Project offers poor students equal chance

  • October 31, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - When one of her Grade 1 students didn’t bring a lunch to school one day, Hamilton, Ont., principal Dorothy Spence says she started thinking about whether other students also went hungry.

Spence called the six-year-old’s mother to ask why he didn’t bring a lunch and the angry mother’s response was that she expected the child to pack his own lunch.
“I never called home again to ask why a child didn’t have lunch,” Spence said at an Oct. 24 workshop of the Catholic Curriculum Corporation’s When Faith Meets Pedagogy conference. Her school soon had a school-wide brown bag lunch program.

Spence said the problem was symptomatic of a greater challenge of providing quality education for all students, especially those in need.

“Our whole existence for Catholic education in Hamilton began because there was a need to educate the poor,” she said.

In Ontario, one in eight children lives in poverty, according to a 2008 Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association report. It said more than 123,000 children relied upon food banks each month last year. More than half of these children had a parent who was working but did not earn enough to help lift the family out of poverty, it added.

For eight years, Spence was a principal at an inner city school with the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic board before assuming the role of project co-ordinator for the board’s Equal Opportunities project. Spence hopes the project will be used as a model for the province.

Spence’s passion for the program runs deep. She said she could empathize with the kids because she, too, grew up in similar circumstances.

“I’ve been there, done that. I know what it’s like to live in poverty. It’s not with shame and blame. The real poverty is the lack of opportunities,” she said.

The Equal Opportunities project was sparked in 2004 by board chairperson Pat Daly, who said the board needed to examine how it was addressing the needs of students at risk because of social and economic conditions. The next year, a task force on poverty was formed which included teachers, principals and administrators to study different ways of addressing the students’ needs.

The project’s vision was based upon the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education: “First and foremost, the church offers its educational service to the poor or those who are deprived of family help and affection or those who are far from faith.”

The task force found the negative effects of poverty on child development are “indisputable,” with poor children scoring low on literacy and math tests and having higher drop-out rates.

All Hamilton Catholic schools now have nutrition programs and after-school programs, said Spence. Breakfast backpack programs were established at five schools where a teacher carries a backpack filled with apples, granola bars and juice boxes to give to students.

The project also pointed to the principal’s key role in meeting students’ needs. It recommended training for principals and staff and small class sizes where students can receive more individual attention. Tutoring, special education and social work support programs were also started.

The task force report also highlighted the necessity of partnerships with parishes, the local community and the government to address the needs of students living in poverty.

The program had humble beginnings, starting without a budget four years ago, but now receives less than $200,000 from the board. Spence’s salary is paid by a grant.

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