Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Responding to the Challenge

Given the high-tension, ever-changing complex of interpersonal psycho-sexual dynamics in high schools, what role can teachers and administrators play in steering them in a positive direction? How is that PCVS has managed to evolve a culture in which the problematic dynamics described in the previous two posts are minimized?

At some point, a group of staff members made a commitment to start work on creating a safe space for everyone, including those expressing same-sex desire or questioning their gender identities. It couldn’t have been easy. A group effort was required, and fortitude to stay the course. But with the progressive effects of two generations of feminism to work with, these staff must have had hope that they could succeed.

Today, key PCVS teachers continue to make it their business to promote acceptance of diversity in sexuality, encourage an open expression of identity, and prevent the kinds of personal problems that lead students to bullying. And a generation of children of progressively-minded parents has gotten on board.

But what about other schools?

Imagine you’re a new principal at a KPR high school, advanced to the position after only a few years in the classroom. You’re an effective manager, but not an experienced psychologist. The culture of your school isn’t particularly progressive. You get reports of girls being cyber-bullied, confirmed by absenteeism records. You hear stories of male students getting beat up after school. You suspect sexuality is involved, but what do you do, beset with moral and managerial expectations from all sides?

KPR is promoting an anti-bullying campaign – but that doesn’t help you deal with the roots of the problems. Unless it’s a sex education class, you ask yourself, is it even okay for teachers and principals to be talking about sexuality with students – even students of the same gender?

If you have any staff involved in same-sex relationships, they’re hiding it well. It has long been acceptable for female teachers to remain unmarried, and to spend their lives in the company of other women – but unmarried men will often be suspected of homosexuality, and distrusted. Are you supposed to go prying into their personal lives? What if they take it the wrong way?

You know that most parents are frightened of discussing heterosexuality with their kids, let alone homosexuality. And they’re frightened of what their kids might be doing or even just talking about doing at school. Some families belong to religious groups which follow very strict doctrines regarding sexuality, and prohibit homosexuality entirely.

Some students decide to form a “Gay-Straight Alliance.” Great, you think – the students can deal with it themselves – you’re off the hook! Until you get calls from parents who’ve heard there’s a “gay club” at school. You explain to them that GSA clubs have been formed at many high schools in Ontario, and the McGuinty government has decreed that no school, including Catholic schools, has the right to prohibit such clubs from being formed. But it’s hard to rule by decree in a democracy, and the Catholics are refusing to back down, blatantly contradicting public policy and the charter of rights, as you can see for yourself in this article. The upset parents threaten to move their kids to the separate system.

Eventually you realize that the GSA depends on the precarious initiative of a few brave students on both sides, mainly females. Why? As discussed in the previous post, the stakes are lower for girls when it comes to supporting same-sex love than they are for guys, and there are some circumstances which produce girls who are mature thinkers with secure psychologies who won’t be fazed by the treacherous territory they enter with GSAs. When the alliance between a group of heterosexual girls, their lesbian counterparts, and their gay male friends ends with graduation, can you be sure that the younger generations will take up the torch?

Then you think about PCVS. You know its reputation, but since you barely have time to think about anything but your own school, you figure the progressive culture they’re reputed to have is just because of the Arts program. You need more information, so you look up some recent posts on PCVS Cornerstone in hopes of gaining some insight.

After reading the posts, you ask yourself an important question: how can you expect heterosexual guys to get involved with a club with the word “gay” in the name?

Administrators across the province, instead of debating whether “Gay-Straight Alliances” should be allowed, should be asking how it is that we’ve come to rely on a euphemism referring to the flamboyant style of some homosexual men to refer to same-sex love of all types.

Isn’t continuing to use the term “gay” as a catch-all for homosexual and bisexual males and females misleading and simplistic? Would girls be as keen to join up if the clubs were called “Dyke-Straight Alliances?” How is using slang terms like “gay” and “straight” in a formal context any more appropriate than if we were to have a “Brainers Club” for enrichment programming, “Shrink Sessions” for students needing counselling, or put a sign with the words “Jock Department” up on the Phys. Ed. teacher’s door? Why is it inconceivable that we could have a club with the word “sex” or “sexuality” in the name at the high school level?

McGuinty’s Liberal caucus may be able to get their anti-bullying legislation passed easily. But how easy is it going to be to use these laws to deal with any of the core issues addressed in these recent posts? Practically impossible.

On the other hand, what could Queen’s Park accomplish by refusing to let KPR’s administrators shut down PCVS, the greatest asset they have in the battle against bigotry and bullying?


And what would they lose by failing to act? Nothing more than Central Ontario’s leading light in the campaign against bullying.

There needs to be a basic culture change in high schools, and it needs to start at the top. And it can’t be always women who are doing the work. In fact, the people who most need to step up are heterosexual men.

The people with the most to lose socially by supporting same-sex love are young heterosexual men. From their point of view, they open themselves to the same kinds of abuse that homosexual males receive just by being associated with them in any way. They will risk significant loss of social status, and what would they stand to gain in return? Virtually nothing.

Nothing – except a school environment that is less judgmental, less splintered, and less competitive. Nothing except a place in which signficant numbers of students aren’t spending all their energy pretending to be someone other than themselves. Nothing except a prototype for a society that recognizes that we all have more in common than not. Nothing except more friends, and fewer cliques. Nothing except reduced levels of fear and anxiety for everyone. Nothing except a generation of males who aren’t afraid to confront the wide potential spectrum of their own sexual desire.

Maybe it’s not such a bad gamble after all. But who’s going to be the first to take it?

Should it not be the Director of Education himself?

Does the current Director of Education for KPR have the fortitude to step up, speak up, and reverse the decision to close PCVS? Does he realize that he has the opportunity as a heterosexual male to set the tone for everyone else by acknowledging PCVS as his board’s greatest ally in the campaign to eliminate bullying and open the way to individual and community success?

PCVS isn’t just a building, an institution, a history, or a launching pad for post-secondary education or a job. And it’s more than just a haven for young people who have been bullied elsewhere. It’s an evolving micro-society working toward creating the kind of macro-society to which our greatest humanist aspirations, our charter of rights, and our deepest psychological needs are leading us.

PCVS is a living work-in-progress of the kind of society that might be achieved with a concerted effort to transform natural adolescent competitiveness and insecurity into an embrace of diversity, laying the foundation of our collective response to the challenges posed by a future in which difference is no longer the exception to the rule, but the rule itself.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Romance, Competition and Sexuality among Teenage Females

In the previous post, we caught an imaginary glimpse of what the high school psycho-social world might look like from the perspectives of some teenage males.

Now we’ll switch our carnival masks and explore the “mating game” and same-sex desire from the female perspective.

