Community seeks to organize against inequality
by Noaman G. Ali
“It’s shocking! I am shocked!” said a parent attending a community meeting in Thorncliffe Park held last Sunday, December 22.
She was responding to a presentation by Sadia Khan, a teacher and community organizer, about educational inequality between public schools in Thorncliffe Park and those in neighbouring Leaside—schools that are about ten minutes apart by car.
Over 30 parents, students and other community members attended the meeting, organized by Thorncliffe Reach-Out Teach-In (TRT), about the causes of educational inequality and building community power through solidarity in order to address the issues that face the community.
Khan showed how nearly 75 percent of students who had taken the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) at Marc Garneau College Institute, the high school that serves Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, passed in 2012. In contrast, over 95 percent of students at Leaside High School passed. Marc Garneau has an overall Fraser Institute ranking of 5.4, whereas Leaside has a ranking of 8.3.
The inequalities are also present at elementary and middle levels. In Thorncliffe’s schools, 57 percent of students passed the standardized tests in 2012, whereas in Leaside’s schools, 95 percent of students passed.
In fact, Khan explained, these inequalities are even present at the junior and senior kindergarten levels—shocking all the parents and even students in the room.
When asked why these inequalities existed, there were two main answers from the room.
“Thorncliffe Park Public School is the largest primary school in North America,” suggested one parent. Marc Garneau is also notoriously overcrowded, so much so that there are not enough textbooks for students to take home. “Teachers spend more time keeping track of students than actually teaching them,” another parent noted.
The other answer was that most people were recent immigrants and so could not communicate in English. “I have to help many people fill out forms,” a student noted. “So I can see how many parents may not be able to understand the messages they get from school.”
While these may well be factors, Sadia Khan explained that the kinds of scores and test results seen in Thorncliffe Park were also found in other neighbourhoods with fewer recent immigrants, like Jane & Finch or Parkdale. All three are low-income communities.
“The main problem,” Khan explained, “is the income gap between Thorncliffe Park and Leaside.”
The average income of families whose children attend Marc Garneau is $31,000, which puts them below the poverty line. In contrast, the average income of families whose students attend Leaside is $170,000.
Low-income families tend to spend most of their money on rent, and the stress present in the household prevents them from engaging with their children. Governments tend to favour richer, whiter communities like Leaside, whose rich parents can also raise funds for school activities on their own.
Despite the promise of equal opportunity, the very real class inequality between wealthy and poor neighbourhoods means that working-class and racialized communities lose out. “The capitalist economic system is what creates inequality in the first place,” Khan explained.
“I have lived in Thorncliffe for ten years and both my children have gone through the schools here. Why are our youth falling behind?” asked Rubena Naeem, an organizer with TRT and coordinator of the Thorncliffe Mothers’ Group.
“As parents—and especially as mothers—we need to get involved to have our voices heard. Yes, we’re busy and often have little time—we mothers are the ones who get our children ready for school and prepare for their return and extracurricular Islamic schooling, we prepare everything as our husbands come home from work.
“We address our children’s issues, but only individually. We have to look out for everyone’s children, so let’s organize to collectively address these issues.” It’s for that reason that Thorncliffe Reach-Out Teach-In organized the meeting.
One TRT initiative seeking to build community capacity is a weekly free tutoring program for students, with the condition that they give back to the program in the form of providing free tutoring for younger students. TRT is also organizing other groups and initiatives to raise political consciousness about why the community and its occupants are being held back.
Sabeeha Ishaque, a Grade 12 student at Marc Garneau and a TRT member, highlighted a student group she had launched at the high school named ‘Youth 4 Truth’, which meets weekly and invites guests to discuss political and social issues.
TRT organizer Arsalan Samdani summed up the stakes, “Private services are too expensive, while government programs either neglect our community or are occasional and unsustainable. We have to build community power, independent of the government and funding agencies.”