Trustees vote to continue with DSBN Academy

Last night the trustees at the District School Board of Niagara voted to stick with their decision to open a segregated school for poor and disadvantaged children and youth in September 2011. To be located in the old Empire School site in Welland, Ontario, it will start with Grade 6, eventually offering all grades from 6 to 12. For those not familiar with the Niagara Region, Welland is a very long way for young people to have to commute by bus from St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Fort Erie in the south and Grimsby in the north. Here is what I wrote about this topic recently.

Of course, the politically correct thing was recently done when the DSBN tried to reframe admission criteria by saying it was not only for poor children but those who would be the first generation to attend post-secondary. The problem with that, of course, is that there are lots of very successful middle class and rich parents who did not graduate with a college or university diploma — such as those in any number of businesses and industries that depend on entrepreneurship abilities and other skills that were learned on the job. Yet, my bet is that students from those kinds of families will not be accepted.

In any event, if the DSBN Academy is modelled on the U.S. Kipp college prep approach, it might be successful. However, there is still a significant risk that graduates of the DSBN Academy could be stigmatized and labelled for life due to where they graduated — which will always be on their transcripts and readily available to post-secondary admission departments and employers. Unless, of course, parents move their children to a regular high school for Grade 12.

Yes, kids know when other kids are poor but they don’t broadcast that fact on their high school transcripts. Look, while teaching university, I simultaneously spent a decade operating a private practice assessing and working with children, youth and adults with severe learning disabilities. Believe me, it doesn’t take a lot to label a person. I always recommended to parents that they help their children the best they can without having their child identified as special needs, because that label follows them throughout life. If, however, children need extra help, then it goes with out saying of course, that parents should do whatever they have to ensure they get it.

Regarding the power of labels, two of my clients were attending university. I met with them regularly to help them learn and use compensation strategies and technical aids to research, prepare and write their papers, as well as how to study for exams. At that point, there was a special provincial program called “Vocational Rehabilitation,” who paid for my services. So, while I helped them throughout their entire undergraduate degree program, my time with them gradually decreased from once a week to once every two months — which of course is the ideal outcome.

However, in third year, just before they would apply for fourth year and a master’s program (when my services would stop altogether), one student registered with the special needs office for accommodations, such as writing exams in a quiet space. The other asked me if they should do the same. I suggested to him, as I had to the other student, that he not do so as he was managing well with the strategies and accommodations he had learned.  Now, key here is to realize that both were equally intelligent and capable young men who just happened to have dyslexia.

Well, you guessed it. The student who had himself labelled as special needs did not get accepted into fourth year, which meant his dream of completing a graduate program ended. And, the tragic thing is that even if he applied to another university, the special needs information would have followed him. The reason he wasn’t accepted was, of course, because the professors didn’t think he could handle the workload. Fortunately, there was a happy ending as he became a teacher and the last I heard, he was doing an excellent job — probably because he taught his students the same compensation strategies he used himself — which are simply common sense techniques that can help anyone.

The other student, not only was accepted into his graduate program (different disciplines), he was “invited” to apply. And, that is the power of labels and what I worry about for graduates of the DSBN Academy!  Of coure, I hope I am wrong.

Then, there is the issue that the DSBN is a school board who gives every appearance of not being accountable to Niagara public school taxpayers. Yes, they worked with stakeholder groups in the lead-up to the decision to open the DSBN Academy, but those groups are other education and related professionals and parents who agree with their ideas. And, the fact that trustee candidates in the October 2010 municipal election hadn’t a clue about this pending decision (because it was referred to as Project Connect, not the DSBN Academy), says something too. 

In my opinion, then, it is long past time for the Ontario government to step in and check out what is going on in the DSBN. If Dalton McGuinty won’t do it, then that is something Tim Hudak’s PCs should be proposing.

8 thoughts on “Trustees vote to continue with DSBN Academy

  1. Oh dear, what are they really trying to achieve segregating poor and disadvantaged kids by putting them into a school with that label?

