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Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework

It’s their project, let them figure it out.

One of the central tenets of raising kids in America is that parents should be actively involved in their children’s education: meeting with teachers, volunteering at school, helping with homework, and doing a hundred other things that few working parents have time for. These obligations are so baked into American values that few parents stop to ask whether they’re worth the effort.

Until this January, few researchers did, either. In the largest-ever study of how parental involvement affects academic achievement, Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, mostly found that it doesn’t. The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools. In an attempt to show whether the kids of more-involved parents improved over time, the researchers indexed these measures to children’s academic performance, including test scores in reading and math.

What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.

Do you review your daughter’s homework every night? Robinson and Harris’s data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, show that this won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.

Similarly, students whose parents frequently meet with teachers and principals don’t seem to improve faster than academically comparable peers whose parents are less present at school. Other essentially useless parenting interventions: observing a kid’s class; helping a teenager choose high-school courses; and, especially, disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done. This kind of meddling could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school, Robinson speculates. “Ask them ‘Do you want to see me volunteering more? Going to school social functions? Is it helpful if I help you with homework?’ ” he told me. “We think about informing parents and schools what they need to do, but too often we leave the child out of the conversation.”

One of the reasons parental involvement in schools has become dogma is that the government actively incentivizes it. Since the late 1960s, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs that seek to engage parents—especially low-income parents—with their children’s schools. In 2001, No Child Left Behind required schools to establish parent committees and communicate with parents in their native languages. The theory was that more active and invested mothers and fathers could help close the test-score gap between middle-class and poor students. Yet until the new study, nobody had used the available data to test the assumption that close relationships between parents and schools improve student achievement.

While Robinson and Harris largely disproved that assumption, they did find a handful of habits that make a difference, such as reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans. But these interventions don’t take place at school or in the presence of teachers, where policy makers exert the most influence—they take place at home.

What’s more, although conventional wisdom holds that poor children do badly in school because their parents don’t care about education, the opposite is true. Across race, class, and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college. Asian American kids may perform inordinately well on tests, for example, but their parents are not much more involved at school than Hispanic parents are—not surprising, given that both groups experience language barriers. 

There are actually quite a few studies that show that homework has no benefit to a child and often does harm.  For the first time ever, Mark has a teacher that does not believe in homework and I think it has gone a long way towards making this the most successful year Mark has ever had.

Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Poverty on a private university campus

What’s it like being poor while attending one of the United States most prestigious schools?

When was the first time I felt uncomfortable at Duke because of money? My second day of o-week. My FAC group wanted to meet at Mad Hatter’s Bakery; I went with them and said that I had already eaten on campus because I didn’t have cash to spend. Since then, I have continued to notice the presence of overt and subtle class issues and classism on campus. I couldn’t find a place for my “poor identity.” While writing my resume, I put McDonald’s under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to put that on your resume?” In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this “lowly” position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.

People associate many things with their identity: I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m a poet. One of the most defining aspects of my identity is being poor. The amount of money (or lack thereof) in my bank account defines almost every decision I make, in a way that being a woman or being queer never has and never will. Not that these are not important as well, just that in my personal experience, they have been less defining. Money influenced the way I grew up and my family dynamics. It continues to influence the schools I choose to go to, the food I eat, the items I buy and the things I say and do.

I live in a reality where:

  • Sometimes I lie that I am busy when actually I just don’t have the money to eat out.
  • I don’t get to see my dad anymore because he moved several states away to try and find a better job to make ends meet.
  • I avoid going to Student Health because Duke insurance won’t do much if there is actually anything wrong with me.
  • Coming out as queer took a weekend and a few phone calls, but coming out as poor is still a daily challenge.
  • Getting my wisdom teeth removed at $400 per tooth is more of a funny joke than a possible reality.
  • I have been nearly 100 percent economically independent from my family since I left for college.
  • Textbook costs are impossible. Praise Perkins Library where all the books are free.
  • My mother has called me crying, telling me she doesn’t have the gas money to pick me up for Thanksgiving.
  • My humorously cynical, self-deprecating jokes about being homeless after graduation are mostly funny but also kind of a little bit true.
  • I am scared that the more I increase my “social mobility,” the further I will separate myself from my family.
  • Finances are always in the back (if not the forefront) of my mind, and I am always counting and re-counting to determine how I can manage my budget to pay for bills and living expenses.

