifications. Subsequent reports will look at student engagement; LGBTQ students; Aboriginal students; the Black student diaspora (with York’s Professor Carl James); and at continuing education (52% of the current cohort have taken at least one summer school or night school class).

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.

November 23, 2011

Growing class divide means some children may be denied a generational legacy

Once, as part of a group exercise to identify personal values, I had to answer the question, “For what would you be willing to die?”

“I would rush into the street to save a child!” I said. My colleague nodded his agreement and we talked a little more about how becoming a parent changes your perspective on what should be valued. So, when it came time to report back to the larger group, I described our shared generational commitment to protect those younger.

“Oh!” he interjected, “I didn’t mean I’d die for any child; I was talking about my children.”

My partner’s narrow protection of his genetic progeny shocked me — and reminded me never to ask him to babysit. However, many of us do recognize a wider common good, a place where all children and youth are protected and secured by the village that is us.

Youth are cited as one of the top concerns for residents across our city’s neighbourhoods. United Way Toronto’s environmental scan, Torontonians Speak Out, identified this in 2002, so that it became one of the community funder’s top three priorities (neighbourhoods and newcomers being the other two).

More recently, Trish Hennessy, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), has been doing focus groups with Environics, to understand Torontonians’ voting records and public policy priorities. Among other interesting findings, she has found some deep resonance around issues of legacy. This is among voters who have voted in the current municipal administration, they too are talking about the next generation. As this boomer bulge ages, it is considering what it wants to leave behind and to whom.

The question is what shape that legacy will be, and for whom will we leave it?

Recent comments from Bowling Alone author and professor Robert Putnam cast a dreary light on the future of North America’s children. In the interview cited in Harvard’s Social Capital Blog, Putnam argued that, while Americans are seeing more

integration along religious and racial lines, there is an opposite trend when it comes to class, mainly, he believes, because of the widening gap in incomes. Americans are less likely today to marry outside their class. Children from lower classes are less likely to spend time with their peers or take part in community activities and have less confidence, while the trend for middle-class children is the opposite.

In sum, he explains, children have very different access to life opportunities dependent on who their parents are.

This growing income gap is not news to Hennessy’s colleagues at the CCPA; economists Armine Yalnizyan and Hugh Mackenzie have shown that unless we think about growing levels of inequality, many more will be further left behind on an economic level. The lack of economic opportunities has similar echos around access to education, housing, and other social determinants of health.

Mobility between classes may also be on decline in Canada, although the Conference Board of Canada ranks us 5th out of 11 peer countries.. American mobility is even worse, according an editor at Time magazine and others those who monitor such things.

Yet, youth are still hopeful. For instance, Joseph Rowntree study released this fall in the U.K. showed that youth from low-income families in the U.K. do have aspirations for higher education. Parents, too, want high achievement for their children. In the last Toronto District School Board (TDSB) student/parent census (2008), almost 9⁄10 parents said they want their kids to go to university. Among low–income families, that only fell to 8⁄10.

So, are these our children, too? Will we provide them the opportunities and encouragement they want?

I believe we will. We must.

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October 27, 2011

Pros & cons of collecting demographic data to improve educational equity for students

On Monday, more than sixty school board staff and community members from Ottawa and the GTA area gathered at York University for a roundtable on the topic of student demographic data and educational equity.

Sponsored by the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research, the project hopes to corral the various ways boards are using non-academic data about students to better serve their academic needs. It’s a topic that is difficult to summarize within an afternoon’s work, however Peel region’s Paul Favaro set the stage, highlighting many key challenges.

These questions are complex on multiple levels, however, we cannot be frozen into inaction, Favaro said. The meeting organizers, Professor Carl James, others, and Favaro urged the group to move through these challenges to ensure all students are offered equitable opportunities.

When 40% of the variance in student achievement can be explained by factors external the classroom and school, we need to understand the pathways and mechanisms that are at play here, Favaro said. It is a question of grounded in fundamental principles, he said.

If we agree all students deserve the best educational opportunities regardless of their backgrounds and that large inequalities exist both within and outside the classroom walls, what is the benefit of collecting data which tracks students according to socio-economic class, race, sex, or other such grounds?

Favaro detailed the some of the positive and negative aspects of collecting student demographic data.

Benefits include:

  • Assessing which groups are vulnerable and are underperforming / under-served
  • Programming better targeted
  • Able to monitor and assess improvements / accountability
  • Encourages the fulfillment of each student’s potential
  • Moves closer to providing an educational system that is free of bias
  • Increases achievement in society and among vulnerable groups
Drawbacks however were also noted:
  • May (re-)produce reduced sense of academic competence, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Members of vulnerable groups may feel stigmatized
  • May increase prejudicial attitudes and stereotyping if critical analysis not used
  • May lead teachers to implicitly or subconsciously teach students from some groups below their actual potential
  • Added pressure on members of high-performing groups
  • Contributes to labelling & false homogenizing
  • May be used by those in dominant positions to keep vulnerable minorities down
  • Potential backlash from parents & community members from high achieving groups [preserving their rank]

Another barrier to building a stronger evidence base identified by the attendees is the unwillingness of school administrators, teachers, parents and the general public to explore these uncomfortable issues, because, as one attendee described it, we risked a loss of our “Canadian innocence,” our self-image of being a fair place.

Former B.C. Deputy Minister Charles Ungerleider gave closing remarks, identifying the need for national participation in the creation of these solutions. He is writing a paper for the Canadian Education Association on the topic to which we can look forward by the end of the year.


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June 13, 2011

InsideToronto Article: City deciding fate of local pools

Monarch Park Collegiate

Image via Wikipedia

A small news article in the local paper flagged another round of cuts threaten school pools, yet again.It seems the City’s lease on pools expires this year on December 31, 2011. InsideToronto Article: City deciding fate of local pools. However, it may not be so dire as portrayed.

If the school pools can demonstrate “continued community use,” the funds will flow through the Toronto Lands Corporation.

Monarch Park High School’s pool is one of the few accessible pools in the city. Not only is the equipment available for people who use wheelchairs, the water is kept warmer as well. Monarch Park Community Aquatics is now offering a Recreational Community Swim on Fridays from 6:30 -7:30 pm. Enter through the doors marked #2, which are the first set west of Coxwell. Admission:  $1 per person or $5 per family For more info contact:  monarchparkaquatics@gmail.com

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