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Omar Peters, in a white T-shirt, blue jeans, baseball cap and white sneakers, stands with an elbow resting on the shoulder of Prince Peprah, who is wearing a yellow T-shirt, black track pants and black sneakers. They are standing in front of a building with a panelled window and red-brown bricks.
Omar Peters (left) and Prince Peprah. Photo by Christopher Wahl

The Schools We Want

U of T's Centre for Urban Schooling aims to help youths in disadvantaged neighbourhoods succeed

By his own admission, 20-year-old Prince Peprah was not a model high school student. He cut classes, got into trouble and once received a month-long suspension for fighting. “I was on the verge of dropping out. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says. Then, in Grade 11, Peprah signed up for a media class. With a group of fellow students, he wrote a script and shot a five-minute movie using one of the school’s video cameras.

The experience was a revelation for him and sparked an interest in acting. “I just started liking what I was doing,” he says. “I realized that to pursue this I’ve got to go through school.” In June, Peprah graduated from David and Mary Thomson Collegiate in Scarborough.

I met Peprah, a compact youth with square shoulders and a broad smile, on a muggy July day in Toronto’s Distillery District, steps from the Young Centre for the Performing Arts where he and his former schoolmate Omar Peters, a lanky 17-year-old with a kid-like grin, and several other youth were taking a drama workshop sponsored by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Neither Peprah nor Peters had much previous experience on stage, but earlier this year they performed in The Housing Project, a play they helped write as part of the Toronto District School Board’s theatre-in-education co-op program. Now, both youth want to become actors. Peters believes he’s found something he’s good at. And, he says, “I enjoy it.”

Each year, the theatre-in-education program draws about a dozen students from across Toronto – some having difficulty in school, others not – to work together for a full term to write and rehearse a play that they tour to elementary schools in the spring. In June, the students performed at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People and brought down the house.

Billed as a remix of The Three Little Pigs, the play comprises three linked stories about students’ home lives. In House of Sticks, Peters’ character lives with his grandmother and younger brother. Other students tease him for wearing the same clothes every day, and a shady duo tempt him to sell marijuana to earn some cash (which Peters declines). When he brings home an assignment to create a family tree, his grandmother, who speaks with a thick Jamaican accent, snorts, “Why do those nosy teachers want to know all about your family?” The audience erupts into laughter, but after the performance a former teacher comments that the scene illustrates how an apparently benign exercise can be perceived differently if your family doesn’t include a mother or father.

When I ask Peters how closely the scene mirrors his own life, he replies that only the family’s circumstances match his; he has never been enticed into selling marijuana. Peprah, whose family left Ghana and came to Canada 12 years ago, adds, “The scene was more about peer pressure. In my past, I’ve done a lot of things that I personally did not want to do. I only did them because my friends were doing them, and you don’t want to look bad in their eyes.”

As we stroll out of Balzac’s Café and along the Distillery District’s picture-postcard cobblestoned streets to the rehearsal room at the Young Centre, Peters tells me he wants to become an actor to show his grandmother that he doesn’t need to become a doctor or a dentist to be successful. “I want to be different and do something out in the world,” he says.

Jeff Kugler has never met Omar Peters or Prince Peprah, but their stories are familiar to him. For almost 20 years, Kugler worked as a teacher, vice-principal and principal in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. Most of the children came from families that had recently immigrated to Canada. Some, like Peprah, spoke little or no English when they arrived. Teaching a class where the majority of kids are learning English is a huge challenge for teachers – but a new reality in many Toronto schools. Kugler says he – and the whole system – has had to adapt. “We can’t continue to teach as if nothing has changed.”

In 2005, Kugler left Nelson Mandela Park Public School to join the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE) as the executive director of the new Centre for Urban Schooling. It’s the first academic centre in Canada dedicated to addressing the unique challenges facing inner-city schools. (The centre is forging links with schools in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, as defined in a 2004 United Way report that examined poverty by postal code.)