Community Association Website

I spent most of the weekend working on a brand new website for Hudson Bay Park | Mayfair | Kelsey Woodlawn Community Association after the last one kind of disappeared.  I used WordPress.com and then bought a domain name for it.  The idea is that WordPress.com is really easy to use and eventually someone else will be taking care of it.

Take a look, let me know what you think.  There is still some work to be done on it but I am always open to suggestions.

Evening Under the Stars

Evening Under the Stars

Every dollar of profit raised from the inaugural August 21st event will be donated to the Foundation’s purchase of Saskatchewan’s first digital electron microscope that will dramatically advance diagnoses for renal, cardiac and neurological patients. The evening presents Jeans n Classics fascinating marriage of the music of Queen accompanied by the classic sounds of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. The setting is natural outdoor prairie at its finest, lit by a full moon and the power of first nation’s culture at the Whitecap Sports Centre located approx 30 kilometers south of Saskatoon on HWY 219, turn right on Sports Centre Road. Come casual, come hungry, come for fun with family and friends at Saskatoon’s first Evening Under the Stars!

The Innovation of Loneliness

This could the most important thing you watch this week.

More kids then ever return to live at home in the United States

What is to blame?

In the last 50 years, this country has done a great job— by maintaining Social Security benefits, expanding Medicare, underwriting home-ownership, securing pensions, and the like— of improving the economic circumstances of the generation that rode the postwar boom years to wealth and comfortable senior citizenship. This country has done an increasingly poor job— by letting the minimum wage stagnate, dis-investing in schools, public colleges, and infrastructure, undercutting workers’ leverage, and the like— of supporting the economic aspirations of that generation’s children and grandchildren.

Why I will never ride a bike again

By Andrew Clark in the Globe and Mail

I ponder this irony every year at this time because spring is the season I annually ask the question: “Why don’t I bicycle?” There’s no reason I shouldn’t. Why be stuck in traffic? I like bicycles and I believe in cycling as a form of transportation. I see people on bikes. They look happy, healthy, in tune with the world around them; at least those who are biking responsibly and not running red lights or on the sidewalk.

So what’s my problem?

History, I suppose. As a kid, I biked everywhere, but I was not always the luckiest of riders. At age 10, I was in a serious accident and required knee surgery. But I didn’t stop bicycling. I was back on as soon as I could be and all the cycling I did probably helped the knee heal – a 1970s form of physiotherapy by banana seat bike.

I cycled through my teens. I biked to football practice wearing my helmet and pads. I biked on dates. I biked to parties from which I biked home in various states of intoxication (which probably saved me from drunk driving). I had a few close calls, including almost being whacked by a car that had blazed through a yield sign, but I kept biking.

Then, in 1985, a friend of mine was struck by an 18-wheeler while cycling. He died. That was it for me.

I did not immediately swear off biking. It was not a dramatic reaction to trauma. My withdrawal happened unconsciously. Gradually. One day I woke up and realized that I had not ridden a bicycle in almost a decade. I’d ceased to engage in one of my primary modes of transportation. I wasn’t afraid of bicycles. I wasn’t cyclophobic. After my friend’s death, it had just never occurred to me to ride one. I was done.

There was one final attempt at reconciliation years later when I turned 30.

This was the moment, I decided, to start riding again and celebrated the big day by buying a new bicycle and taking it for a spin. Soon I would become a cyclist and whiz around the city freed of parking fees and traffic tickets. Not long into my first ride, my front tire caught in some streetcar tracks and I flipped over. That was it. I walked the thing home and later donated it to a charity auction. I got in my car and I’ve been there ever since – luckily I love cars and driving, so it’s not an entirely unhappy ending.

