VOICE: Why did you start organizing to support public education as a parent?
JOY HENDERSON: I started organizing in response to a couple of issues. I noticed that there were groups for various areas of Toronto but no grassroots, parent-centered organizing for Scarborough. Scarborough, being about one-third of Toronto, is a difficult place to organize and I felt that any actions should be undertaken by residents of the community as it has unique challenges, different from the rest of the city. So actually prior to organizing a Walk-in, I and other stakeholders in Scarborough formed Scarborough Families for Public Education, a grassroots group focused on learning about and organizing around education issues as they effect the Scarborough community.
I was in high school during the years that Mike Harris started his devastating campaign against public education. I remember having to sit on the floor because we had forty students and not enough desks. Growing up in a low-income community, I also saw the devastating impacts his cuts in other areas had on students, from government funded youth employment programs being cut, to a reduction in funding for needed resources such as TTC tickets to get to and from school. I am now a child and youth worker and have built on that personal knowledge with a professional understanding about how cuts to school boards and other public services can have a negative effect on one’s education.
Voice: How have the cuts affected your school? What are you hearing from other parents and the school community?
JOY: My children span both the elementary and secondary panels. At our local elementary school, the cuts have been compounded by the fact that our community’s population, like many in Scarborough, is growing exponentially, and we had over 80 new enrolments at our school. Our elementary school shares space with a small secondary school. This was done in order to keep both schools open when enrolment was low. However, for the first time since my kids started attending, the school now has portables. We were lucky that we were able to get two new staff. Classrooms are still hovering around 30, despite these additions. What I hear from other parents across Scarborough is that class sizes are too big. Almost everyone is aware of the reality that even with the most skilled teacher, it is impossible to adequately give 30 kids the individualized care that many need.
Voice: How have you connected with your school council?
JOY: I was a little hesitant to connect with the school council initially. We live in a Conservative riding and our MPP is a former teacher. Out of Scarborough’s six ridings, four are Conservative, so I anticipated some resistance to hosting a Walk-in. Parents in Scarborough have experienced the gamut of reactions, from enthusiastic support around organizing to wanting to avoid “politics.” However, I was warmly received by our school council, but like many Scarborough parents, faced with a long commute to work, and poor transit, they were unable to help beyond outreach for the actual day. What was encouraging was that parents who were rushing to work did take the time to quickly show their support, as did commuters, traveling throughout the neighbourhood.
My main point in connecting with the school council was discussing how education should not be a partisan issue. I am very not-Conservative-leaning, but if I were, I’d like to think I’d still at least be irritated by these cuts, and in an attempt to start a discussion, I remind people that it is possible to support a political party and still consider education a resource that should be heavily invested in. Our common bond is wanting what is best for our children, and given that they spend seven to eight hours at school for a great deal of their lives, we as parents should want only the very best.
Voice: How have you connected with teachers and other education workers and how have these connections changed your school community?
JOY: As an organizer for Scarborough Families for Public Education, I was given access to the list of organizers, via West End Parents for Public Education, and was able to connect with the teacher who had organized it. I had a prior relationship with her – she was a grade one teacher for one of my children. I also volunteer for our local school community and have been a part of it for nine years, so connecting with the staff was not hard. Our school community is tight knit and I feel that this makes connecting easy. The small day-to-day connections that people make with teachers as they supervise or greet students goes a long way to forming positive relationships with parents and families. I believe that even this small act has really solidified friendly working relationship between teachers and families.
VOICE: What suggestions do you have for teachers looking to connect with the parent community at their school? What can educators do to support parent organizing?
JOY: I understand that a lot of educators are concerned about negative feedback or being seen as political and are intimidated about starting these discussions with parents. Our school community is very enthusiastic and tight knit, but with language barriers, working schedules and multiple children, sometimes otherwise supportive parents simply don’t have the time or resources to meaningfully engage in protesting against these cuts or organizing support for public education. So, in recognizing that, I would hope education workers won’t automatically assume that a lack of engagement is a lack of support. Your common thread is the children you teach and while some people will immediately jump to wages in discussion with teachers, redirecting onto issues such as class sizes, funding for extra-curricular activities and school repairs will hopefully help reach some agreement and you can move from there. I feel that most people in our school community may not be aware of all the intricacies around these cuts, but they are overall happy with the school and educators, so having a little faith in those connections is important.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve heard from parent organizers is an ability to connect to the various schools in our communities. Being able to access each school’s parent council for outreach and information would be extremely beneficial, not only to Scarborough Parents for Public Education, but most parent-led groups I’ve connected with. Connecting your school communities with the larger parent groups and vice versa can help build a framework that could see greater engagement in organizing around these education cuts. And teacher representatives sharing information about the resources that education unions may be able to provide such as meeting spaces, translation, signs and materials can help sustain parent organizing.
Joy Henderson is an organizer with Scarborough Families for Public Education.