Niagara falls out over school aimed at poor

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
Canada - District board's plan is derided as 'misguided adventure' that 'stigmatises kids' and undermines mainstream system

In the UK, the debate about selection is usually to do with grammar schools creaming off the most academically gifted pupils at the age of 11.

But in Canada, a row has erupted in the normally tranquil vineyards of Ontario's wine district over proposals for a different kind of selection - one that would choose students from the poorest homes or whose parents did not go on to post-secondary education.

Plagued by a high-school drop-out rate of more than 10 per cent, and with high numbers of parents who did not study at university, the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) decided to establish a school to cater for the needs of pupils from poorer homes.

"We're hoping to catch the kids who would not have thought of post-secondary because their lives for some reason did not allow them to focus on academics," said Dale Robinson, vice-chair of the DSBN.

Based on the Preuss School in San Diego, California, the new academy will provide students with personal tutors, mentors from business and higher education, and breakfast and lunch programmes.

The board's original proposal - that the school enrol the poorest students - caused a torrent of criticism. Leona Dombrowsky, education minister, and Tim Hudak, leader of the provincial opposition, denounced the plan for "stigmatising" the poor and the teachers' union withdrew its support for the idea.

When the DSBN announced that it had broadened the criteria for admission from family income to parents' lack of education, Ms Dombrowsky praised the board for "listening" to the public.

Neither Mr Hudak nor the local member of the provincial parliament, Peter Kormos, who compared the plan to "apartheid," agreed.

Kevin Gosine, a sociologist at the region's Brock University, calls the academy "a misguided adventure" that "stigmatises kids". "It takes the onus off mainstream schools to accommodate both diversity and children from diverse economic backgrounds," he said.

Professor Gosine criticised the economics and the sociology behind the plan. In its first year, bussing students to the school will cost $500,000 (#163;314,000); by the time it houses 500 13 to 18-year-olds, transport will cost $1.5 million. "This is money that could be better spent on providing the promised supports in the existing schools," he said.

More importantly, Professor Gosine argued that segregating students who do not think of themselves as post-secondary material undermines the very premise of the school. Mixing with more ambitious students will inspire them, he said.

But Mr Robinson rejected the claim that the school's students will be stigmatised. "We are providing a choice for parents and students. We're not hauling kids out of their home schools. The children will have to fill out an application saying why they want to go to the academy," he said.

"I hope they will be known for going to a school that gives them a good education that gets them into post-secondary school."

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