There are two important distinctions to consider in this respect. One: females are typically raised to regard themselves as objects of desire. Two: the masculine is in general more highly valued in our society than the feminine.

The competitiveness of young girls seems unbelievably petty from a boy’s point of view. Many girls will bear grudges over offences done them by peers that it would be embarassing for a boy to show any displeasure over. Girls are almost always encouraged to be sensitive, and to display their feelings. Their sentimentality is fed by an endless stream of romantic fantasies typically involving men, even from a young age. Many girls are busy planning their weddings before boys their same age show the slightest awareness that girls even exist.

By the time they’re young adults, most girls are theoretically ready to mate. Guys, by contrast, are ready to have sex, but not really ready to be a mate. In the past, families would marry their daughters off as soon as possible to older men. Unlike boys, girls are mainly really looking for a single, long term mate, who in theory could come along at any time between puberty and menopause. Males are biologically equipped to inseminate hundreds of females, and most would happily attempt to do so if they could. But females only need a single sexual interaction with a single male to keep them busy for two decades with the results. So the competition for high-quality males is fierce. If a girlfriend is a status symbol for a teenage guy, a boyfriend is twice as valuable a symbol to the girl.

But how many females will openly admit to being competitive? Girls are supposed to be one another’s emotional supports, and to stick together against the superior social power of males. The intense competition for males is driven below surface-level co-operation. Young women do each other’s hair. They give each other advice. Yet they’re secretly jealous of the successes of others, become they’re in direct competition with them for the same kinds of males. And they secretly fear the jealousies their friends might bear towards them.

Most girls are trained from a young age to regard themselves as others regard them – to make use of mirrors, to practice their manners and their modes of dress, and to recognize how their choices attract attentions and produce reactions. Girls are also familiar with touching other female bodies. Like their brothers, they spent most of their first year attached to their mothers’ bodies – but those bodies were the same gender as their own. Girls happily hold hands, hug, cuddle, and sleep together right through adolescence without any social censure. Best friends take the place of one another’s virtual future partners as they bestow valentines and sympathy on one another, go on dates, and dance together.

So what happens from a peer-group perspective when it becomes apparent that some girls are finding comfort with other female bodies is turning into stimulation?

Unlike the situation with guys, the very idea of being intimate with bodies of the same gender isn’t shocking. Nor is it strange to feel like the object of desire. Nor is it tremendously problematic to be associated with what might be considered masculine behaviour. These may be some of the reasons why it’s largely teenage girls who have initiated Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools.

But does this mean that lesbianism has “equal rights” with heterosexuality among teenage girls?

Most girls have been raised to expect to become mothers, even if they resist this inclination over long periods of time. There must be something wrong with girls who don’t show this desire, you might assume, if you were a heterosexual teenage girl devoting large amounts of time and energy into making yourself appear to be an attractive potential mate to handsome, intelligent, healthy guys. When “tomboy” behaviour starts turning into “butch,” you might be put off by these girls’ failure to play the game. You realize these butch-girls just aren’t on the team, with their baggy jeans and shirts and bizarre hairstyles.

And what happens when you suspect that you’re the object of some other girl’s desire? The female body you’re most familiar with is that of your mother, your original source of nourishment and your principal rival in life, so you might be put off when you subconsciously make this connection. You’re accustomed to being the object of desire, but do you want to be desired by a woman? If it gets around that you’re hanging out with dykes, you fear any interest you’ve managed to elicit from guys is going to dry up quick. Lesbians may appear to you to have given up on the essence of feminine identity, putting the entire psycho-social edifice into question. And since most men don’t care for lesbians, they’re even lower on the power-scale than heterosexual women, which might seem to imply a demotion by association.

Now imagine you’re a girl who’s really enjoying having a best friend with whom to share proto-love affairs. But inside, you have this feeling that you’re maybe not really all that interested in the standard romantic fantasy, or the standard marriage-and-children scenario. Maybe you’re appalled by the looming straightjacket of “womanhood.” Maybe you have always felt a bit like a boy. Maybe you’ve never been able to succeed at the game of attracting male attention, and don’t expect that to change. Why should you put your self-esteem at the whims of males and their shallow, fickle desires? What if the female body means love, while the male means exploitation? What if male bodies repulse you, while female bodies allure? How will you know until you try?

How do you express these feelings to your friend? What’s she going to think when she realizes that you’re not playing the game of catch-the-boys, but wouldn’t mind catching other girls? If you’re not going out of your way to attract boys, the romantic-fantasy bonds between you and her are broken. You try to find some other girls who feel like you do, but you don’t want to broadcast it to the world. You need people to think you’re just like the other girls so you don’t get treated badly. You get lonely when your friends grow distant. Do you go looking outside your school for other girls to be with?

Where does this leave the heterosexual girl crew? To the degree that they have plenty of love in their lives and aren’t desperate for male sexual attention, they won’t fear their status falling. To the degree that they have confidence in their own attractiveness, they won’t put too much weight on high school relationships, rendering much of the problem moot. And if they’re intelligent and haven’t been trained to regard wife-and-motherhood as the primary measure of success in life, they too will leave the romantic fantasies behind.

Are these not the girls who have had the courage to support “Gay-Straight Alliances?”

But what if you’ve been told that your own value is measured by the quality of man you manage to catch, and you privately fear that your charms aren’t up to the task? What if you can’t get a decent guy? Will you have to “turn lesbian” too? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate admission of failure as a woman? What if those dykes remind you of yourself somehow? How do you feel when you’ve taken every possible step to hide your own masculine aspects, physical and psychological, and now these butch girls put them right out on display in front of you?

Now imagine that those childhood insecurities come back into play. You’re failing your courses. Your mother’s on your case to be more like her. Your boyfriend’s checking out other girls. If you lose him, you don’t know if you’ll be able to get anyone else. You find yourself resenting the very existence of these butch girls, and you jump at the chance to ridicule them. I may be stupid, flat-chested, and clumsy, but at least I’m not a lez, you say to yourself in a desperate but calculated attempt to salvage self-respect. You find yourself taking every opportunity to belittle, sneer at, and taunt the “fat dykes” in front of your friends, even calling them “sluts,” tarring them with promiscuity to boot. The latent competitive tension between you and the other girls seems to ease off when you do. You might be all competing for the same kinds of guys, but you can be united in your derision of “queer” girls.

With countless numbers of male and female students going through scenarios like the ones described in these last few posts every day, year after year, as hormones surge and bodies change, there’s no question that both immediate learning opportunities and long-term psychological development can be dramatically impacted for the worse if social dynamics at school are allowed to deteriorate.

But what can teachers and administrators do to keep this from happening? How do we prevent our school’s web of psycho-sexual relations from disintegrating to the point of tangible abuse, let alone start improving it? 