The job change has removed Kugler from the day-to-day demands of running a school and meeting parents and thrust him into the more theoretical world of academic research, teacher training and policy development. The goal of both jobs, though, is essentially the same: to help students succeed in school.

The hurdles are high. Extracurricular programs that the provincial government cut in the 1990s have not been fully restored. Parent involvement has declined. Discipline, bullying and violence continue to be problems in many schools, and zero-tolerance policies (which the province eased this September), removed the ability of teachers and principals to administer the school’s code of conduct with discretion.

The Centre for Urban Schooling is partnering with inner-city schools to identify areas where research may shed light on particularly vexing questions. What are the most effective ways to handle classroom discipline? What programs best suit schools in communities with new immigrants? What policies help keep schools safe?

Although Kugler is not directly responsible for the centre’s academic research – that job falls to Kathleen Gallagher, the academic director – he helped prepare a report last year for Ontario’s Ministry of Education. To research Improving Student Achievement in Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances, Kugler and his co-investigators chose 20 schools as case studies and then identified elements that contribute to their success. They found effective leadership, a focus on literacy and a commitment to extracurricular activities to be common threads.

Kugler also co-chaired the task force that set up the Toronto District School Board’s Inner-City Model Schools project to create a better learning environment for children from low-income families. As part of the project, the board selected seven schools – one from each of seven low-income districts in Toronto – to receive an extra $1 million each for additional programs and staff. The first three schools were chosen in 2006, the remaining four this year.

Many other research projects are in the works. A new study involving 11 investigators from the centre, OISE and outside the faculty will look at the model schools from a variety of angles. The goal, explains Gallagher, is to assess whether “the purported desire to put students first has had an impact on the school, the students, and the relationship between the school and the community.”

Gallagher, who holds the Canada Research Chair in urban school research in pedagogy and policy, is also working with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to examine how a performance of David Craig’s play, Danny in the Basement, about a child who is homeless in Toronto, affects students’ and teachers’ understanding of poverty. (The play is touring Ontario schools this fall.)

The power of theatre is particularly close to Gallagher, who taught high school drama for 10 years and recently wrote a book about the unique learning opportunities that arise in theatre classes.

Drama is not a required course at Toronto high schools, and back-to-basics critics of Ontario’s educational system argue that, with limited resources for schools, it’s a frill and should not be offered at all. But such a view fails to recognize drama as more than a diversion or entertainment, says Gallagher, adding that standard literacy and numeracy tests – as favoured by the back-to-basics lobby – fail to capture the full benefits of theatre education. “The experience of making art has intrinsic value, which is not well understood in the current educational climate,” says Gallagher. “It’s very difficult when something is not immediately measurable.”

To research her book, The Theatre of Urban: Youth and Schooling in Dangerous Times (University of Toronto Press), Gallagher spent three years observing and participating in drama classes in two schools in New York City and two schools in Toronto. In the words and actions of the students, she found evidence to suggest that drama classes foster personal and social development.

The book includes transcripts of conversations among students about race, gender and sexuality, violence and other issues in their lives. During these conversations, some students commented that drama, unlike other high school subjects, allows them to interact in interesting, important ways with other students.

“I’ve been in [classes like auto mechanics and gym], and I don’t find that people are as interested in making friendships as they are in drama,” says Stefan, a Grade 11 student in Toronto who is quoted in Gallagher’s book. “I’m not really sure why, but drama class, it’s really, I find that by the end of the year it’s a well-oiled machine. A lot of people you didn’t think you’d be talking to, and then you’re best friends.”

Peprah told me that his experience with the theatre-in-education program taught him a lot about his own strengths and weaknesses and gave him better insight into how to settle disputes. “Because it’s an ensemble work, the show would not go on unless you resolve the conflict,” he says. “In school, we don’t really learn conflict resolution. The principal deals with that.”

Even more importantly, though, Peprah says he has learned that taking a job doesn’t have to be a one-way ticket to dullsville. “I realized that there are actually people who love what they do. [Our co-op teacher] has this great passion for what she does. And when you’re passionate about what you do, you’re able to touch more people.”

