It may be an exercise in frustration, but Sally Sinclair is only too happy to be a part of it. Crouching with parents and youngsters in the so-called parenting room at the inner-city Dundas Public School in Toronto, Sinclair is doing her best to entice her 18-month-old son,
Martin, to play with a small toy.
Martin is not interested. Defiantly, he thrusts a picture book towards his mother, and holds it there until she takes a seat beside him and begins to flip through.
Minutes later, sitting under a bulletin board that sports information on everything from reading and writing to nutrition and housing, Sinclair describes how the parenting centre has helped put her family on the road to academic success. “I have learned a lot about parenting, and the children have about learning,” says Sinclair, who also has two sons in kindergarten. For principal Kemp Rickett, whose school also offers breakfast and lunch programs, the centre, where parents get advice and guidance on a range of literacy and parenting issues, is one part of an ambitious bid to limit the effects of difficult times. “We fill in the blanks,” says Rickett. “And as more families struggle to make ends meet, there is no question there are more blanks to fill in than ever before.”
As Finance Minister Paul Martin trumpeted new measures to help Canada’s poorest families in last week’s federal budget, educators like Rickett continue to wage their own quiet battle to help disadvantaged students. For many, that has meant transforming their schools into onestop shopping centres, where families stretched for time and resources can get help from community and government agencies. Like Rickett, some have launched an all-out drive to lure children—and their parents—into the schoolhouse, long before it is time to enrol. Others are crafting programs designed to convince high-risk kids that hard work pays off. “Children spend a lot of their waking hours at school,” says Jim Robson, principal of Kincaid Central School, in Kincaid, Sask., a farming
Schools battle to help highrisk kids
community 200 km southwest of Regina. “It makes sense for us to be the quarterback.” And in a downsizing, high-pressure world, it is not only children from the poorest homes who are showing up at school ill-prepared to learn. Middle-income parents took home four per cent less money in 1993 than a decade earlier, according to a study released last year by the Canadian Council on Social Development. And their shrinking paycheques were mirrored by what the council calls “a poverty of family time”: on average, they spent eight per cent more time at work than 10 years earlier. ‘The kids in those families are eating, and not coming to school in rags,” says Bauni Mackay, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “But as parents face underemployment, or longer hours at the jobs they have kept, the stress on families is building.”
Failing to address the fallout head-on can have long-term academic consequences.
Alan Pence, a professor at the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria, tracked the educational success of children from 60 families in the city over a 10-year period beginning in 1983. His conclusion: children from low-income homes, who were in poor-quality child care and whose parents had minimal education, tended to fall behind in language measures as early as age 3. What’s more, those same children continued to trail their peers at age 13. Another study, released last year by the Council on Social Development, concluded that twice as many poor as non-poor teens drop out before completing high school.
Facing a tough battle, teachers increasingly see their task as a team effort. In the toughest neighborhoods, where poverty goes hand in hand with youth crime and gang violence, law enforcement agencies often play a major role. Last fall, with an annual budget of $123,000 shared by the local, provincial and federal governments, four inner-city Winnipeg schools launched a threeyear pilot program called Choices for Youth. The program is aimed at 67 children in grades 6 to 8 who have been identified as “at
risk,” but who, in the words of probation officer Wendy Huggan, “have not yet become committed to the gang lifestyle.” Along with Const. Darrall Kotchon, Huggan holds classes on conflict resolution, anger management, and the destructive aspects of life on the street. And volunteers, many of them university students, work one-on-one to improve the children’s academic skills. “A lot of my friends were getting into gangs—doing break and enters, assaults, beating up old people for beer money,” says Barbara Wesley, a Grade 8 student at Hugh John MacDonald School. “Now, I have someone to talk to about the violence, and I’m hooking up with other kids who don’t want to be a part of it.”
Other schools are working hard to connect with groups and agencies responsible for the welfare of children, encouraging them to make the schoolhouse a central dispensary. I^st year, Saskatchewan launched Integrated School-Linked Services, a unique program jointly funded by the ministries of education, justice, social services and health. It helps principals like Robson develop teams of social workers, parole officers, child protection workers and others who meet with families to solve immediate and chronic problems that get in the way of learning.
As governments cut back education budgets, such partnerships can be a matter of survival. Ryerson Community School in Toronto has developed ties with 59 agencies and businesses, from a local women’s shelter to the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, fast-tracking help to families who need it. “In the past, especially the ’80s, teachers tried to be all things to all students,” says principal Chris Bolton. “There are just not the resources for that now.” Meanwhile, the school has developed its own programs, including “night gym,” in which kids can spend supervised evenings off the streets. “It means nobody can call you chicken for not hanging out looking for trouble,” says Grade 7 student Abdi Okash. “Now, you can just tell them you’ve got better things to do.”
Key to many programs is getting entire families onside. In Winnipeg’s Choices for Youth, that means holding separate evening classes where parents can talk with volunteer counsellors about broader issues of home life and stress reduction. The Toronto board’s 34 parenting centres work with more than 7,000 families in inner-city neighborhoods. Their twin goals are to equip pre-
schoolers with literacy and other skills, and to engender positive attitudes to education in parents who have often had a personal history of failure at school. “We’re not into this warm, fuzzy self-esteem business,” says program co-ordinator Mary Gordon. “We’re into hard-core self-esteem, where parents can say, ‘My child knows this because I worked hard to get him learning.’ ”
At least some politicians appear to be recognizing the wisdom of helping all kids get an early start to learning. Although cuts of $400 million to Ontario’s education budget have led some boards to eliminate junior kindergarten, other governments are placing a high priority on such programs. After off-loading half the cost of kindergarten to boards and families in 1994, Alberta resumed close to full funding last September. “It’s a big relief,” says Mackay, “because the very kids who needed it the most came from the homes that were least able to afford it.” In Quebec, meanwhile, Education Minister Pauline Marois has announced plans to invest up to $100 million in full-time kindergarten for five-yearolds and part-time junior kindergarten for 1 students from low-in3 come families.
While educators are 1 encouraged by such moves, they are clearly skeptical about depending on politicians to make a significant difference—Martin’s recent announcement notwithstanding. Ryerson’s Bolton notes that the Ontario government has begun to reduce permanent funding for breakfast and after-school programs, replacing it with seed money dispensed on an ad hoc basis.
And although Mackay is relieved by Alberta’s decision on kindergarten funding, she notes that the majority of other new spending has been earmarked for a $50-million drive to computerize classrooms. “We won’t say no to that offer,” says Mackay. “But when a child is hungry, or coming in from a family in severe financial crisis, hooking him up to the Internet isn’t going to mean a heck of a lot to him.” Still, at a time when one in five children continues to live in poverty, many teachers say they have little choice but to carry on with the job at hand. “It’s not a perfect world—for families or schools,” says Saskatchewan’s Robson. “But our job is to take kids how we get them, and work with whoever will help us to give every student a fair shot at success.”
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