We’ll take a look at that challenge in the next post.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Sexuality and Competition among Teenage Males

In the previous post, we determined that bullying over sexuality in high school is a serious problem with complex roots, no simple solution, and potentially disastrous consequences. Let’s try to get right inside this phenomenon by imagining what our feelings might be if we were in the positions in which many high school students find themselves.

Imagine you’re a teenage boy attending a KPR high school. You and your crew compete with one another to impress the girls – to see who can crack the girls up laughing, who can be the most outrageous or gutsy, who’s got the best moves on the playing field, or on the dance floor.

This competition doesn’t stop even when you succeed, because the girls themselves are like prizes to compare. Who’s been seen with the cuter, sexier, or more popular girl? You don’t want to get stuck dancing or hanging out with a girl the other guys think is unattractive for whatever reason – too fat, too thin, too geeky, too masculine, too dark, too light, too poor – even if you yourself do find her attractive.

The effect of such a saturation of competitiveness among groups of young men is paradoxically to create an intensified camaraderie. Competition can’t be allowed to get out of hand, or there would be fist fights every day. “Bro’s before ho’s” becomes the principle of some groups, a “gangsta” style slogan emphasizing the importance of maintaining ongoing friendships with other males and not getting distracted by fickle females who may be making you delirious today but who might upset or bore you tomorrow. Besides, your friends can help you look good. Your friends’ coolness can rub off on you. Your friends’ girlfriend’s friends get added to your roster of female aquaintances. The whole “dating game” becomes a group effort.

What happens when there’s a male in the group who is actually attracted more by other guys than by the girls? A gigantic wrench is thrown into the works. The word “queer” captures this effect in its Germanic root’s meaning of “oblique” – that is to say, “athwart,” like the thwarts running from side to side of a canoe.

Suddenly, there’s someone who’s not fully on the team. Worse yet, you yourself might be the object of their desire.

Suddenly, you’re not just a hunter anymore – you’re the prey. Which not only puts the guy who likes you in a position a female is supposed to be (i.e. desiring guys), but also puts you in a female position (the prey rather than the hunter). Since most boys have been socialized for their entire lives to define themselves in contradistinction to girls, your entire identity seems to be under assault.

Even if you’re not the immediate object of another guy’s desire, you can’t help feeling like you could be at any time. Even the threat of being made to feel like sexual prey is enough to scare you. Worse still, what happens when you consider the possibility of sexually-charged interactions with another guy? Now you’re frightening yourself! What if there’s a chance you could actually tap into the kinds of desire inside yourself that are already making you uncomfortable when you encounter them in someone else? Don’t go there, you tell yourself!

You realize that you can’t even be associated with anyone expressing same-sex desire, because even if you’re just friends, all the rest of the guys will suspect that something might be going on. It’s a downward spiral as the rumours of homosexual desire spread through the peer group, making even second-hand association with someone thought to be “gay” problematic.

The two typical reactions are to either entirely osctracize anyone thought to harbour desire for other guys, or to entirely deny the existence of any such desire, and ignore any feelings one might have in reaction to it.

Now imagine that you yourself are a young male who has a feeling that you like the idea of getting close to the bodies of other males as well or better than the idea of getting close to female bodies. Maybe you just don’t feel attraction to females, for whatever biochemical reason. Maybe you often feel a bit like a female yourself, in one way or another. What if you don’t find that females are attracted to you – but that some males are? What if you just really want to be with a body that’s like yours instead of one that’s different? How will you know until you try? What if you don’t have any desire to mate and have children, or are put off by female psychology, but you still want love and sex? Then how do the situations described above appear?

You sense the immediate change in dynamic in your peer group the moment anyone gets a hint of how you’re feeling, so you’re afraid to express your feelings to anyone. Your old friends start to avoid you. It dawns on you that laws discriminate against you, and churches call you a sinner. You realize that you’re a laughing stock in the mainstream media. You’re sure your family will freak when they find out. You feel like you’re living a double life not talking to anyone about it. You’re desperate to find friends with similar feelings, but when you do find a few, you’re afraid to draw attention to yourselves.

Now let’s go back to pretending we’re typical heterosexual guys. How we handle the queer element depends on how desperate we are to impress girls. Why? Because that’s the key factor driving our competition for status in our groups.

If being associated with a suspected “fag” is going to erode our chances with the girls, then we’ll pounce on any opportunity to make fun of him. If someone makes fun of us for acting “gay” in some way, we’ll get him right back with a zinger that makes him out to be even more gay. If we’ve been taught to devalue femininity, we’ll counter any situation in which our “effeminate” qualities are revealed with as much macho posturing as we can muster. And if we sense that our own status is precarious, or if we’re desperately afraid that deep down we might somehow harbour our own homosexual desires whose expression would make us into pariahs with our friends and families, we’ll lash out with anger at anyone who even reminds us of that possibility.

Now combine any of the feelings described above with the general feelings of powerlessness any young person might have due to failing grades, poverty, abusive siblings, high-pressure parents, illness or death in the family, or other reasons. The option to elevate ourselves at the expense of others rears its head. I may be poor, stupid, scrawny, and a crappy hockey player, you might tell yourself, but at least I’m not a fag. Thank god there’s someone lower on the pecking order, you whisper to yourself, trying to ignore the accompanying shame you feel in realizing how lacking in self-confidence you must be to resort to such a strategy. Now you find yourself seizing every opportunity to lord it over some of only “fair game” left in our society – the queers.

In the next post we’ll make an imaginary gender switch, and see how things look from the females’ side.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Mardi Gras and the Roots of Bullying

It’s been a long seven weeks since New Year’s, and yesterday’s Family Day holiday couldn’t come soon enough for most of us. It was Presidents’ Day south of the border, a day to recognize the February birthdays of Washington and Lincoln. Ten years ago Jean Chretien mused publically about declaring a “Prime Minister’s Day” for Canadians. Lord knows we needed a mid-winter holiday. But what about one that already existed in many of the cultures surrounding us? Though Chretien and McGuinty are both Catholic, neither suggested making Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – a holiday. But that doesn’t have to keep the rest of us from whooping it up – and you don’t need to be Catholic to get in on the fun.

In Québec they’re celebrating “Carnaval.” Our word “carnival” comes from Latin words meaning “farewell to flesh” (carne vale), indicating the onset of Lent, the lean time our ancestors went through while waiting for spring and the redemption Easter brings. But how much better “Fat Tuesday” captures the spirit of hedonism and cathartic release associated with the topsy-turvy carnival of Caribbean culture, known to us North Americans mainly through the New Orleans Mardi Gras, recently popularized across the continent by the TV program Treme.