    Is this going to give them a level playing field when they graduate?

    I think it’s outrageous. It will remain to be seen, the first graduates will be the Guinea Pigs.

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  2. I agree Liz J. It seems to me that the trustees and senior administrators at the DSBN simply won’t listen to public input unless it agrees with their position. If anything, they should have postponed the school for another year until full public consultation was done.

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  3. Once upon a time it was all about integrating visible minorities and the underprivileged into the school system with the promised result that it would raise the scholastic achievements of these children. It was accompanied by a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” mentality even if it meant busing these kids half way around the province. Now that that little experiment in social engineering has proven to be a failure-like so many other “progressive ideas-it seems the solution is to herd these pupils into glorified reform schools.

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  4. Powell — No doubt about it, this is about social engineering. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but yes, what happened to the “inclusive” programs? Didn’t they also include poor kids? In fact, there was a letter to the editor in a local newspaper and the mother asked how it was fair that all these special programs are going to be available only in one school. Fair point. If the programs are so good, why not include them in every school?

    Me thinks, this topic is not finished yet. Last night a single motion was defeated. That is not to say another motion will be in the weeks ahead, now that the local critics are finally aware of what is going on.

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  5. What timely, informed news analysis, Sandy. Since you identified the smoldering issue, I have been tracking the news coverage and trying to assess how the Niagara Board got into this controversy. It looks like another case of “hatching” a special program initiative in-house and then springing it on the unsuspecting public.

    I think the KIPP school model has some merit, but fear that the Niagara Board has bungled it up, setting a bad precedent here in Canada. I would caution you about Pathways to Education. It’s a fantastic program, but it is community-based and therefore hard to replicate and probably not scalable. It has succeeded because the local boards have not really been involved, other than as bit players.

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  6. Thanks Paul. Pathways wouldn’t work in the DSBN unless officials implemented it in each and every city and town. Niagara is just too spread out. Having the DSBN Academy in Welland, for instance, is just silly. The old Empire School, where the academy will be located, is in the old industrialized area of that city that has no relationship to the types of U.S. communities where KIPP has been implemented. I would be the first to want to give kids a step up but I don’t see how this will happen in Welland, which is already the most depressed area of the entire Region, as most, if not all, industries have closed over the years, as have most of the stores in the downtown strip. I used to live in Welland in the 1960’s and it was a booming city then. Now, about the only businesses that are left are service industries.

    Anyway, time will tell.

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  7. Where is the guarantee that these students will indeed be the first to graduate from a post secondary school???
    After graduating will there be a high paying job waiting for them to pay off the huge student loan?????
    How will that highly educated person now pay off a loan on minimum wage.??????
    Perhaps more concentration on wise money management, accounting, leadership, business management and learning a trade or skill would better suite our region as their are many medium size, family owned businesses that exist in Niagara. Not to mention all the family farms that the baby boomers were handed down or other types of family owned businesses that were important to those fortunate enough to have family businesses to be employed with directly out of high school.
    I believe all students should have an equal opportunity and it should be the very whealthy paying for a private education if they feel that is to their advantage and not the middle class paying for a school for the people who are labelled as poverty.

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  8. Cathy V — I agree. I am also going to write about some letters to the editor in the Niagara Advance and St. Catharines Standard, particularly one by Linda Crouch who ran as a DSBN trustee but lost in the last October municipal election. I had communicated with her during that time and everyone in my family voted for her. She would have been an excellent but, the irony is, had she been elected, she would not now be able to tell us what she has because of McGuinty regulations about what trustees can or cannot say.

    What she is write this week, for instance, is that last year the DSBN had to draw from reserve funds to balance their budget and at that time said they would only be able to do for a couple of years. Now, they are going to spend all this money on a unique school they can’t afford. Completely irresponsible and mismanagement to say the least.

    There is also a letter in today’s Standard that the municipal candidates and incumbents in Welland knew absolutely nothing about the Academy during the election. No doubt about it. The DSBN has a lot of answering to do.

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