Empire Public School was in such a state of disrepair it was slated to close in June. Instead, trustees at the District School Board of Niagara decided that next September they'd start busing their poorest students to its dilapidated cube of red bricks in Welland, Ont., and christen it with a new name: the DSBN Academy.
The academy promises extra supports, tutors, mentors and a golden ticket to university for low-income students in a region with withered roots in the manufacturing industry. But what was supposed to be the community's best hope for the future has erupted in controversy, with parents and politicians raising fears it will segregate and stigmatize students.
The DSBN Academy has become Canada's most controversial pedagogical experiment in years. It has thrust Niagara to the forefront of a widening debate in education, over whether the social cost of separating students along economic, ethnic, or religious lines can be justified by a targeted, more effective menu of school supports.
Similar misgivings were raised three years ago, when Toronto approved an Africentric school for black students, and more recently around the possible introduction of a Cristo Rey school, a private institution that would require students to work one day a week in order to pay their tuition.
With the introduction of the DSBN Academy, the question becomes whether trustees have gone too far in asking poor children to be singled out, separated from their peers, in order to win their best shot at a university education.
The last information session for interested families was held Wednesday and with the deadline for parents to register their children less than two weeks away, trustees might soon get an answer. The information sessions were well attended, but the school board said it won't know how many of the 3,000 application forms they've distributed have been filled out and returned for at least another week.
"My biggest fear is that families are going to stay away because of all the negative publicity," said Dale Robinson, one of the Niagara trustees who supports the school. "Let's just see how many people come forward and say this is a good fit for their child. If it's a mistake and no one steps forward then I'll be the first one to admit it."
The idea for the DSBN Academy came from California, where a similar school has been operating for more than a decade with some success. When it opens this fall, the DSBN Academy will be filled with up to 150 students in Grades 6 and 7 whose parents didn't go to university, but the hope is to grow to include students through Grade 12 and potentially move to a location on the campus of either Brock University or Niagara College. The school days will be longer, parent involvement will be mandatory, and after-school tutoring and mentoring supports will be available.
The school has pitted trustees and a vocal group of community members against one another. At a board meeting on Feb. 8, more than 50 parents and residents came to voice their objections to the academy, turning a routinely dry and poorly attended event into a circus.
With a piece of chalk, an observer could have drawn a line down the middle of the room, leaving the angry swarm of outspoken protesters on one side and a horseshoe of 11 comparatively mute and tired-looking trustees on the other.
The parents in the room whose children qualified for the school demanded to know why they couldn't get the supports promised by the DSBN Academy at their current schools.
"I guess we'd have to stand and chose to be segregated if we as low-income families want our children to do well," Samantha Battersby, a young mother whose children would qualify for the school, told the crowded boardroom.
Kevin Gosine, a sociologist at Brock University, pointed to research that shows students thrive in diverse settings with classmates from different backgrounds and raised concerns that the academy model "takes the pressure off mainstream schools" to accommodate low-income students.
Boardroom protocol meant that the nine of 11 trustees who have been stalwart supporters of the school couldn't immediately respond, but in a later interview trustee Cheryl Scott said the DSBN Academy acknowledges an uncomfortable truth.
"Sometimes kids need a little extra support that we can't provide in the regular system; I see it all the time," she said. "I've said it from the very beginning, this school isn't for everybody, but sometimes there's that one kid who just needs that little extra, and that's who this is for."
The academy's American model, The Preuss School in San Diego, Calif., shows extra supports can work. Preuss has had to introduce a lottery to accommodate the scores of parents lining up to enroll their kids. Consistently, more than 80 per cent of each graduating class has gone on to a four-year college or university program and about another 10 per cent have enrolled in community college. The school hasn't been scandal-free, and in 2007 its leadership faced allegations of grade tampering, but Newsweek magazine has consistently ranked Preuss among the top 20 high schools in the United States.
Scott Barton, the school's director, has been the following the controversy in Canada with interest and more than a little surprise.
"I don't remember this kind of controversy here, I remember it being embraced as a pathway to college," he said.
That's exactly how Niagara parent Lynda sees it. She knew right away she wanted to enroll her 10-year-old son, David.
(Lynda asked that her last name be withheld for fear her family would become a lightning rod for critics.)
She and her husband both have a high school education, she works occasionally as a caterer and he is a truck driver. David wants to follow in his father's footsteps and drive trucks, but his mother is adamant that he must at least go to college first.
"If he could just get a little extra attention, it could make all the difference," she said.
In Niagara, only one in five people over the age of 24 has a university education, compared to one in three throughout Ontario. The region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, nearly 10 per cent, and the school board serves about 5,400 students who live in poverty.
It was a 40-per-cent dropout rate among black students that prompted Toronto to consider an Africentric school. The controversy has died down and 18 months since that school first opened, some of the school's loudest critics have acknowledged they were wrong. Enrolment is booming and students posted strong scores, well above the provincial average, on last year's province-wide math and literacy tests.
The controversy did nearly stop the school from ever opening. Toronto trustees approved it by the narrowest of margins, and enrolment lagged in the wake of the controversy so that the school initially only barely met its minimum enrolment targets. The DSBN faces similar obstacles.
Low-income students already endure stigma in the regular school system. Ms. Scott, the DSBN trustee, said she has known kids who were teased for wearing "poor" clothes and who were too ashamed of their home to have a birthday party. Recently she heard the story of a young girl who was suspended for pushing a boy at school. Only later did her teachers learn why she'd acted out; the boy had nicknamed her "welfare girl."
"I truly believe that people need to step back and let this school try, we have to try," she said.
With research from Rick Cash