Mardi Gras isn’t just an opportunity to overindulge – it’s a chance to turn the social order and your own identity upside down and inside out. Everyone needs a vacation from themselves, and the society as a whole needs a break from its own rules. Mardi Gras masking and costuming isn’t meant to confront death and the supernatural as Hallowe’en does. It’s supposed to give your ego and superego a day off while releasing the rest of you to play the fool, indulge your libido and your whims, and take social liberties you’d be afraid to take the rest of the year. 

Big Chief say "Do Watcha Wanna"

In a world that seems to want every person compartmentalized and every system rationalized, Mardi Gras isn’t just silly fun – it’s a spiritual oasis. In breaking down social rules, we realize just how arbitrary those rules really are. In changing identities, we recognize how complex our true selves actually are, how what we show the world every day is really little more than the tip of the psychic iceberg, and how it might feel to be someone else. The result should be that our sense of self is expanded, and we see through the illusions of everyday identity construction. And that is an enlightenment of the highest moral quality. If our society really did engage in a full-scale Mardi Gras celebration, our collectively crazy behaviour might send us an important message that we are all more alike than we are different, regardless of class, gender, age, or sexual preference.

The formation of adult identity is a key function of the teenage years, and high schools are the main crucible in which it happens. Developing a sense of ourselves as sexual beings is perhaps the most important part of this, though we rarely address it head-on.

Performers are often one step ahead of the rest of us, as they’ve realized how easy it really is to put masks on and take them off again. Robert Lepage, the world-famous Québecois director, actor and writer, was painfully shy and depressed as a young teen – until he discovered the stage, a place where he could take on any character he liked. At the PCVS holiday gala, talented performer and dedicated student leader Matt Finlan, a slim, white male, confidently took on the role of “Mama” from the musical Chicago, played on screen by Queen Latifah – a big, black female –  for a group dance production number. And he pulled it off, tongue figuratively in cheek. Why wait for Mardi Gras to challenge expectations?

Matt Finlan does Queen Latifah -
photo by Scott Walling

What does all this have to do with bullying and sexuality? As older children turn into young adults, high school becomes the place where they seek people who are like themselves. Athletes find teams, musicians find bands, rebels find rebels to smoke and spray with, and pretty girls find other pretty girls to do their makeup. Very quickly, personal preferences of one’s own become markers of identity within a group that defines itself against other groups. Cliques form with astonishing rapidity, and before you know it football players won’t hang out with pot-smokers, who won’t hang out with nerds, who won’t hang out with student-council types, who won’t hang out with Goth-girls, who won’t hang out with actors . . . and around it goes.

Students in such a divisive social climate learn to put down groups of people who aren’t like them. Throw sexual dynamics into the clashing subcultures and you ratchet up the tension further. Throw same-sex attraction into the cauldron and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster.

The phenomenon of students bullying other students continues to be a problem at all levels in the public school system. It reaches great tragic depths with teen suicides like the ones in Minnesota, Ottawa and Quebec discussed in the previous post – or with the death of TASSS student Aaron Montgomery right here in Peterborough not so long ago. But repeated efforts to intimidate and belittle other students can have powerful, long-lasting negative effects on growing personalities even when they don’t push them to the extremes of despair.

The Rolling Stone article on the Minnesota suicides as posted on the Reader Supported News site is well worth a close study, if you can stomach it. The role of school teachers and administrators in the tragedy is a key one, even though the impetus for the poisoned atmosphere in the schools lay with hard-line church pressure groups and ineffective trustees. One of the aspects of the Minnesota case that relates to our situation in Peterborough is the urban-rural divide on same-sex love.

For untold centuries, homosexually-inclined people have left small towns and rural areas for the city in hopes of finding a community of companions and escaping public censure of themselves and their families. PCVS, the only school in the core of the only city within KPR’s jurisdiction, is currently facing discrimination by decision-makers from outside the city who can still pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, and that therefore “gay-bashing” in high school doesn’t exist, and that therefore an urban school like PCVS with a reputation for accommodating sexual difference doesn’t need to exist either. 

Joan Green, the facilitator appointed by the Ministry of Education to review KPR’s abuse of procedure in the attempt to close PCVS, was a founding Board member of a small but influential organization called Roots of Empathy which aims to stop aggressive behaviour by students before it starts. Have a look at their website, and read more about Ms. Green in the post “Joan Green Comes to Town,” (Saturday January 14). Roots of Empathy is a program which brings a neighbourhood infant and parent into elementary classrooms to teach children “emotional literacy” – how to recognize and process emotional cues, states, and interactions. The program’s founder, Mary Gordon, hoped to find ways to break cycles of emotional and physical abuse and poor parenting in families by direct role modeling and instruction in the classroom, and by all accounts she has developed some successful techniques. You can read Catherine Porter’s article about the program in the Toronto Star if you like. 

We can hope that Gordon’s techniques become popular and that there is a palpable long-term impact reducing aggressive and anti-social behaviour among children and teens. But we might note that the program doesn’t specifically address the problem of bullying over sexuality in high school.

In most cases, childhood bullying is the equivalent of what we adults would call a “power-trip.” All children feel a deficit of power over their own circumstances, even if they’re well cared-for by loving parents and attentive teachers. Many of the petty conflicts, jealousies and dishonesties between students in the classroom and on the playground are simply the result of students trying to establish a sense of power and control in any way they can, and leveraging their few opportunities to the max. It’s always tempting to elevate one’s self-esteem at the expense of others – and usually easier and faster than building it via one’s own accomplishments.

So what happens in adolescence, when suddenly “fag” and “lesbo” are no longer just two more terms in the grab-bag of insults?

The natural competitiveness of children takes a quantum leap at the onset of puberty. Now the stakes aren’t just gold stars, trophies, and cool friends. Now you’re feeling desire to be near and to touch other people’s bodies – and for them to touch yours. This is scary. And challenging. You need to impress them – to appear intriguing, exciting, funny, cute, or high-status in their eyes, so that they won’t reject your advances, and might even succumb to your seduction and make advances on you. In this situation, your peers and your rivals for affection are one and the same.

The dynamics of this are different among groups of girls and groups of boys because of the basic roles of males as “hunters” and females as the objects of their desire. This essential difference has important ramifications for the way same-sex attraction is treated by male and female high school students.

If we want to do something to improve the climate around sexuality in our schools, we had better make an effort to understand it. So let’s take the opportunity this Carnival season to step out of our carefully manicured identities and imagine ourselves in a variety of different subject positions.

In the next post we’ll start by considering male homosexuality from the perspective of a typical heterosexual teenage male.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Could You Be Loved?

It’s Valentine’s Day, our annual celebration of romantic love. Given that our deepest insecurities are typically tied to sex and love, it is more than a little ironic that Saint Valentine is the name of several Christian martyrs who died in the name of the man who taught people to love even their enemies. The name comes from a word meaning “brave” (as in “valiant”). The historical figures themselves have virtually no connection with romantic love whatsoever, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales appears to be the earliest known reference to Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love. Did he make it up, or did he know of traditions the rest of us don’t? 

