Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why I voted against the new Islamic program

On Tuesday, I was the only trustee to vote against the new Islamic program, called the Sakinah Circle Alternative Program. Because our board minutes only record the outcome and do not include any of the rationale (unlike the Hansard which records every word spoken), I want to explain a bit of the thinking behind my vote.

First of all, I completely understand the desire for an education that reflects parental views and beliefs. In particular, I am sympathetic to the need for minority groups to feel strength in numbers and to find a safe haven for their children in what can be, at times, a hostile world. Twice I have lived in countries where I was a minority and being so clearly "the outsider" is something I will never forget.  In both cases, not being able to communicate affected me deeply: I felt smaller, weaker and less capable.  I lost my voice and, with it, my personality and my self-confidence. Not understanding how things worked meant that I encountered constant frustrations and obstacles. My "rights" as I knew them to be in Canada, evaporated. I did not belong and everyday this was reinforced as I was stared at everywhere I went and my actions were frequently misinterpreted. As hard as it was for me, it was even worse for my young son and I worried about his ability to cope with all the changes. In short, being a minority is tough-sledding and I have great admiration for immigrant and refugee families who find the strength to build lives in Canada.

As well, I realize that precedents have been set in terms of faith-based schooling under Edmonton Public's umbrella with distinct programming available for Christian children, Jewish children and Aboriginal children. So, it would naturally follow that Muslim children deserve the same opportunity.  With a large contingent from the Muslim community showing up at the board meeting and many indicating they would enrol their children in this program, it is clear that there is strong support and I have no doubt that it will be successful.

So- why did I vote against it?

At the board meeting, I expressed keen interest in the elements that had been developed for the program- for example, weaving in historical contributions made by the Muslim community to world knowledge as well as nation and province-building. I said I felt these were key things for ALL children to know, not just Muslim children. I expressed concern about us moving into smaller and smaller groups and that my ideal version of public education is one where we all come together to learn from one another, to build understanding and to help us move towards a more peaceful future.  I believe that is only through positive intercultural interactions between children, before they can become tainted by racism and hate, that peace has a chance.

I believe that by increasing segregation, we reduce the possibilities for these positive intercultural connections. I believe we are all lessened by segregation- even if it is segregation of choice.

I spoke with a member of the Aboriginal community about educational segregation a while ago. She said that her hope would be that eventually we would not need it, but she felt is was necessary at this point to create safety, trust and self-confidence within the Aboriginal children and community. Perhaps it is the same within the Muslim community. Certainly, I recognize that this must be a difficult time in history to be a member of the Muslim community living within the western world.  Racism exits and I'm not blind to that.  However, my hope is that someday we won't have any programs of choice... that everyone will instead choose to be together, to integrate fully, to build intercultural understanding and to grow together.  The world is growing increasingly complex and intercultural- what better place than our schools to learn these necessary skills.

I recognize that my views are not those held by Edmonton Public, as an advocate of choice. I realize that, as well, they are not held by the board, which overwhelmingly continues to support choice. However,  there are costs of choice that should be considered. Every new program requires new curriculum development,  specialized teacher training (or hiring of teachers with specific skills), transportation and  District financial support ($319 per student for the first year). At some point, we will need to grapple with how much choice we can afford to support. As well, every program of choice attracts students away from other exisiting schools. In some cases, these students come from community schools that are already struggling with low enrolment. As we split the enrolment pie into smaller and smaller slices, I wonder where this will eventually lead us. Will we arrive at a day when every school in EPSB is a specialty school and community schools are a thing of the past? Will we effectively change the definition of public schools to mean a collection of charter schools under the public banner?

Questioning "Choice"- which many feel is the defining aspect of EPSB- is  a bit like walking on thin ice for a trustee... but I think its important to continue to reflect and examine the full implications of our decisions, not just for today but well into the future.



Amarnauth said...

Thank you for your explanation. I wonder with your rationale if you will be working to dismantle faith based schooling, accept the status quo, or continue to oppose all future faith based schooling demands? Does this apply to specialty/charter schools as well?

Thank you

Sue Huff said...

I am not interested in dismantling existing schools (either faith-based or alternative schools) assuming they continue to be well-attended. Those decisions were made before I came on the board and I think it would be unfair to attempt to reverse them.

I would, however, apply the same rationale to other new programs in the future, as I think we are approaching the point where we need to have a discussion about how much choice is too much choice and to examine the full impacts are of our decisions. As well, there has been some study of our three decades of choice at EPSB and the link between choice and academic achievement is questioned. If we are providing choice to ensure better outcomes for children, we need to be willing to look at this link and see if it is as strong as we might believe. To question "Choice" at EPSB is extremely unpopular, as you may know, but I think we should be open to discussion about everything.