Dubbed the ‘welfare academy,’ new Niagara school draws criticism from community

(This story was updated from its original version on March 1, 2011)

Come September, some students entering grades six and seven from all over the Niagara Region will be bussed to the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) Academy in Welland.

The DSBN Academy, set to be the first of its kind in Ontario, aims to help students become the first in their families to graduate from a post-secondary institution.

But the new school and a lack of communication about its intention and potential effects has members of the school community worried.

Laura Ip, one of the four organizers of the upcoming Niagara Education Community Forum, says lack of community consultation left her no choice but to get involved.

“I think the Academy comes from really good intentions,” Ip said. “I don’t have any doubt about that. I believe so strongly in communicating with the public and community consultation.”

Brett Sweeney, media relations officer for the DSBN, said students who apply and meet certain criteria will then be offered admission to the school.

Ip said she’s unclear about what will happen if more students apply than there is room for at the new school.

“Students do have to apply and meet certain grade and motivation criteria, but the board has been quiet about what would happen if the program is over-subscribed,” she said. “The word ‘lottery’ was used initially, but they have since backed off that wording.”

Initially for students to qualify, they had to come from a low-income family and neither of their parents could have any post-secondary education.

“The DSBN has since removed the low-income criteria and they have also removed the criteria where neither parent could have had any post-secondary education,” Ip said. “Now your parents can have a two-year college certificate or some university. Then you can apply for the school.”

Kevin Gosine, assistant professor of sociology at Brock University, has publicly opposed the DSBN Academy.

“The main negative aspect is the issue of stigmatizing students,” Gosine said. “You are constructing a group of students as a special needs population and that is inherently stigmatizing. It’s already been dubbed the ‘welfare academy’.”

Ip said the Niagara Education Community Forum hopes to provide residents of the Niagara Region with an opportunity to discuss the DSBN Academy. The forum will also be an information session about “Pathways to Education”, a program that offers support to youth who come from marginalized communities, such as Regent Park. The aid provided comes in the form of mentoring, advocacy and financial support. “Pathways to Education” was created and implemented in Regent Park in 2001.

Much like the DSBN Academy, “Pathways to Education” aims to increase the number of marginalized students who attend post-secondary education.

Ip says it’s a process that requires participation from the entire community. As a mother of two school-aged children, Ip is concerned about the long-term consequences of this type of school.

“They are asking 11-year-olds to make this decision and they don’t know what the potential ramifications are,” Ip said.