Just last week it was Bob Marley’s birthday, and countless multitudes of dancers around the world were probably moving at one point or another to the joyful reggae funk-riff of his song “Could You Be Loved.” I’m willing to bet that a significant number of those dancers were or are in love with someone of the same gender as themselves. And I’m willing to bet that most of those same-sex lovers have spent significant time during their teenage years asking that question of themselves.

Teen suicides and bullying over sexual orientation have been all over the news this year, sadly. Over this same time PCVS itself has been under attack by conservative managerial forces who seem to be happy to disperse what is apparently one of North America’s few high schools to have made a successful effort to encourage acceptance of people engaged in same-sex love.

With the suicides of Jamie Hubley and Marjorie Raymond, the bullying issue became the first hot potato on the plate of new Education Minister Laurel Broten. Read about these tragic situations here and here. Both the PCs and Liberals have put forth anti-bullying bills in the legislature. It became apparent to many PCVS supporters early on that if the government of Broten and Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal were to let PCVS be closed, it would become impossible for their anti-bullying legislation to be taken seriously.

This isn’t to say that PCVS has got the problem beat. But they’re way ahead of the pack in the race to catch up with the problem. It’s not unusual for lesbian PCVS students to be obviously “out” – even onstage. Male students can do "drag" dance performances without getting beat up after school, regardless of their sexuality. We need PCVS not only as a haven for those discriminated against at other schools, but as a role model for those other schools. An atmosphere like that at PCVS doesn’t develop all by itself. Staff and students alike have been making a concerted effort for a long time to make sure PCVS students feel safe regardless of whether they’re male or female, and regardless of whether they love males or females (or both).

In a society so obsessed with sentimentalized romantic fantasies as ours is, it’s easy to forget that women have been loving other women and men loving other men throughout recorded history and certainly long before. It might surprise some people to realize that there are lesbian grandmothers out there. And gay grandfathers.

Everyone needs to be loved, and everybody needs to give love. The more you give, the more you get – ten times more, says the famous Cree playwright Tomson Highway in his cabaret-style musical Rose, sequel to the more-famous Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and The Rez Sisters, the latter of which was staged at Peterborough’s Market Hall less than two years ago by a talented local group including Patty Shaughnessy and James Whetung. In Rose, Tomson picks up the story of one of his Rez Sister characters, a lesbian biker. Highway himself, like many in the theatre world, has a same-sex partner.

Last week, a high court in the western US ruled that California’s recent “Proposition 8,” a bit of legislation banning the granting of marriage licences to same-sex couples voted in by popular referendum during the last election, was unconstitutional. Why? Because it took away rights from a distinct group of people on a discriminatory basis. Same-sex couples had previously been granted the right to marry by the state legislature, and once those rights had been granted, it became unconstitutional to remove them. But this doesn’t mean that other states are now obliged to grant those rights. In fact, the conservative forces in the other states will now be digging in their heels even harder to prevent those rights from being granted in the first place, since they obviously can’t be removed again. Read all about it on this LA Times page.

One of the best stories of the week came not from San Francisco but from San Diego, where the Republican mayor, who had formerly been against same-sex marriage, heartily applauded the court ruling. His prior views had suddenly been challenged when his daughter had “come out” to him as a lesbian. The LA Times ran this lovely photo of the mayor, his daughter, and her female partner. The mayor had been forced to recognize the injustice of his former prejudices when he met with neighbours and friends who were in same-sex love relationships.

While adult lesbians and gay men are still battling for the right to marry, their teenage counterparts are still battling for their right to exist. PCVS supporter Marc Bilz recently posted this powerful news story of a year of teen suicide after teen suicide in Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s home turf, most of them due to unrelieved bullying over sexual orientation, real or perceived. Bachmann’s ultra-conservative crew pressured a central Minnesota school board into making it against policy for teachers to talk to students about homosexuality in any way at all that might be construed as implying that it was okay. So when a large, bisexual girl went to talk to a staff member after being called a “fat dyke” first thing every morning for two months, the person to whom she spoke was afraid to respond to anything but the “fat” part.

Premier McGuinty, an Irish-Catholic whose wife has been a teacher in the separate system, has tried to force the province’s Catholic school boards to permit student clubs known as “Gay-Straight Alliances.” The Catholic trustees, sticking to the Vatican line, won’t have any of it. They’ll accept “Respecting Differences” clubs – but those clubs won’t be allowed to do any activism. The problem with the trustees’ position is that they’re trying to run their schools by Catholic rules using public money. But the Catholic school administrators aren’t the only culprits. There are plenty of principals and administrators in the public boards who wish the whole problem would just go away. Just using the word “gay” in the name is enough to turn off the Catholics, but put the word “sex” instead in any club name and the public schools administrators will be nervous too.

Why is homosexuality such a contentious issue at high school? Largely because sexuality itself is.

During their high school years, almost everyone is full of powerfully fluctuating hormones, trying hard to establish their identities as young adults, and dealing with the heavenly heights and desperate depths of the first discoveries of love and sex. Social norms are constantly being negotiated by groups of friends and classmates in conjunction with mass media memes, and everyone’s jockeying for position in the race. High school halls are the most important cauldrons of identity formation and social training anywhere in society. They deserve our greatest efforts in promoting not just the acceptance of sexual diversity, but the essential understanding that we are all more alike than we are different.  

There has been a campaign to assure young people being bullied over their sexuality that “It Gets Better.” But why would we just accept that looking for love from someone of the same gender in high school is bound to be a bad experience? What motivates some students to mercilessly pick on others over choices that don’t appear to affect them in any way? Why are principals and administrators so often walking on eggshells when it comes to dealing with the problems that result?

In the next post, we’ll analyze the dynamics of male and female social groups regarding sexuality. We’ll attempt to figure out why, even in 2012, so many high school students the continent over will show up at school today afraid to show the people they love that they love them, or indeed afraid even to love at all, or indeed even doubting whether they can be loved.

Let’s everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, recall the valour of Saint Valentine, and stand up, courageous, for love in any form that it happens to take.

And remember that Marley’s song (just like the gospels) implies that the answer to the question is “yes.”

Monday, 13 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part eight, at last: Refashioning the Ashburnham Ward school network

Let’s imagine that in December of 2010, instead of striking an Accommodation Review Committee to consider closing one of four Peterborough high schools, KPR Trustees struck an ARC to study the problematic situation on the east side of the Otonabee, where three mid-sized elementary schools only two-thirds full and becoming less full every year can’t possibly send enough students to TASSS to justify its huge size.

