Downtown Schools Deserve More Outdoor Space
From the Nest, Issue 14
by Tarek Jalbout
If you ask most Canadians what they consider Canada’s strengths to be, dollars to donuts, one of the top three answers that you’ll get is diversity.
I know I’d say it. I’m a proud Canadian and I’d put diversity as my top reason. I’ve had so many memorable interactions in Hamilton with people who have come here from all over the world.
For most of us, especially in big cities, the first opportunity to have exposure and interaction with a more diverse population is when we attend public school.
I have three daughters that attend Queen Victoria Elementary School in Corktown. We were first introduced to the Queen Vic community when our eldest daughter started kindergarten. She’s in grade 5 now and my other two daughters are in grades 3 and 1.
When the girls were still young and we were in the early school discussion phase, I brought up to a neighbour I’d just met that we’d be attending Queen Vic soon. He casually mentioned to me that we should consider other schools, because he felt that Queen Vic had “too many refugees”.
I was taken aback by the comment. especially because I came to Canada as a Palestinian refugee. My parents emigrated when I was 6 years old.
It breaks my heart to think that some parents wouldn’t want to send their kids to a school because someone like me might be a student there.
Queen Vic doesn’t have “too many refugees”. It is a diverse, vibrant school that happens to have a high population of newcomers. It contains diversity in ethnicities and in socioeconomic backgrounds. It has a problem convincing parents, or potential parents who moved into the neighbourhood, that it is the best school to send their children to.
My wife and I made a decision, actually more of a commitment, to attend Queen Vic, to get involved in the school and community, and to help better it for all students.
In addition to Queen Vic’s diverse population, it also has the smallest outdoor play area of any public school in relation to the size of its student body.
Not only is the school catering to those hardest-up in terms of socioeconomic conditions, and new immigrants, it doesn’t have the outdoor space required; the outdoor space that children need to be able to explore, run, engage, or isolate in. The space needed for students to have a better experience just doesn’t exist.
To help drive engagement with the diverse population and to try to get the students the playground they deserve, I joined School Council where I have been chair for the past 3 years.
Often, when I raise the concern about the playground, the immediate response is, “yes, that space needs improving”. No one I have spoken with has objected to the need for a better space.
It was interesting to see a recent article that described the new Bernie Custis Secondary School as inadequate. I also bet no one would disagree with that. It seems that decisions are made by people in charge that impact poor and racialized students and we accept the consequences (even though they aren’t what’s best for the students of those schools).
I decided to run for the interim trustee role for Wards 1 and 2 when the position opened up to help champion the downtown wards and try to encourage conversations about outdoor space in our downtown schools.
Even though I wasn’t successful in obtaining the role, I was encouraged by the quality and passion that the other candidates had and feel the Board made a great choice in selecting Elizabeth Wong to represent Wards 1 and 2.
We are still in the process of working with the Board, City and school administration to potentially use Corktown Park for students during recess and lunch.
It will take all key members of our community to come together and get creative to try and solve the outdoor space issues our students have. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long to try and get some movement.
I wonder if the decision to have the limited outdoor space that Queen Vic has would have been made if the student population was perceived differently.
I’ve learned that parents that “make the most noise” get the most benefit from the board. It’s unfortunate that this is the case because it grows the gap between our schools, given some parents are not able to advocate for their children or don’t know how.
My hope moving forward is that we look at the needs of the school and work collaboratively to better the experience of the students, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status.
Tarek Jalbout is a father to his three daughters who all attend Queen Victoria Elementary School and Co-Chair of its School Council