The challenge for cycling enthusiasts is to reach out to those who can still be salvaged. After all, the more people bike, the safer it becomes. There are many pent-up cyclists out there. People who want to exchange their cars keys for a bike lock but won’t. For instance, the Share the Road poll found that 68 per cent of Ontarians would prefer to cycle more often.

And yet – they’re frightened. Cyclists are hit every day. We all know a cyclist who has been in an accident of some kind. Yet statistically, you’re more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a bicycle accident and the health benefits far outweigh the risks. The fear, like all fear, is not rational; it’s visceral.

Can Spain be saved?

Spain is done.  This is bad.

Spain is in a great depression, and it is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

Five years after its housing boom turned to bust, Spanish unemployment hit a record high of 27.2 percent in the first quarter of 2013. It’s almost too horrible to comprehend, but 19.5 percent of the total workforce has not had a job in the past six months; 15.3 percent have not in the past year; and 9.2 percent have not in the past two years.

Here is why it is so bad

Spain is in a great depression, and it is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

Five years after its housing boom turned to bust, Spanish unemployment hit a record high of 27.2 percent in the first quarter of 2013. It’s almost too horrible to comprehend, but 19.5 percent of the total workforce has not had a job in the past six months; 15.3 percent have not in the past year; and 9.2 percent have not in the past two years.

In other words, unemployment is a trap people fall into, but can’t fall out of. Indeed, the rate of new unemployment has stabilized at a terrible, but not quite-as-terrible, level, as you can see with the flat blue, red, and green lines. But the steadily rising purple line shows us that the rate of job-finding for the jobless has collapsed.

That is what a permanent underclass looks like.

What happened?

Why has Spain’s jobs depression been so great? After all, its GDP is “only” 4.1 percent below its 2007 level, compared to 5.8 percent below for Portugal, 7 percent below for Italy, and 20 percent below for Greece. But despite this better (negative) growth, unemployment is higher in Spain than the others. In other words, Spanish unemployment isn’t just about inadequate demand. Part of it is structural.

Spain’s labor market problems fall into two big buckets: too much regulation, and not enough education. It’s almost impossible for companies to get rid of older workers, which creates a horribly bifurcated labor market. There are permanent workers who can’t be fired, and temporary ones who can — and are. Indeed, as Clive Crook points out, about a third of Spain’s workforce are temporary workers who enjoy few protections and fewer opportunities. Companies go through these younger workers without bothering to invest much in their human capital, because why would they? These temporary workers will be let go at the first sign of economic trouble. Young people get stuck in a never-ending cycle of under-and-unemployment since firms are always hesitant to hire permanent workers who will always be on their books.

But it gets worse. The housing bust hasn’t just cast a shadow over household and bank balance sheets; it’s cast one over young people’s educations too. At its peak, building made up a whopping 19 percent of Spain’s economy, which, as Tobias Buck of the Financial Times points out, lured many young men into dropping out of school for well-paying construction gigs. But now that building has gone into hibernation, all of those young men are left with no work and no education to fall back on. And, again, even if they can find temporary jobs, it’s not as if the companies will spend money to develop their skills.

An urban school district that works

To listen to some school reformers, you’d think there are no urban traditional public schools that are successful. Here’s a different story.

Nowhere at George Washington Elementary School are the virtues of collegiality and collaboration more visible than in the third grade. The Dream Team—that’s how other teachers at the school refer to Alina Bossbaly, Marilyn Corral, Jen Schuck, Mary Ann Hart and Irene Stamatopolous. Although their personalities differ greatly, they mesh as smoothly as a 400-yard relay team, and this bond helps to explain why, year after year, their students have been the school’s top performers on the New Jersey ASK, the state’s high-stakes exam. On the May 2010 exam, 79% passed the reading and writing test and an off-the-charts 93% were rated proficient in math—the best results in the entire district.

Not one of these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away. (Two of them thought about teaching in a ghetto school in New York City, but their friends talked them out of it, and only one has ever taught elsewhere.) Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended. Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers.

