Cooking up a surge
If you wanted to write a recipe for a lethal spike in
youth violence, it might look something like this:
- Slash funding for after-school programs, leaving
kids in high-risk neighbourhoods with no place to go and nothing to do
in the evenings, on weekends and in the summer.
- Skimp on English-as-a-second-language classes,
raising the frustration level and failure rate among kids struggling to
adjust to a new culture.
- Lay off school youth counsellors, depriving
troubled kids of a ready source of help.
- Impose a zero tolerance policy in the province's
schools, mandating teachers to expel kids they can't discipline.
- And throw in cutbacks to municipal recreation
programs and social services.
"What shocks me," says Cathy Dandy of the Toronto
Parent Network, "is that people are shocked that we're having problems
in this city."
Her organization has just released its eighth annual report on the state
of the city's schools. It provides more insight into this summer's
outbreak of shootings than much of what passes for informed debate.
It shows, for instance, that 36 per cent of Toronto's
schools were not open to community activities last year. Their gyms were
off-limits, their playing fields were barred and their classrooms were
locked after hours. Among schools that did make their facilities
available, 80 per cent charged user fees. "This is a particular problem
in low-income neighbourhoods where access to free programs is
essential," the parents' group said.
It shows that the proportion of schools in Toronto
with an English-as-a-second-language program has dropped from 80 per
cent to 57 per cent in the past five years. That means tens of thousands
of kids aren't getting the help they need to fit in at school. So they
seek other forms of validation and belonging. "Without ESL, who becomes
their family?" Dandy asked.
It shows an increasing polarization in Toronto's
schools, as parents raise money to cover the shortfall in public
funding. One school in an affluent neighbourhood raised $85,000 last
year. But the majority (68 per cent) raised less than $10,000. "This
enormous variation means that some schools can supplement the purchase
of basic resources while also providing extras and some schools cannot."
It shows that only a handful of Toronto schools still
have full-time music, phys. ed., performing arts and technology
teachers. Often, these are the teachers who can reach a hostile,
"All of the kids in the school system, from Grade 4
and up, have been through a resource-starved period," Dandy said. "I
don't want to be inflammatory but actions do have consequences."
The parents' network gives Education Minister Gerard
Kennedy credit for reinvesting in public education, cutting class sizes
in the early grades, providing compensation to schools that open their
doors to community groups and listening to its members.
The problem, Dandy says, is that after two years in
power, the Liberals still haven't fixed the education funding formula,
as Dr. Mordecai Rozanski recommended in 2002. He urged the province to
provide local school boards with enough money to cover the cost of
teachers' salaries and benefits.
The ministry's failure to do this means boards have to
raid other envelopes — English-as-a-second-language funding; building
maintenance; phys. ed., music and arts and technology courses; guidance
and youth counselling; after-hours use of schools — to meet their
The Toronto District School Board, for example,
receives 9 per cent less from the province than it needs to pay its
15,890 teachers. Until this gap is closed, Dandy says, trying to
strengthen the rest of the system "will be like pouring money into a
The 1,500 parents in the network understand and
applaud the Liberals' desire to reduce class sizes in the early grades.
But they fear that older students — the ones who bore the brunt of the
education cutbacks in the '90s — are being overlooked. Over half of
Toronto's Grade 4 to 8 classes (54 per cent) have 26 to 30 students and
11 per cent have more than 30.
The group acknowledges that it will take time to
reverse the damage done by the previous Conservative government. But it
warns that kids will keep falling off the ladder until the weak rungs
Fortunately, most won't turn to guns, gangs and crime.
But it's a gamble. And sometimes, as this summer has
proved, a safe, civilized city stops beating the odds.
2 September 2005