Pensées sur la rentrée

Clouds over Saint Henri - Summer 2013
Clouds over Saint Henri – Summer 2013

It’s official, Montréal’s exceptionally large student population is now safely locked away in their classrooms and lecture halls, allowing old people to once again return to our city’s streets, public spaces and transit systems, confident in their knowledge they won’t be subjected to anything too shocking from the young folk for many dreary months.

Fall announced itself over the long weekend in an odd manner: Saturday was humid with low, thick clouds, breaking in the afternoon. Sunday was a reminder of some of the really beautiful (yet unfortunately few) sunny summer days where all manner of colour explode all around you. And Monday, well, by Monday the party was over – fall was back with a vengeance. It was an odd day of alternating mugginess and fresh river breezes, clouds rolling all day with small breaks to show the azure skies behind. By dinner time the rains that held off all day soaked the city through and through, and then the clouds broke again, before returning with thunderclaps and lightning dancing across the night sky. And today the smell of poplar leaves lingering in my nostrils… autumn; the dynamic flourish of life before death.

What a town to live in. Today I got giddy thinking about walking through the forest on the mountain five or six weeks from now on a sunny day when the leaves look like an artist’s impression of fire in stained glass. Orange, yellow, red and green on a blue background.

What a pallet!

In any event, no more chromatic deviations, on to the task at hand.

Our schools kinda suck.

Granted in absolute terms we’re doing just fine, but on a national and provincial level our public schools have a lot of problems we’re not addressing. The drop-out rate in the public French sector is embarrassingly high. Some schools sit half empty while other burst at the seams, and in some cases these schools are within a block of each another. Street gang infiltration is a surprising and serious problem inasmuch as the casual disrespect shown towards inner-city students by the local police force (who all too often assume any group of three or more non-white adolescents constitutes a street gang). And if all that wasn’t enough some of these schools are stuffed full of asbestos or have had water infiltration for so many years toxic mould is sprouting in the air ducts.

The people deserve better. The kids deserve better. We shouldn’t have to pay a fortune to send our kids to private schools, the public sector must provide. After all, it’s one of the things our taxes pay for, and we pay a lot in taxes. There’s absolutely no legitimate reason our schools and public schooling system should fail the way it does, causing social problems, furthering the class rift, costing what it does without producing the results we want. The denigration of the public education system further impoverishes the middle class and drives suburban flight. There’s no pride in having to pay for your child’s education – it’s a failure of the state we live in.

I’m astounded we don’t demand better.

Perhaps we inadvertently lost sight of things, but a cursory examination of the local public education system offers some glaring examples of how and why local public schooling seems to be on the decline.

The fundamental problem is the near total lack of efficiency. Multiple boards, multiple unions, unnecessary duplication, inefficient space usage, poor maintenance, no standardization, – the list goes on and on.

Segregation, in my opinion, is the source of what ails and may ultimately severely damage our local public education system. The PQ’s decision to eliminate religious school boards in the late 1990s was a move in the right direction and a move towards greater efficiency and a positive reinforcement of state secularism. Montréal should take this a step further and unite all the school boards operating on-island into a single city-administered department of education. Ending segregation may save us a lot of money.

Imagine an end to linguistic segregation in Montréal public schools – I can’t think of a better way to integrate immigrants into our society than by demonstrating our own ability to integrate the minorités-majoritaires. Think about it. We send the kids of the people we want to integrate into our society to the overcrowded and underfunded French public sector, which in this city is losing Franco-Québécois enrolment to the private sector, while Anglophone schools with French Immersion and International Baccalaureate programs sit half empty. It’s insane; if there was just one board student distribution would be more even – no empty schools, no over-crowding. Integrating the school boards cut could busing budgets since students would simply go to the school nearest their home, rather than being shipped halfway across the city. Everything would be streamlined – from text book selection to resource allocation to cafeteria services, providing the potential for major savings as new areas of efficiency are exploited.

One island, one school department, but ultimately two languages.

This is the fundamental compromise – this new arrangement would require the integration of English and French school boards, their teachers and respective staff. It would mean all Montreal children would be taught the same regardless of what language they speak at home, and thus, the language of instruction and internal communication for this new island-wide education department must be officially French.

But not absolutely French. A good compromise cuts both ways.

If the English boards were to accept a French education department for the whole island, the French boards would have to accept a degree of bilingualism in public education for all Montreal children. I’d argue 30% of class time ought to be in English and 70% in French from kindergarten all the way to grade 11. This mix will, in my opinion, would thoroughly guarantee the survival of the French language and culture in Montréal while simultaneously providing a foundation of English-language instruction necessary for life in Canada. I’m pretty sure the end result would be a greater appreciation of both languages by all Montrealers, regardless of mother tongue or cultural background.

There are many reasons we should head in this direction – we’ll save money, get more bang for our collective buck, better ensure social cohesion and create the winning conditions for a local public education renaissance. We have all the social and economic reasons to pursue this, and yet, we’re incredibly cynical.

I’ve been told this could/would/should never happen.

That disappoints me.

I think Montrealers ought to have a greater say in how our children are educated, and ending segregation in our public schools, regardless of whatever the current provincial government may say, is the right way forward for our city.

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