Students, parents and staff from each of TASSS, Armour Heights, King George and North Shore are put on the committee. One Peterborough Trustee and the Otonabee-South Monaghan Trustee are also on the ARC, but they don’t have a vote, because ultimately the decision belongs to the Board of Trustees as a whole, and they’ll get their chance to vote later when ARC’s recommendations are presented to the Board. A KPR administrator is also put on the committee in a non-voting role, assigned to contribute any information the ARC might want or need. A city councillor and a businessperson from Ashburnham Ward are also on the committee, and do have a vote.

The group gets an initial briefing and a chance to meet one another in January 2011. They plan to get together once a month for the upcoming year. In addition, there will be four public meetings. The first public meeting, in February 2011, is an information session, giving the public the same facts and options that the ARC will be considering, and giving the members a chance to introduce themselves to the public.

When KPR gives the group its Terms of Reference and Reference Criteria, they outline an 18-month timeline for the process before their recommendations get to a final vote by the Trustees. They include a copy of Planning and Possibilities in the package, but they also provide real demographic facts and projections regarding demand for public schools, instead of the manipulated graphs that document uses. They also present the committee with at least one suggested solution. And they make it clear that the committee has the power to come up with and consider as many alternative solutions as they like.

The administration decides to present two options at the outset:

Option 1)  Close TASSS and sell the property to developers, who will likely demolish part of the complex and contruct another tract of seniors-oriented condos around the remainder, completing the north Ashburnham retirement village. Put some of the money into refurbishing Armour Heights and King George and toward the maintenance costs the under-enroled schools incur in excess of provincial funding levels. Send students living north of Parkhill to Adam Scott, those between Parkhill and Maria to PCVS, and those south of Maria to Kenner. North Shore kids also go to Kenner. Take all moveable assets out of the school and redistribute them among the other high schools in town as needed.

Positives? Keeping all three elementary schools financially viable, as well as boosting enrolment at Kenner.

Negatives? Losing the east side high school, leaving no schools of any kind in the northeast corner of the city, thereby ensuring that it will remain a retirement haven for many years to come.

Option 2) Move the Armour Heights grade 7 and 8 students to TASSS, and consolidate King George and Armour Heights JK-6 students into one of the buildings. North Shore stays as is.

Positives? Intermediate students get access to the TASSS facilities. TASSS becomes somewhat more viable to maintain. There’s one full neighbourhood elementary school instead of two partly empty ones.

Negatives? TASSS still carries a lot of excess space, as we’ve added less than 50 students per grade. If we lose King George, we lose a historic building. And now there’s only one elementary school for the seven kilometer stretch between Trent and Landsdowne, so there’s not much neighbourhood feeling, even if travelling times aren’t much greater than they were before. And North Shore’s dropping enrolment hasn’t been dealt with.

The ARC discusses the ins-and-outs of these options in detail for a few months. Reading through Planning and Possibilities, they pick up the idea that community partnerships are an important part of school futures. Reading the Early Years study, they get even more good ideas. By spring, they come up with some other alternatives, which they present to the school communities at a second public meeting, in May.

Option 3) Split TASSS in half, reducing student capacity to 600. Enter into a partnership with the city of Peterborough to turn the other half into a community center. Separate the buildings, parking lot and property so the raucous teens won’t frighten the toddler playgroups and seniors using the space (and vice versa). Look for partnerships with early childhood education providers to set up pre-school programs in the unused wings of all three elementary schools.

Positives? Each community gets to keep its school, and make even more use of it than before.

Negatives? Partnerships open up a whole new can of worms. What if appropriate deals can’t be struck? How long would the leases be? What happens if there’s friction between the different user-groups? How do we deal with insurance? What do you do if one of the partners pulls out unexpectedly?

Option 4) Split TASSS in half, as above. Add a French Immersion stream to Armour Heights, stemming the exodus of gifted and privileged students across the river. Look for pre-school partnerships for King George and North Shore only.

Positives? Enrolment losses at Armour Heights turn into gains. French Immersion becomes a more viable option for the expanding south-east neighbourhoods. Current FI families don’t have to trek all the way across town to get their kids to school. Enrolment pressure is taken off Edmison Heights. King George’s pre-school partnership becomes a pilot project, a test case with less on the line.

Negatives? The French Immersion program is going to be small to start with, and there will have to be split-grade classes all the way along the line. It’s tough to start a bilingual culture where none has ever existed. And the Immersion graduates from Armour Heights won’t be going to TASSS – they’ll be going to Adam Scott. Moreover, the same doubts about partnerships from option 3 remain, even if in less quantity, and now there are three kinds of changes to be made in the network, further complicating the equation.

The public provides plenty of feedback on these options to the committee at the May meeting and beyond. The ARC continues to meet regularly on their own all summer and devotes all their energy to mapping out plausible alternative futures. In October they hold the third public meeting, this time to present projected scenarios in as great detail as they’re able, to report on discussions KPR staff has had with pre-school providers, the Ministry, and the city, and to discuss the results of the French Immersion interest survey that was conducted after the second meeting. The public provides further feedback, and the committee returns to the table for another few months worth of meetings.

In February 2012 (right about now) they feel they’ve made as much progress as they can. They hold a vote as to which option to pursue. It’s a sealed ballot, but we can guess what some of the votes might be.

North Shore families want to keep TASSS open. They like the remote location of the school, and they’re nervous about their teens going to Kenner, where there’s easy access to commercial areas to distract them. They’re all for a partnership with the city for a community center if it will keep TASSS open. However, they themselves won’t be using the center, and it’s not their municipality that has to get on board to make it work. They’re willing to try a pre-school at North Shore, but they suspect that demand for the service in a rural area isn’t going to be huge, and are hoping that North Shore will soon be getting the Bailieboro students, if South Monaghan closes. If neither comes to fruition, they’re aware that they may have to come up with some other idea in the near future if the township’s population continues to decline and they want their school to remain viable.

King George and Armour Heights families are going to fight just as hard for their own schools, which they strongly associate with their neighbourhoods, even though the buildings are barely half a kilometer apart. Armour Hill is a significant psychological as well as geographic barrier. Young parents from central East City have heard about the review, and made their feelings known as well. It appears that there’s more interest in French Immersion in Ashburnham Ward than KPR had previously thought. The King George school community is willing to try to pursue the pre-school wing as a pilot project with the support of KPR staff, who are willing to give it a chance as a test case for the concept.

The TASSS community is divided as to the benefits of turning half of their property and building over to the city. They’ve become accustomed to the luxury of space and lack of competition for facilities. They would prefer an intermediate wing to a partnership. Other partnership options are suggested along the way, with Trent, Fleming and the Catholic Board. But the city-run community center seems to make the most sense, as there are next-to-no recreational facilities of any kind in the area, a huge seniors population with free time on their hands, a walking path leading straight to the school, and athletic fields that are already used in the summer months by community sports leagues. The greenhouses make a natural fit, and access to them will have to be shared.   

