TDSB report calls for Oakwood Collegiate to be Africentric

Here we go again. Part 2 of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) political correctness gone to extremes.  The first part was the setting up of an Africentric elementary school program at Sheppard Public School two years ago. And, no matter how many claims we hear about how successful that school is with its 161 students and 55 on a waiting list, two wrongs don’t make a right. In other words, I don’t see this type of alternative school as an example of parent choice — because its basic premise is segregation.

So, why has this topic come up again? Well, according to Moira MacDonald at the Toronto Sun, apparently the previous Board asked for a feasibility study and the report relating to that study was allegedly released this past weekend before the trustees could read it and respond to it.  Whatever the communications problems, it’s the rationale behind such a segregated school that bothers me — to overcome the reason 40% of Toronto’s black students are dropping out of high school.

Talk about a non sequitur or illogical statement. What has a 40% drop out rate got to do with an Africentric curriculum?  It cannot be the lack of such a curriculum that is the problem, otherwise there would be a 100% drop out rate. Instead, we know that 60% of Toronto’s black teens don’t drop out. Yet, rather than look at retention rates and why the larger number don’t drop out, the TDSB is looking for magical solutions that don’t offend anyone.

Well, that is the same kind of politically correct, non-progressive thinking, that is going on in the District School Board of Niagara, with their DSBN Academy. Launching in September 2011 in a school in Welland, it is ostensibly for economically disadvantaged — poor — children and youth whose parents did not receive a post-secondary education. Interesting that the DSBN is linking poverty to anyone without a post-secondary piece of paper when millions of Canadians have done very well for themselves through work experience and apprenticeships.

So, might I suggest that the colour of a student’s skin, economic disadvantage, or their parents lack of a post-secondary education are not the problems. Rather, what is the problem, and no amount of specialized curriculum will fix it,  is the attitude of the students and their families towards education and the future. Do they, for example, look to the future with anticipation? Do the parents praise their children and tell them that they can be anything they want to be with perseverance and self-discipline? Or, do they blame “the school system” and everyone else for their problems?

Are school boards perfect? Obviously not. But, for an example of the type of forward-thinking I am getting at, listen to the wise words of a current Oakwood Grade 11 student, Tyler Stewart, who is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying : “Why can’t you just offer Africentric courses in history and literature instead of changing the whole feel of the school.


Implications for growth in public “alternative” schools

Every year we hear about one or more “alternative or independent” publicly funded schools opening up somewhere in Canada. The latest, of course, is in my neck of the woods in Niagara. To be called the DSBN Academy, it is scheduled to open in September 2011 and will be geared towards college and university preparation for economically disadvantaged children and youth — students who would be the first in their extended families for such an opportunity.

Now, we can agree or disagree about the DSBN Academy or other similar schools, such as the Africentric school in Toronto, but that ignores ‘why” they are cropping up in huge numbers and the implications for the future of “traditional” public education.  Is it because parents simply want choice and advocate for alternative schools as a way to get it? Is it because the phenomenon goes even deeper than that and reflects a public dissatisfaction with the current “one-size-fits-all” provincial public school systems we already have? Or is it a combination of those reasons?

So, what exactly are alternative or independent schools? Well, according to Wikipedia, they are schools that: “have a special curriculum offering a more flexible program of study than a traditional school,” as well as a wide range of philosophies and teaching methods…

Need proof that the notion of alternative schools is growing faster than policy makers seem to realize? Well, in less than five minutes, a Google search turned up information that the Toronto public board already had 41 alternative schools by 2010, 267,000 results related to other Ontario alternative schools, 270,000 results related to the Province of B.C., 177,000 to Alberta , 64,800 to Saskatchewan, 76,000 to Manitoba, 164,000 to Quebec,  and 134,000 related to New Brunswick.

Now, I am all for choice because it gives parents and their children some options and competition among schools is good for everyone (in spite of what the teachers’ unions believe) as far as I am concerned. My son had severe learning disabilities, so schools that specialized in special education techniques and methods were necessary for him to be able to graduate with a high school diploma.  

However, as I suggested earlier in this post, does having too many alternative schools pose a very real danger to traditional schools, particularly high schools, that do their best to accommodate all students? Specifically, will traditional schools eventually become obsolete and close because so many students leave to go elsewhere?

Something to think about.

