Montreal’s segregated schools; a problem hiding in plain sight.

Dejected Parents – Credit to John Kenney at The Gazette

Another year and another round of school closings – what a stable future we’re leaving our children…

There exists in Montréal a damning, apparently hidden problem concerning our public education system – it’s name is segregation and it is a multi-headed hydra of social pathologies.

Just to remind you, it’s 2012. We’re now twelve years into the 21st century. The Titanic sunk a hundred years ago. The Québec government eliminated publicly-funded confessional school boards in 1998, fourteen years ago. Unfortunately, rather than defining school boards along purely geographic lines, the PQ government of the day instead decided to maintain linguistic segregation in public schooling. So we achieved secular education for the public while further entrenching an unnecessary division within our society. Linguistic and class seperations continue to persist in Montreal public schools, and it is leading to over-crowding, high drop-out rates, poor performance, school closings and the gradual erosion of a key component in maintaining stable urban neighbourhoods. Not the victory I was hoping for.

There are at least five public school boards serving the communities of Montreal Island, three French and two English. They are divided by language and geography. Unfortunately, for this and other reasons, the urban Francophone board (Commission Scolaire de Montréal) is over-populated and has some of the highest drop-out rates. The urban Anglophone board is depopulating rapidly as a result of gentrification and the proliferation of private schools in the urban core, and has a similarly high drop-out rate. The three remaining boards are more suburban and have comparatively lower drop out rates than their urban counterparts and are thus more stable though new schools need to be built to ease over-crowding in some sectors. All of these problems are inter-related and could be fixed simply by uniting all boards into a single bilingual public education board for the whole island. It would allow more neighbourhood schools to remain open while stream-lining procedures, materials, infrastructure development, maintenance and specialty educations resources. A bigger common revenue pot with fewer operational redundancies in other words, and best of all we’d finally do away with the last vestiges of Victorian-era public education policy. Why on Earth would we ever wish to educate children in two separate languages and not both is profoundly stupid.

I think on the whole there’s been a general move away from public urban education institutions by the rich and middle class in favour of private, in some cases religious, alternatives, and thus the urban public schools tend to uniquely serve the poor and working classes. The linguistic divisions in turn lead to school closures and increased bussing costs. A recent example; just days ago the EMSB announced three elementary schools would close and amalgamate with other schools. Another example; Westmount High School, a school which serves the communities of St-Henri, Pointe-St-Charles, Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Shaughnessy Village and Little Burgundy. For a school located in Westmount, it has surprisingly few Westmount residents in attendance. This is because most of the children who live in Westmount attend private schools. Are there no schools closer to the communities they serve? And what about James Lyng High School, consistently (publicly) rated as one of the poorest, most violent and lowest-scoring public schools in Montreal. Has anyone ever wondered whether it’s location under the Turcot Interchange and near-total lack of a green-space might be having an effect on the students? Can you imagine how hard it must be to concentrate there? If there was a single, secular, bilingual public education option, more students would live within walking distance of their schools, classroom sizes could be reduced and facilities could be redesigned strategically. Moreover, we could create stronger links between children living int he same neighbourhood, inasmuch as we could develop stronger ties to the parents and community on the whole. Some education experts believe the best way to educate at the early level is to do so close to home with as much parental involvement as possible. In the urban context this would further mean children from diverse backgrounds would be educated together, regardless of mother-tongue, parental-income or ethnicity. A unified board could present itself as the legitimate pedagogical representative of the citizens and would further have the resources necessary to persuade middle and upper-class citizens to enroll their children in a fundamentally progressive and egalitarian schooling system. A unified board would be far better suited to petition the provincial and federal governments for additional funding, not to mention serve to unify diverse teachers union, allowing for more effective collective bargaining and a larger pension fund.

It’s time we got honest with ourselves – segregated education is no longer working and it lies at the heart of a public education crisis in our city. School closings rip communities apart and are traumatic for the children involved. If we could get beyond our shortsightedness and see what the future will require of our children, then we know, fundamentally, that the only way forward is through a massive re-investment in innovative public education. Linguistic segregation is perpetuating an under-educated urban working class and we should no longer tolerate it.

One thought on “Montreal’s segregated schools; a problem hiding in plain sight.”

  1. Alas, unless they ban English education outright (which is what some nationalists would love to do), it’ll never happen. Imagine Anglo parents having to attend school board meetings to discuss their kids’ problems — in French? Or –GASP — Francophone parents forced to listen to school board meetings in English? Quel horreur!

    As odious as the concept of religiously segregated school boards might have been in theory, in practice, my kids were lucky to be part of a (pre-1998) small (5 schools), local, efficient, bilingual Catholic “dissident” board which had above average test results, involved parents, high graduation and low drop out rates — despite being in a working class area (Greenfield Park).

    In their efforts to homogenize Quebec by creating large, inefficient school boards (imagine driving two hours — at night — to attend a simple school board meeting, as some non-Montreal Anglo parents now have to do), the passive-agressive governments have only created more resentment and divisiveness. And lower standards of education, all of which of course breed even more ignorance.

    Mind you, some political agendas thrive on ignorance.

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