The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues. These teachers improve, the passable ones becoming solid practitioners and the good ones maturing into candidates for a demonstration video, in good measure because of the informal tutelage that the old hands give the newbies, the day-to-day collaboration, the modeling of good practice, and the swapping of ideas about what’s worth trying in their classrooms. “The most productive thinking,” as the research confirms, “is continuous and simultaneous with action—that is, with teaching—as practitioners collaboratively implement, assess, and adjust instruction as it happens.”

The culture of abrazos, of love and caring, that permeates Washington School is rooted in close relationships of long standing between Principal Les Hanna and the teachers, among the teachers, and between the school and the families. Their ties to the kids come naturally because they have an intimate understanding of their students’ lives. Many of them grew up and still live close by, so when they talk about the students as “our kids,” as they often do, they mean it almost literally.

“Our kids’ lives are truly, truly horrible,” Les tells me. “We have to be there now.” That’s no exaggeration. What’s astonishing is how many of these children thrive despite the jagged edges of their lives. For some of them, just making it to school represents a real accomplishment.

No Standardized Tests Left Behind

My mom was a teacher, I am related to a teacher.  I have teachers who are friends.  I respect people who choose to teach.  It’s not an easy job.  Of course not all of them are good.  My grade one teacher was an alcoholic which meant that each Monday morning (and several other mornings) the lights were turned off and the film strip was shown at a low level.  In grade 2 my teacher was a racist who introduced us to the offensive term, “spic“.  She was also emotionally abusive.  After that things got better and there was a lot of good teachers that taught me.  Some were also alcoholics and drug addicts but in the classroom, they taught me a lot. (Twelve years, two alcoholics, one racist, and one drug addict doesn’t seem that good in hindsight…)

Of all of the education topics that gets teachers riled up is the topic of standardized tests.  There is a reason for that.  Standardized testing has been used to fire teachers and in the case of Chicago, entire schools, including the janitors if test scores are too low.  Of course that doesn’t make any difference.  I visited a Chicago school that had “rebooted” it’s school twice and was on the third bunch of teachers and staff and the test scores were still awful and horrible.

I heard Senator Vern White speak of recruiting indigenous police officers.  He looked at one exam given to RCMP recruits from northern communities.  It had questions about traffic lights but none of those communities had traffic lights.  Of course they did poorly.  A more contextual test gave more accurate results.

There are just too many factors beyond the teachers control.  I have written about housing instability.  There are issues of instability in the family, disinterested parents, economic issues, drugs, and you have one year’s teacher being held accountable for what was being taught before them.

I do think there is a place for standardized tests in our education system.  They aren’t a tool for evaluating teachers but rather to identify problems before they get out of hand and see if our solutions are working.  

Let’s say we test students yearly and we start to see some trends starting that we know cause problems later on.  We know students in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods struggle more than others for many reasons.  Poor standardized tests would trigger resources designed to tackle the problem.  Those solutions could be a lot of things.  More computers in the classroom, an educational assistant, a breakfast or lunch program, or maybe a new educational method in an earlier grade.  Continued standardized testing becomes the tool to evaluate the changes to see if they are effective on a school by school basis.

Of course it was be a big deal to implement and take a lot of money but right now our standardized tests are kind of useless.  They don’t give individual feedback (so the data is useless to parents who want to see how their child is doing) and are not contexualized.  The advantage of doing this is a much better and bigger data set to tackle educational problems on a macro and micro level, information that most educators don’t have right now.  On a smaller level, it’s also information that parents need about their own children.

The bad part of this is that isn’t how standardized tests are used and I doubt anyone will ever do this but they do have potential, if we could only use it.

Learning to love big oil

Don’t criticize me for posting this, I am from Alberta after all. 

The drivers of the trucks are here for the same reason I am: the boom in drilling for oil and natural gas. The vast, dry lands south of Vernal hold about half of the state’s active rigs and present a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for energy extraction: shale aplenty, fracking for both oil and natural gas, and even the state’s very own poised-to-open tar sands. Uintah County has been Utah’s main oil producer for more than 70 years. As far back as 1918, National Geographic extolled the area’s potential: “Campers and hunters in building fires against pieces of the rock had been surprised to find that they ignited, that they contain oil.” In other words, what is happening here is no nouveau drilling dalliance, no young sweetheart in first flush, freshly wooed, like the Bakken Field in North Dakota, but an on-again, off-again affair that has been going on for decades.

It is that affair that interests me, with all the salacious details of how Big Oil sidles up to a town, flirts with it, and wins it over. Not to mention what happens if — or, more accurately, when — the wooer decides to ditch the wooed.

In Vernal, population 9,000, evidence of earlier wooing abounds. A quick ride around town reveals Big Oil’s equivalent of a dozen roses or a box of candy. There are shiny new schools and municipal buildings and ballparks. The Western Park Convention Center, covering 32 acres, is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the West. Not every town hosts a golf tournament called Petroleum Days or throws a music festival — like last summer’s weekend-long Country Explosion — co-sponsored by a maker of centrifuges and mud/gas separators. Then there’s the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College, a beautiful sandstone building with the streamlined look of a brand-new upscale airport.

On my first visit to Vernal, in the heat of July, I peeked in on a class called Well Control, where a movie was being shown that, unlike the grainy safety films of my youth, had the production values of a Spielberg movie. There were models of oil derricks in the lobby, with the name Anadarko, the giant Texas oil company that is one of the area’s main employers, prominently displayed. In this case, Anadarko’s particular bouquet was a $1.5 million gift for construction and faculty endowment.

It was a short drive over to the rec center, a looming spectacle of oaken beams and concrete and great sheets of glass that revealed within Olympic-size pools and running tracks and climbing walls and squash courts. It looked as if Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Shorter had gotten together to build their dream house. This building points to one of the less obvious ways the town has been wooed. While Anadarko alone paid $14 million in county property taxes last year, the total income for Vernal and Uintah County from oil and gas far exceeds this number, as a result of sales tax, production taxes, mining royalties, and lease payments on federal land. In other words, the building is not a gift outright but the metaphoric equivalent of Big Oil saying, “Here, honey, go buy yourself something nice.”

It starts out well

“When I first came here in the seventies, it was a beautiful place,” Herm said. “A lazy Main Street lined with cottonwoods. The old booms had faded, and the two top businesses in town were agriculture and tourism. People came to see the dinosaur quarry at the park. People came to float on the river.”

He held out his large hands, palms up. “And what are we left with now?”

Certainly not tourism. A tourist would be hard pressed to find a hotel room in Vernal. In fact, while oil jobs and the services that support them have been rising, the numbers of people employed in agriculture and recreation have fallen dramatically.

And then there were the busts. Herm remembers the last one. Storage lockers of people’s possessions being auctioned off. Houses foreclosed. He is not against drilling, he told me, but what is lacking is perspective and long-term thinking. The problem is exemplified by the archetypal Vernal high school student who drops out, lured by the chance to make money working in the oil fields, and buys a house, a big truck, some ATVs.

“What happens if that job goes away?” Herm asked. “He is left with no education, many debts.” In fact, at the public meeting where Herm questioned the oil orthodoxy, a boy just like that stood up and said, “If we don’t keep drilling, how will I pay for everything?”

Herm wasn’t trying to drive oil out of town. He was merely suggesting that Vernal proceed with some restraint and consider investing in the future. For that he was greeted with fury, even death threats.

Over the past 40 years Herm had seen Big Oil bring its gifts, and its gifts were shiny. But he had also seen oil and chemicals foaming and floating down the Green River. He had seen rising crime, prostitution, spousal abuse, and a culture defined by the twentysomething males who come to work the oil fields. (Utah has a higher incidence of rape than the national average, and Vernal has a much higher rate than the state as a whole.) Air quality has dramatically worsened; last winter’s ozone levels in the county rivaled those of Los Angeles.

All this has made Herm a little less giddy than most about Vernal’s prospects.

“I’ve been through it before,” he said. “They come into your neighborhood. They change your neighborhood. Then they move away. And we’re left to pick up the pieces and pay the bills.”

The party does always end but it’s going to be going on for a while, even in towns like Vernal.  Yet even in Alberta, the party may not end, it may be occasionally interrupted. 

Out of the Cold

Homeless feet

As an idealist, I would like to believe that the social safety net in this province worked a lot a better than it does and on nights like tonight, no one would be left outside where they could possibly freeze.  Most nights the system works but there are some nights people that are outside and as we have seen, some freeze to death.

The reason they are outside is that:

  • They don’t qualify for Social Services emergency funding because
    • The are receiving what is called Transitional Employment Assistance and don’t qualify for emergency assistance (which makes no sense to me)
    • Their worker decided that when it is 30 below, it is a good time to decide to make teach them personal responsibility.
  • Other emergency services won’t fund them
  • They have a fear of using social agencies.
  • They are banned from all facilities.

In full disclosure I have banned people before and will do it again.  The reason we ban people because they are too dangerous to other people (arsonist, violent, drug dealer) or are a danger to staff (predatorily sex offender, violence against staff in the past), or are a dangerous to themselves (they do something where like 20 people want to beat them up… it happens).  We have to balance the safety of the facility, clients, and staff vs. the needs of the individual.  While its easy to say that we need to give people another and another chance, when I have done it in the past, people have gotten seriously hurt.

The end result is that they have nowhere to go or no one wants to help them.

What we have done this year is open an Out of the Cold shelter at The Lighthouse.  Technically it isn’t it’s own shelter but a series of protocols that staff follow to make sure that people are housed.  It is a low threshold shelter where the primary importance is to make sure people are warm and safe no matter what the mood is of the system.

It sounds nice but it really isn’t.  Like anything that is a result of a failure of the system, it enables the system to behave badly.  In other cities it allows social worker to not help because there is another safety net that is there and it doesn’t reflect on anyone’s caseload.  It also moves a role that the government is supposed to take a roll in and moves to CBOs which isn’t cool.  If it was a perfect world, it wouldn’t be needed but it isn’t and so we do it.

Of course when we take them in, it becomes our problem.  Some people have fallen through the cracks and just need a break.  Those are a pleasure to deal with.  Others are entitled who believe that the system (which is now The Lighthouse) has to take care of them.  They are not so much fun.

As for the people who need it, it’s been good for them and for the most part good for the staff.  The staff have quite a bit of latitude to book someone in and like we say, “it’s easier to explain to [me] why you did it than explain your actions about why you did not to a coroner”.  In two cases where we have used it, within a day or two the men had found employment and housing really quick.  In other cases there are some mental health or addiction issues that made it harder but that’s part of it as well.  The only negative encounter was that someone started to yell and scream at the staff around 5:30 a.m. but they had stayed the night, were safe, warm, but just a little cranky.  We’ll take that as a win.

As for those that are banned.  Those are the calls that wake Chris Powell and I up in the night (hopefully Chris more than me).  We have worked with staff to give them more latitude but to overturn a ban, they are to call us and we make the final decision.  It’s a hard decision to make.  It’s hard to get banned from The Lighthouse and it means that they are dangerous to others.  We are working on some protocols that will make that happen more but I’ll be honest, it’s the hardest thing to deal with and like I said, when I have overturned bans in the past, people have gotten hurt.  What we are doing is re-assessing things and relying on some good community partners assessments.  If that is a go, we will house them.  Sadly not all community partners can assess someone.  Police officers are good for a lot of things, assessing the behaviour of someone in a shelter is not one of those skills but we also have staff there and most times the cops are quite good about it.  Emergency room staff on the other hand are a lost cause.  They can’t be counted on to give an honest assessment. 

The last category is there are some that are afraid of using social services and that is a post all by itself.  Basically something happened in their past that they associate with social services and for whatever reason, they won’t go back, even though they need help.  Staff house them and we help them in the morning.  

