Getting Smarter About Public Education in Montréal

Once again, Montréal parents are caught fighting each other to keep their children’s respective schools open. This time, the parents of St. John Bosco and St. Gabriel schools, located in the working class neighbourhoods of Ville Emard and Pte. St. Charles respectively, are trying to convince the English Montréal School Board each should be saved at the other’s potential closure. How sick.

Parents should not ever be forced to fight each other for access to schooling near their homes, and unfortunately, you see this sort of thing happen frequently in the first rung suburbs of Montréal – there are and have been cases in Ville Emard, St-Leonard, Cote-des-Neiges etc over the years. Under no circumstances do I personally feel this is right or justifiable, the school board should have more sense than to do this to hard-working people who need small community schools for their children. It’s unnecessarily traumatic, can disrupt family and neighbourhood life and cohesion, and in no way serves the interests of the People it is supposed to serve. The positive public effect of small public schools intimately tied to the surrounding neighbourhood is quite simply a necessity for modern urban living, and the benefit of small class sizes is particularly desirable in situations where the majority of parents work full time in potentially unstable work environments. Children in working class neighbourhoods need strong schools integrated into the local community – ideally with teachers and staff who live in the same neighbourhood so that a fuller sense of community attachment can be established, and the apparent transition of authority from inside the home to inside the school is maintained. This is difficult to do when the children have to go to another neighbourhood entirely, and potentially never see the teachers or classmates outside of school. Moreover, by forcing these two schools to merge, it doubtless means class sizes will grow. This is far from ideal. And more often than not residents of these communities find themselves without the resources to fight the school board and save their schools. The EMSB ought to be ashamed of itself.

This is not news – Montréal parents have been fighting each other and the government (physically, figuratively, rhetorically) for more than forty years, stretching all the way back to the St-Leonard Riots of 1969-70. You’d think we would have learned something since then.

The problem is supposed to be declining enrolment and funding for the EMSB, but I’m very suspicious. The EMSB has been caught up in hot water pretty much since it was created, it is hardly a pillar of stability in the Anglo-Québecois community, not like the old PSBGM. What I fail to comprehend is why the EMSB would ever consider closing a school, which is very much a nail in the coffin of a community – and it flies in the face of most modern education theory, which stresses small class sizes as being ideal. Seriously, what are they thinking?

I don’t think we’re being very smart w/r/t to public education here in Montréal, here’s why:

For one, whereas Montréal once benefitted from public education facilities and programs that could easily compete with private schools, today incompetence, corruption and the appearance of instability have led many parents to pursue private alternatives to the weakened public system, which has led to a proliferation of private schools. This in turn has had a deleterious effect on the public system and has further led to many school closings. As such, urban neighbourhoods which have undergone substantial gentrification in the past decades are now without schools, libraries or churches (not that I’m religious in any way, but churches do make for excellent community and cultural centres) given that many have been turned into condos.

For two, we still have a linguistic divide in education, as though we were purposely underselling our real level of bilingualism and multi-culturalism. So why do we still have multiple independent linguistic boards serving a single region – it’s inefficient. If all boards were united into a single operation we’d be in a better position to keep schools open (as overflow from the French sector could be placed in what was once an ‘English’ school), and thus could mitigate the need to build new schools and pay for expensive bussing in the urban core. We could also stabilize class sizes. And all of this would still be secondary to the fact that we would finally be in position to educate bilingually, a necessity for this city. If the City of Montréal were to undertake creating a single, bi-lingual, multi-cultural school board (run as a city department), it would not only allow us to guarantee full bilingualism of generations of children, it would also provide the necessary means and operational efficiency to once again make public education the preferred option for Montréal residents. I would encourage a 75/25 linguistic instruction split for all students regardless of mother tongue, with the majority of classroom instruction talking place in French to counter the dominance of English in North American media. Ultimately, we need to fill our schools with teachers who are comfortable switching languages and can speak both with full fluency. This should be what we want for our children, who will certainly live in a world where both are fundamentally useful. Why even attempt anything less?

Finally, third point, our city needs to run private schools out of business, but this won’t happen unless we have the business sense to plan for long-term development in a city-run school board.

For me, it boils down to this. A child can’t choose the circumstances they’re born in to, and yet the school they go to will be decided by factors well beyond the child’s grasp. If current trends continue poor kids will end up in underfunded public schools while rich kids and the remaining children of the middle class will end up in various private schools, operating beyond the regulatory reach of the government. As far as I’m concerned, all elements of society, rich or poor, would benefit from future generations educated equitably, and private schools should thus be minimized and rendered obsolete by heavily investing in a renewed public system.

Education is basic human right, and I would expect the leaders of my city would do everything they could to ensure our city offered the very finest in public education. But such is not the case, and we close schools to later be recycled into condominiums, leaving neighbourhoods without the societal anchors necessary to build healthy communities and healthier families. By refusing to acknowledge some of the realities of our city, we hold ourselves back, and we’re not doing our kids any favours either.

So, let’s smarten up and try something different. It is the very definition of insanity to expect a different result after repeating an action, and it further leaves people in a rut that may seem impossible to get out of. Plus, we’re Canadian, so everyone’s too embarrassed to propose anything too radically hors-du-commun.

It’s costing us the money we can’t generally see. We could do much better.