Tuesday, March 15, 2011

DSBN Academy: Road of Good Intentions

In January the District School Board of Niagara announced plans that they would introduce a new school called DSBN Academy. The new school is not to deal with overwhelming student enrolment, in fact Niagara suffers from quite the opposite. No, the purpose of the DSBN Academy is one of social promotion.

The school, when it opens, will provide a program for students grades six to eight, and will gradually expand to a full six to twelve school. While only serving seventy-five students upon opening the school will be incredibly costly, and here’s why.

DSBN Academy’s mission is provide a stepping stone for low-income children whose parents do not have a post-secondary education a path into a post-secondary career. Students will be required to submit their parents’ tax returns to ensure that they meet the low-income qualification. In addition, these students are not to be behavioural students, or those with learning disabilities. Niagara is a vast school board. It stretches from Hamilton to the American border, the width from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. The DSBN Academy is intended to be situated in Welland, a central location in the region. A summary of what the DSBN Academy is can be found here.

Its centrality is key because all of the students will be provided free transportation to the school with bussing. This is where part of the problems begin. The cost to bus students to the Academy is estimated to be about $500,000 per year. The program in general is going to be quite expensive, and the cost per pupil is considerably greater than that of regular schools.

After the Board of Trustees approved the plan it was met immediately with strong and vocal opposition. I attended the Board meeting in which it was approved. Many of the trustees earnestly expressed a desire to help poor students succeed and break the cycle of poverty. This is a truly laudable goal, but whether or not DSBN Academy addresses that is a different story altogether. Various figures have come out to oppose it ranging from Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario to Peter Kormos, NDP MPP for the riding the school would sit in. The Left hates the idea of class-based segregation, and find the entire program slightly offensive. It also strikes at the core of public education, that a single school cannot serve an entire community. The Right sees the program as folly. This is a financial sinkhole and very impractical. In addition, a charter school and educational reform would be far more worthwhile.

My first impression is that if DSBN Academy gets off the ground it will be highly successful. Why? Well, if you remove the economic barriers to success, and only take those students who are motivated and willing to work hard are going to do quite well. Especially if you surround them with peers who want the same things, and are similarly motivated. Parents who send their children to this school will already be involved in their education, which is a huge factor in success.

When I first heard about DSBN Academy I thought it sounded like a Charter School within the public system, like Geoffrey Canada’s charter school in Harlem. Charter schools are becoming increasingly popular and successful south of the border, but they have not made a major appearance in Canada. Low-income families have to enter lotteries to win scholarships to enter these schools as they flee the public system.

I worry that the turn to a school like this is a sign that the Board has given up on the existing schools to provide meaningful service to the low-income students. Why can’t a regular high school in Fort Erie, Welland or Lincoln provide the same path to a post-secondary future? The concept behind the DSBN Academy is a good one – providing low-income students a path to university or college – but that should be the mission of every school. I applaud the initiative of the Board of Trustees, but I find this path to be misguided. The millions that will be spent on this Academy could be far better invested in programs, such as breakfast programs, and investment in school resources. Let’s make the schools we have work instead of opening new ones.

No comments: