Monday, August 29, 2016

If Money Was just a Minor Object

My husband and I have had very different education upbringings. I went to Canadian public schools for elementary (JK-8 at Birch Cliff Heights P.S.) and secondary (9-OAC at Birchmount Park C.I.) in what was then the Scarborough Board of Education; for university, I was a commuter student for my undergraduate and professional degrees (B.A. and B.Ed from York University) and was a virtual student for my Masters of Education degree (University of Alberta). My husband went to a private American Catholic school from preK-8, and a private Catholic all-boys high school. He traveled away from home to two different universities for his undergraduate degree, and left the country to come to the University of Toronto to pursue his Masters and PhD.

While we were in the United States, my husband reunited with a couple of his old high school friends and one of them suggested they meet again to visit their high school together. My daughter and I came along to see the actual locations of some of Daddy's legendary school day stories.

The campus was impressive. If I understand correctly, the state does not provide any money to this school. Students pay fees to attend and the school has many generous benefactors.

This glorious, gleaming hall with stained glass windows is the school cafeteria.

My husband turned to me and said "This wasn't here when I went to school." The photos above and below are from the newly built athletic centre. They have an indoor track, golf training centre, and they incorporated the old gymnasium in the new facility.

The photo above and the two below are from the library. My daughter whispered to me, "It feels like I'm in Hogwarts." They are actually going to build a new library and transform this spot into another performance space. (They already have auditoriums.) The wives in attendance - me, a teacher-librarian and the wife of my husband's friend, who is a public librarian - had to peek at the shelves and their content. They had new books as well as classics.

Inside, there are multiple working fireplaces. Many of the classrooms have little plaques beside the doors to acknowledge the financial contribution of someone. The outside grounds are quite posh. We admired the statues and carvings throughout the campus.

We were fortunate enough to have one of the staff members give us a guided tour of the school, so we were able to see much more than we would have otherwise. He was keen to tell us about the school's academic success and drawing power - for instance, a specialized program for cyber-security was admired by the NSA and used as a standard for developing curriculum. Several high school students from the program defeated other university-level competitors in a contest. The languages they offer for study include French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, (and Japanese). About 950 students attend.

If you had a large pot of money to spend on a school, what would you buy? Usually our first instinct is to purchase new technology or new learning materials (like library books). Recent news stories suggest that maintaining the facilities are badly needed, with the TDSB facing a $3.4 billion backlog and 1/3 of schools in just one board needing help. I don't think they're racing to erect statues, but there is something to be said for the optics of a beautiful school. I can see how parents with money are tempted to enroll their sons (or daughters - at girls-only private high schools). The overt and implied messages of the campus - that this is a prestigious, safe, academically solid establishment where students succeed - are communicated through the architecture, signage, layout, and expensive-looking "extra touches". Can public schools in this area compete with education institutions like this?

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