Update: While some visitors will wonder what is meant by “traditional” education versus “progressive” education, what most think of traditional are the academic subjects, the quantitative/experimental scientific method, desks in rows, standardized tests, and the teacher lecturing to the students, as well as the kind of rigor associated with them. Here is a good comparison. It’s rather long but it is thorough nonetheless.  The crux of the matter is, of course, that parents might actually start calling for alternative schools that are based on such traditional methods.

Is the Bayfield “Virtual High School” simply another alternative?

Yes, there really are private virtual high schools on the Internet now. And, to prove it I recently approached freelance writer Cathy Cove for permission to republish one of her Goderich Signal Star about Virtual High School (Ontario).

It is an amazing story about how innovative thinking can change the way things are done, particularly for students who may have special needs, such as attention deficit disorder, are recovering from a health crisis (replacing homeschooling, for example), simply don’t like sitting in a regular classroom, or are international students who want Ontario preparation courses. I mean, why not?

This school is private but there is no reason that a public board cannot do the same — with qualified teachers who are not only members of the Ontario College of Teachers but members of a teachers’ union as well.  And so, here is the column about another type of alternative school, with my thanks.

By Cathy Cove
Freelance to the Goderich Signal Star

At a time when we’ve been deluged with media reports on the looming crisis in public education as a result of a predicted decline in student enrolments it was a breath of fresh air to be introduced to the Bayfield Ontario-based Virtual High School (VHS).

The school’s administration hub occupies a modest 1,000 square foot space at the north end of Bayfield.

Officially begun in 1995, VHS Principal Steve Baker speaks proudly of how the whole concept of virtual learning was actually pioneered right here in Huron County at GDCI under the Huron County Board of Education. As a matter of fact the GDCI Grade 11 biology course taught that same year was the first online courses to be taught in Canada.

The philosophy Principal Baker sees as the backbone of the VHS is that it’s a school that fits the student rather than forcing the student to fit the school. “Not all kids do well in a traditional classroom setting. The Virtual High School allows for a student to receive a fluid and flexible education at his/her own pace,” said Baker.“We don’t do any formal advertising.  The students find us through the internet,” he explained.

Enrolment at the time of this interview stands at 3500 students from as far away as Thailand, with students from Ontario making up the bulk of the VHS student body. Students can take one course, upgrade a mark, pick up a course to meet a post-secondary requirement or earn their high-school diploma fully online.Students may start a course at any time during the year and progress at their own pace.

Cost to the student is per course and could range anywhere from $400 to $600 depending on the course.

VHS meets the educational needs of students with special needs, homeschooled students, students who have been bullied, and students who require more tailored and flexible learning. The VHS is accessible to students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, opening up lines of communication between teachers and students that further enhance the on-line learning experience.

Students are evaluated on an on-going basis and are able to get test results immediately as well as feedback from the teacher.Final exams are closed book proctored tests usually written on a day and place chosen by the student who also is responsible for arranging for a proctor to observe the student during the test period.

Certified teachers at VHS are free to develop their own programs and are expected to be available to students around the clock. They must be multi-faceted and anticipate the needs of the student in a very student -centric way. Teachers are paid per student and are judged on the basis of the student results. “We have the ability to let teachers go who don’t fit our requirements,” said Mr. Baker.

Responding to the criticism that virtual learning students suffer from lack of real-time social interaction, VHS teacher Vance McPherson doesn’t see it. As a teacher who has worked in a traditional classroom setting, McPherson finds the nature of teacher/student relationships much broader and deeper through virtual learning. “All students are equal at VHS. It’s very comfortable and a much more relaxed relationship with students who wouldn’t normally get noticed in a regular class setting,” he added.

Virtual learning requires a much different skill set and self-discipline from the students. “Students are empowered because virtual learning encourages them to be their own advocates of their learning,” teacher McPherson said. Learning at VHS is not isolated at all. Teachers and students have many different avenues for self-expression and interaction through online discussions and focus-group activities.

“The Virtual High School demonstrates as do other exceptional schools that all students can learn to a high standard,” says Malkin Dare, President of the Society of Quality Education.

Looking to the future Principal Baker shared that the school will be setting up its permanent administration centre on Main St. in Bayfield. Baker is also looking to expand virtual learning to elementary level programs.

Having choices in education through schools like the Virtual High School means that choice is no longer the luxury afforded to urban centres. In Canada, schools like VHS are opening up minds and possibilities to those thousands of students who feel that online learning meets their needs best.

And to think that it was pioneered right here in Huron County serves as a credit to those who saw its potential and acted on it.

Endnote: GDCI stands for Goderich District Collegiate Institute.