A toast to neighbourhood schools

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September 9, 2008 by realrenewal

by Jim Stanford

I recently logged onto Google Earth for the first time, to take a bird’s eye view of my own neighbourhood (Parkdale, a mixed-income district in central Toronto).  And I learned a surprising lesson.  The most visible feature in our community, from that sky-high vantage-point, is none other than our humble public school.

And when you think about it, this is quite fitting.  Because the importance of that building to the life of our neighbourhood goes way beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Physically, the school is the largest and most recognizable building in our immediate ’hood.  In fact, it was only thanks to the school that I could find our house (otherwise indistinguishable from all those other roofs) on Google in the first place.  I started at the school, and then mentally “walked home” – following the same route my two daughters take five times a week.  The school thus provides an organizing point for the whole community.

Indeed, whether school is in session or not, the schoolyard is a welcome, green magnet amidst our urbanized milieu.  Naturally, its safety-proofed playground and sports fields are well-used by students.  But dozens of non-students come each evening, too, from teenage skateboarders and trick cyclists to adult joggers and dog walkers.  (The dog walkers aren’t actually supposed to be there – that’s another story!)

Indoors, too, the school is a resource for the whole community.  Swimming lessons in the pool; music lessons in classrooms; community meetings in the auditorium.  For children bombarded with advertising from birth, the school provides a rare non-commercial space: something that exists for a purpose other than selling something, and hence where you’ll never have to bark at your kids, “No, we can’t buy that!”

Swarms of stay-at-home parents bring their pre-schoolers to the parenting centre.  There they enjoy some unstructured run-around time, referrals to outside services, and welcome adult conversation.  There’s an on-site child care facility, too, facilitating the one-stop care of kids (including after-school care) from 3 to 13.  Thanks to the hot lunch program, kids get what for many (too often including mine!) is their most nutritious meal of the day.

But the importance of our school to its immediate community goes far beyond these important facilities and services.  Its provision of high-quality schooling to students from the many varied backgrounds of Parkdale makes a priceless contribution to social cohesion.  This democratic, egalitarian approach to education enhances our ability to get along as neighbours, in addition to boosting the life chances of our children.

Together, our two girls have now had a dozen different home-room teachers at this school.  All were good; several were extraordinary.  All students have their challenges, and this school has tried to integrate and support those with special needs.  This may pull down standardized test scores a tad, but provides a more important lesson to our kids in the importance of inclusion.  And the school works seriously to create a safe, bully-free environment.  That’s something we could emulate elsewhere in society … like our workplaces.

Speaking of which, our public school is itself an important, high-quality employer.  Indeed, it’s perhaps the largest workplace in our immediate neighbourhood.  Several dozen professionals (teachers, administrators, specialized support workers, and maintenance staff) ply their trade.  They earn decent (not extravagant) incomes, protected by their unions, and they pump their valuable earnings right back into the regional economy.

I wouldn’t for a moment pretend that everything is perfect.  Some silly problems take way too long to get fixed.  Governance can always be improved.  But on the whole, I feel blessed that our family can receive the services of this dedicated, high-performance public institution.  And I am happy to pay taxes to support it.

Every neigbourhood needs and deserves a high-quality public school like ours.  Collectively, we should recommit to providing the resources, the attention, and the care that public schools need, to stay at the top of their game.  By the same token, anything that undermines the economic and social basis of public education poses, in my view, a nefarious threat to the Canadian fabric.

This includes, obviously, subsidies and other incentives for private schooling (which is at least as dangerous, in my view, as private health care).  But almost as bad are market-like “reforms” that have been proposed for the public system – like promoting more competition between schools.  These measures have been proven to exacerbate inequality between schools and hence neighbourhoods, thus accelerating the ghettoization that already poses a huge threat to our cities.  In short, we should worry less about how to get our own particular kids into the best particular schools – and more about providing top-notch public schools for every single kid, in every single neighbourhood.

So this week, as kids and their parents march back to classes, say a little thank-you to your friendly neighbourhood school.  As our local school is a prized asset in our neighbourhood, so is public education in general a gift to our whole society.  The fact that children from all classes and backgrounds attend the same building, know each other, and learn from the same teachers, is nothing short of a miracle.

And it all starts right there in the neighbourhood.

Jim Stanford is a Toronto economist.
A version of this commentary was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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