The Ashburnham councillor on the ARC is interested in making something happen in conjunction with city hall, and has addressed the Parks and Recreation Board about the possibilities. It’s his neighbourhood, and he’s already heard support for the community center concept from his constituents of all ages. The local businessperson, keen to promote development in the area, is also positive on the idea.

The vote is called. A recommendation is made. The recommendation is presented at a fourth public meeting, in March of 2012. Members of the public again give their feedback. The ARC meets again to revisit and fine-tune their recommendation in light of community feedback. In May they present it to the Board of Trustees. In June the KPR administrators make their own presentation to the Trustees on the subject, offering their analysis and contributing their professional perspectives on the innovations the ARC has proposed.

The public has the summer to respond with their views, while the forces proposing the partnerships have time to pursue them, to find out how feasible they actually are. In the meantime, the South Monaghan review process has begun, and updated information as to which way that process is likely to go (closure or partnership) is added to the record.

In September of 2012, the Trustees take a final vote at their regular monthly Board meeting. There are no last-minute changes, no surprises, nobody pressuring them to make a snap decision. They can defer the vote if they like. They thank the committee members for their time, their dedication to their communities, and their innovative thinking.

Who can say what the final decision would be in such a scenario?

What we can be sure of is that it would be decision made by the people who pay for the schools, who use the schools, and who live in the neighbourhoods. The process is democratic, not autocratic. As a result, the ideas are innovative, the review is long and complex, and co-operation between various community elements is required.

The end result is that everyone moves forward together as the school network on the east side of the Otonabee is updated for a community-oriented future.

That’s about as happy an ending as we could ask for to “The ARC That Should Have Been.” Everyone loves a good romance, don’t they?

So much nicer than the tragedy of Peterborough losing its community cornerstone as a result of the black comedy of KPR errors.

Can’t we just forget about the botched mess of the actual secondary school accommodation review, and start afresh on this one?

What do you say, Ms. Green, Ms. Broten?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part seven: Thomas A. Stewart, East City, and the Centre for Individual Studies

In the previous four posts we’ve taken stock of Peterborough’s northern, central, western, and southern neighbourhood elementary-secondary school networks, all of which seem to be stable, though the situation at Kenner isn't perfect. Now we turn our attention to the east side of the Otonabee.

In the nineteen-century, the village of Ashburnham was a political entity unto itself. Around the time that Peterborough was made a city and the current PCVS building went up, the village of Ashburnham was annexed by Peterborough and became known as East City,” officially Ashburnham Ward. For most Peterborough residents, East City means the Liftlock and the Canal. Some of us might go across the river for the Museum, the Folk Festival, the PowWow, or tobogganing on the awesome slope of Armour Hill. The view from up top of the hill is inspiring, affording a view of all the surrounding townships.

Ashburnham Ward is really three proximate but distinct neighbourhoods – the TASSS-Trent neighbourhood north of Parkhill, the pre-war East City between Parkhill and Maria, and the south-eastern area centered on Lansdowne, including the Marsdale subdivision north of Lansdowne and the Coldsprings/Collison Heights area south of Lansdowne, in which Otonabee Valley public school is located. These areas stretch along a long, narrow strip of territory on the east bank of the river which has been kept narrow by the Trent canal, the city limit, and its position on the wrong side of Peterborough from Toronto.

The central East City area has a small-town feeling, with idiosyncratic, small-scale houses, many on deep lots originally meant for gardening. The unique waterfront residential areas around Wallace Point on Little Lake and up the Otonabee just south of TASSS have an homey atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else in Peterborough. The Rotary Trail has been a boon to East City, allowing easy biking, blading, or baby-buggying from Ecology Park near Beavermead all the way up to Trent, and thence to Lakefield.

The character of East City in recent years has been much like contemporary small-town Ontario, dominated by retirees. In central East City, some of those retirees have been selling their small, manageable houses to young couples in recent years, and the area’s character is starting to show the change, with more small children around. The area north of Parkhill, however, remains the domain of the grey-haired. Retirement high-rises greet you as you enter the Rotary Trail at Parkhill, and what follows is two consecutive kilometers of retirement condominiums before you get to TASSS. Across the road from TASSS is a golf course. Behind the golf course is the canal.

It’s true – TASSS was built in the middle of a retirement community.

Sandwiched by Trent in the north, seniors to the south, the Otonabee to the west and the golf course to the east, TASSS has had virtually no natural walking community until the recent development of the Frances Stewart subdivision. Nor is there any commercial district, or any potential for further development in the immediate area.

Located just off the county roads at the north end of town, TASSS was built to serve large numbers of rural students, and did so admirably in the not-so-distant past, including many from as far away as Omemee.

Planners back in the late-sixties were perhaps feeling overly optimistic about the potential for growth in the area around the new Nassau Mills campus of Trent University. In fact, Peterborough’s growth since then has been almost entirely in the opposite direction, leaving the north-east with a semi-rural feel in places.

Today TASSS serves students from only three feeder schools: Armour Heights, King George, and North Shore in Keene.

The peculiarity of TASSS’s location is matched by the peculiarity of the proximity of Armour Heights and King George to one another. In a curious bit of planning, Armour Heights was built on the north side of the same hill that King George occupies the south side of. In general, students from north of the hill attend Armour Heights, while those on the south side attend King George, but all attend Armour Heights for their intermediate years. Those living way down south of Lansdowne, however, attend Otonabee Valley, and from there go to Kenner. Both Armour Heights and King George have a capacity of about 300 but currently host about 200. The actual KPR planners have already proposed closing one of the two schools in last May’s accommodation report.

One of KPR’s first projects in the Peterborough area was to build North Shore Public School in Keene, consolidating a number of older, small rural schools. North Shore was built to accommodate 429 students, but attendance has been dropping steadily since then and is now, like its Armour Road counterparts, down to about two-thirds capacity with 285. Moreover, these numbers might continue to drop because the number of tax-payers in Otonabee-South Monaghan township has actually been falling in recent years, according to the Trustee allocation chart – as has the population in all the townships east of Peterborough. KPR is currently considering closing South Monaghan Public and directing students from the Bailieboro area to North Shore as well. 

KPR projections

per grade

King George (JK-6)

Armour Heights (JK-8)

North Shore (JK-8)


total elementary


The most important information you’ll glean from the chart above is the massive discrepancy between the capacity of TASSS and the capacity of its feeder schools. If TASSS currently has over six hundred students, some of them must be coming from elsewhere (including members of the Peterborough Petes, who are sent to TASSS), or all of them must stay for five years, because the “half-total” capacity of the feeder schools is only 570. This is by far the worst match in the city. There is no way for TASSS to be more than half-full under the current configuration, even if the three elementary schools were to be overflowing with portables. 