The other weird thing has been that people are coming in because they hear that they can get a shower and cleaned up.  They all tell the frontline staff that it is myself that told them that they can come in (which is weird as I never have). It’s not part of the program but the front desk staff has been accommodating those requests as well.  It’s a hassle with the way our facility is designed but allows people to come out of the cold, warm up, get clean and hopefully feel better about themselves.  We don’t mind offering that service as well and if nothing else, we are making Saskatoon a better smelling place to live in.  That has to be worth something.

The goal is that when we are done our renovations is that we will offer a full urban rest stop type of service.  Cold/hot drinks, washer/dryer, showers, and computers.  We have all the pieces but we will work hard over the next couple of months to integrate them together a little better.  It’s a process but I think we are getting somewhere.

Why not Caroline Robins School?

Excellent article by The StarPhoenix’s Janet French

Why do so many parents spurn Caroline Robins for the stuffed halls of Dundonald?

One Hampton Village resident said some of her neighbours can’t get over the outdated “community school” label.

Justine McCaffrey, the president of the Hampton Village community association, has two sons, four and two years old. Although they had strongly considered Caroline Robins, her older child attends Dundonald preschool because it’s closer to their house and a teenage neighbour can walk him to and from school.

“Had we lived any further away from the schools, I would be taking my kids to Caroline Robins.”

She’s heard parents say they won’t consider sending their kids to Caroline Robins because it was a “community school.” That used to be a designation that gave schools extra provincial funding for nutrition programs and other extras to help lower-income students.

A third of Caroline Robins’ students are First Nations and Metis.

It’s up to the school division to dispel stereotypes about Caroline Robins and tell parents what the school has to offer, she said.

“People sit there and they look at the label ‘community school,’ and they think (Caroline Robins is an) inner-city school, where there’s less fortunate kids, that the teachers aren’t the same — which they are,” McCaffrey said. “It’s no different of a school than Dundonald is, or St. Peter, or any of the schools in the area.”

The answer is that Caroline Robins school is a community school because the public school system has decided that the kids that go there need additional supports.  Sadly they need the supports (like feeding programs and other supports) because they are not all getting them at home.  Often it means disengaged parents which lead to lower classroom performance.  So as a parent in Hampton Village, do you want to send your kid to an overcrowded school with more engaged parents and students or a community school with less engaged parents and lower performing students?  The numbers answer that question.

Rethinking Le Plateau-Mont-Royal (and how to do municipal politics)

A good article on Luc Fernandez, Montreal city councillor and mayor of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal

Luc Ferrandez’s last bicycle was a Kona, a sturdy model with thick tires, ideal for hauling heavy loads. During his 2009 campaign as the Projet Montréal candidate for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, he would hook it to a trailer piled with a laptop, a projector, a collapsible screen, and (this being Montreal) a couple of bottles of rosé. After setting up his equipment next to a café terrace, he would distribute paper cups and launch a PowerPoint slide show of streets and squares in Copenhagen, Paris, and Madrid, as well as historical photos of local boulevards, all unencumbered by traffic. He figures it was these partys de trottoir, or sidewalk parties—during which he made the case that Montreal could be as clean, green, and safe as any place in Europe—that won him the mayoralty of the city’s most populous district. His mountain bike, alas, didn’t survive the campaign.

“I was having a discussion with a citizen,” recalls Ferrandez. “I left my bike against a wall, unlocked. When I came back an hour later, it was gone.” These days, his main mode of transportation is an Opus, which has the upright handlebars and broad saddle of a bike you would expect to find leaning against a canal-side railing in Amsterdam.

I like his philosophy

“I accept that some people think I’m the devil!” Ferrandez shouted over his shoulder, making a right onto rue de Brébeuf. “For them, the Plateau doesn’t exist. It is just a place to be driven through. I don’t give a shit about these people. They’ve abandoned the idea that humans can live together.”

Ferrandez’s vision of what the borough is, and could be, seems almost exalted. “The Plateau is an Italian cathedral. It’s a forest. It’s something to protect, something sacred. I don’t want it to become a place where people come to live in a condo with triple-glazed windows for a couple of years. This has to be a place where people can be comfortable walking to the bakery, walking to school, walking to the park—where they want to stay to raise a family.”