At risk schools
More accurate measure of hurdles students face ignores where they live and if they are immigrants
Mar 17, 2009 Toronto Star LOUISE BROWN
The map of poverty across Toronto schools no longer counts apartments and immigrants.
In a new way of measuring the socio-economic hurdles faced at different schools, the Toronto District School Board now takes a deeper look at family income and parent education than ever before, but ignores the type of housing students live in and whether they are immigrants.
Experts say living in an apartment does not mean a student is necessarily at risk of struggling at school, nor does the fact they are new to Canada or that they switched schools in the past year.
The changes have redrawn the map of educational risk across the city with some schools, such as Scarborough’s Woburn Junior Public School – whose rating has fallen from the most needy of all 475 grade schools in 2007 to 122nd under the new scale – now eligible for less money for students at risk.
Others, such as Dorset Park Public School – up to 101 from 223 in 2007 – are eligible for more funding.
“Will some schools be upset? Yes, but only until they realize these factors really paint a more accurate picture of which communities need more help,” said Scarborough trustee Scott Harrison, who represents both Woburn and Dorset Park schools.
The board gives extra money to schools at the high end of the needs scale – the Learning Opportunities Index – to allow smaller classes and more help for students.
But you can’t gauge need by apartment blocks, warned Peter Gooch, the board’s director of strategy, policy and planning.
“We now know a sea of apartment buildings can include high-end condos, while a single-family dwelling may house a number of families, so we’ve dropped housing from our calculations altogether,” he said.
Moreover, immigrants from some regions such as South Asia and East Asia often do better at school than many born in Canada, he noted, so being an immigrant cannot be seen as a roadblock in itself.
“Some immigrants speak English and some can’t. Some are poor and some are not. Some are educated and some aren’t. It’s too broad a factor to predict how a child will do,” says economist Enid Slack, of the University of Toronto, who helped redesign the yardstick the board uses to measure students at risk.
“And the board also has stopped counting students who have switched schools in the past year,” she said, “because it proved to tell us very little about how students perform.”
The Ontario government gave school boards $413 million this year in Learning Opportunities Grants, of which Toronto’s public schools got about $123 million.
Thorncliffe Park Elementary School, tucked in a burst of highrises 10 times more crowded than the average Toronto neighbourhood and housing families from Pakistan, India and the world, is now ranked 175th most needy, down from 14th place in 2007, when apartments and immigrants were part of the equation.
“Thorncliffe Park still ranks as a school with high need, but because of its stable, two-parent families with university degrees and low rate of social assistance, it has fallen down the list relative to other schools,” says Gooch.
Harrison said Woburn Junior Public School fell in ranking when the immigrant factor was scrapped, “partly because the majority of parents have high levels of education even though they may be immigrants, and many have low income,” he said.
“They can be lawyers and doctors who aren’t accredited here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean their children face particular burdens,” he said.
“The new index better reflects the social and economic world students live in.”
Based on neighbourhood data culled from the Canadian Census and Canada Revenue Agency, the board has sharpened how it tracks students’ family background to include:
The percentage of families who live below Statistics Canada’s “low income measure,” which is half the median income of all Canadians.
The percentage of families who earn at least some income from social assistance.
The percentage of families whose parents do not have a high school diploma.
The percentage of families whose parents have at least one university degree.