The message couldn’t be clearer: theatre can be a powerful motivator for disaffected youth. “There’s not a lot in schools that helps these kids believe that they matter,” says Gallagher. “Drama places a frame of significance around something; it says what you think about this is important.”

Most teachers and principals agree that social and behavioural problems must be solved before students can succeed academically. But what kind of discipline and codes of conduct work best in inner-city schools? What kinds of considerations need to be made in a multicultural environment?

Lance McCready, an assistant professor of urban education at OISE who is affiliated with the Centre for Urban Schooling, is interested in discipline and the pervasive belief that a lack of discipline is at the heart of why young black males tend to be less successful in school than their peers. “A lot of teachers, principals and administrators say poor black male students, in particular, need more discipline and clearer expectations,” he says. “I find that really interesting.”

Last year, McCready began collecting information about discipline and classroom management policies from two of the inner-city model schools. He also interviewed teachers about the kinds of discipline problems they face. The teachers reported everything from “straight-up defiance,” to unwanted touching to hitting and fighting.

Primary school kids generally don’t bring weapons to school, but even relatively minor infractions can alter how teachers and principals perceive and treat individual students – “the feeling that they’re little criminals,” says McCready. “This can affect the family’s relationship with school officials. And that can set the stage for problems down the road.”

Although his research is still in an early phase, McCready says his goal is to help schools develop equitable classroom management policies so “students feel heard, teachers feel heard” and disputes are resolved in mutually beneficial ways. “It doesn’t mean that everyone is happy all the time, but it also doesn’t marginalize certain students or populations.”

While research is a crucial part of the centre’s work, it’s only part of the equation; preparing teachers for challenging classrooms is also a significant component. Last year, OISE began offering an “inner-city option” to students enrolled in a one-year bachelor of education program. The option gives students the opportunity to gain teaching experience in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Starting in September, the centre is launching a similar option for secondary school teachers. Although the kinds of teaching techniques may not differ greatly, Kugler says the inner-city option provides teachers with a perspective that “sees kids’ strengths rather than deficits, community strengths rather than deficits and the importance of high expectations for kids.

“Imagine the impact on thousands of kids over the next 30 years as these teachers teach.”

In his own experience at Nelson Mandela, Kugler notes how important it is to integrate aspects of the students’ home life into their schoolwork. “We wanted to make sure that the experience the kids bring to school becomes a part of what happens at school.” Kugler cites the example of a Grade 5 teacher doing a lesson on immigration, who asks each student to interview and write about an adult in the school’s English as a Second Language program. “We’re acknowledging the experience of the people in the community as experiences that are valuable for kids to learn from.”

Prospective teachers and principals taking the inner-city option will also learn about effective programs in schools with a large immigrant community. Nelson Mandela, for example, created a space within the school where parents could bring their preschool children to play. A federal program operated out of another room, offering English instruction to both parents and children. George Brown College ran an upgrading class in the school for parents and other community members wanting to attend the college.

All of these programs involve parents in the school, which research shows leads to better results for their children. Many of the parents who live in Regent Park have had terrible experiences in schools of their own or very little schooling,” says Kugler. “When you have a school filled with parents involved in these programs, it greatly affects the kind of communication you can have with parents about their child’s progress or lack of progress. There’s a completely different sense of a school as not being over there, but including us all.”

Although the focus of the Centre for Urban Schooling is local, Gallagher and Kugler hope its impact will eventually reach far beyond eastern Scarborough and northern Etobicoke. Gallagher is already setting up a research project with schools in India and Taiwan. In November, the centre will host an international symposium on redefining student engagement. The two-day event at Hart House will include international scholars and inner-city youths who will share their stories of succeeding in or of being “pushed out” of urban schools.

For youth, the difference between staying in school and dropping out can be something as simple as connecting with one good teacher or succeeding in a single course. “Three years ago, if you said that I’d be performing on stage, I would have told you to get out of my face,” says Peprah. “I wouldn’t have believed it at all.”

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