If North Shore students weren’t being directed to TASSS, there would be no sense in maintaining the high school at all. King George and Armour Heights grads from central East City could walk across the London Street footbridge to PCVS, which could easily accommodate the tiny graduating grade 8 class, numbering less than 50 this year, while students from the TASSS area could walk across the bridge by Joanne’s Health Foods to reach Adam Scott, which is only one kilometer from TASSS.

Even with North Shore students being bused in, TASSS will likely take in only about 70 grade nines next year, while about 150 might graduate from grade twelve, resulting in the rapid decline in enrolment reflected in KPR’s predictions. The estimate of 385 for 2014 is roughly equal to the “half-total” for 2009-10, just as one would expect. This number might be expected to drop still further, given that the elementary numbers have declined even more since 2009-10. Eventually, we might see the East City elementary schools start to fill up again as today’s newborns hit kindergarten, but any increase there is more than ten years away at TASSS.

The fact is that TASSS was built to accommodate a large contingent of rural students that is unlikely to be there again in the foreseeable future. There’s no room for residential expansion in its immediate vicinity. Trent hasn’t turned into a large institution. Demand for houses in the neighbourhood is almost nil. The highway access is getting better, but there’s no commercial area around. Eventually the city might annex the area around Parkhill East up to Television Road, but there are no plans for significant new development there.

On top of the over-size problem, TASSS is a strangely-constructed building. Like Adam Scott, it was put up on a tight budget, and its facility condition index rating is nearly as low. Oddly, TASSS is really two buildings put together, with separate heating and cooling systems. Moreover, it’s filled with asbestos, and it’s going to cost over a million dollars to get it out of there. And another half-million to make the place accessible by wheelchair. As result of the real KPR administrators’ power-play, these renovations are already underway.

A birds-eye view of TASSS

On the plus side, the school property is large enough to host some good playing fields for athletics. There are greenhouses as well, a unique feature. There’s some good shop space, and a fine auditorium.

So what do you do with the biggest school in town, a relic of the 1960s baby-boom, whose extensive hallways are only sparsely populated with teens, whose massive parking lot hosts only a few buses each morning, and whose maintenance costs are now way out of line with the funding provided on a per-student basis, as identified by KPR documents?

Can we find more rural students to direct to TASSS? Bridgenorth is already being sent to Adam Scott, and the Millbrook-Cavan area to Crestwood. But what about points north?

Here’s the chart showing the Lakefield District Secondary regional school network, which includes Apsley, Buckhorn and Warsaw as well as Lakefield’s Ridpath Public. Take any of these feeder schools away from LDSS, and its student population would now be down to 50% capacity. Moreover, Lakefield District is a township school, serving the townships of Lakefield-Smith-Ennismore, North Kawartha, Douro-Dummer, and Galway-Cavendish-Harvey. Why bus students even further into a suburban setting when Lakefield District has plenty of space? LDSS is likely to be facing further declines in enrolment as it is, with the number of taxpayers in these four townships collectively dropping at the rate of half a percent per year, according to the Trustee allocation chart, and it already loses French Immersion students from Ridpath who proceed to Adam Scott for their intermediate and secondary education.

KPR projections

per grade

Apsley (JK-8)
Warsaw (JK-8)
Buckhorn (JK-6)
Ridpath (JK-6)
Lakefield Inter. (7-8)

total elementary

With redirecting rural students from LDSS not a good option, some years ago KPR tried moving the Centre for Individual Studies and some administrative offices to TASSS – including that of former TASSS principal Rusty Hick when he was Superintendent of Operations. CIS seemed to be a good fit at first, since TASSS has extra space and plenty of hands-on facilities. But the marriage wasn’t an entirely happy one.

CIS students are largely “problem students.” In general, they’re not attending CIS out of choice – they’ve been sent there by the Board to get their acts together because their previous schools didn’t want them anymore, typically due to poor attendance and failure to earn credits. Their lack of performance in their regular schools may have been due to a variety of family and personal problems. It’s tough for any school principal to welcome teens who’ve been kicked out of other schools, let alone when some of them may have developed further problems with chemical dependencies.

Moreover, TASSS is distant from the central and southern areas of the city in which most CIS students live. If they couldn’t get to their own neighbourhood schools regularly, how is their attendance going to be if they have to get all the way up to TASSS?

Thankfully, the 200-plus CIS students and their teachers a few years ago found a home on Bonnacord Street, just south of Jackson Park and east of Monaghan, in some unused Sir Sandford Fleming space beside the skateboard park. Teachers there have made use of the adjacent Bonnacord Community garden space and Jackson Park for outdoor education. The location is ideal – walking distance from downtown, but not right in the core where temptation may too easily strike during school hours, and away from regular secondary schools, giving CIS the ability to keep track of its students and eliminating any potential negative impacts on KPR’s regular-stream students.

The actual KPR administrators, of course, want to change this setup. They want to move CIS to the PCVS site, creating an educational ghetto right across from city hall, and putting at-risk students right back in the middle of temptations.     

So how else can we justify keeping TASSS, if we can’t import any more rural students, and CIS has been tried and rejected?

Ah ha! The Integrated Arts program! If we can pluck that program from PCVS, we can oblige hundreds of students from all over the city to hike all the way up to TASSS for their specialty programming. And if PCVS’s student population is thus reduced, why bother keeping the institution alive at all? We can just move CIS there! So we engineer a rigged city-wide secondary accommodation review pitting one city neighbourhood against another, putting the public on the defensive and distracting them so they won’t be able to imagine the accommodation review that should have taken place. And we’ll be careful not to include CIS in our review, or even mention it.

But wait a minute – let’s not forget that we’re not the actual KPR administrators. We’re not going to play any Machiavellian games, or disrupt the existing fully-functional school networks in other parts of town. We’re not going to attempt to take away Town Ward’s last remaining school, the most successful and venerable school in the entire Board, thereby inviting public outrage, legal action, and tax-revolts.

We’re going to do the logical and sensible thing and recommend to our imaginary Director of Education and fictional Trustees a full-scale accommodation review to determine the future of TASSS and its three feeder schools, King George, Armour Heights and North Shore.

It’s clear that the status quo on the east side of the Otonabee doesn’t make sense. Something has to change. Since we’ve got a proper accommodation review policy, we’re going to call a group of representatives together and give them a definite mandate, plenty of time, and accurate information. We’re going to keep Board staff and Trustees in non-voting roles. And we’re going to be up front about our “preferred option.”

We’ll play out this imaginary scenario in the next post.