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Schools Embrace Big Business To Raise Money in Canada
By Paul Weinberg
Inter Press Service

     TORONTO, Apr 11 (IPS) - What is it about a Canadian public high school in the Scarborough section here that draws education officials from such ironhanded countries as Singapore, China and Russia to come and rave that this is what they want to be?
     It is school principal, Mark Booth's, success in reinventing the school four years ago when the W.A. Porter Collegiate became the Scarborough Academy for Technological, Environmental and Computer Education (SATEC).
   When he took over, the school had a falling enrollment of 600 students. A self-styled entrepreneur, his efforts to raise money and profile for his school, has turned it into a ''high tech academy'', a publicly-funded institution that functions more or less like a private school.
     Today, SATEC has about 900 students and some 600 applications for 300 grade nine spots each year from across the city.
   What makes SATEC a winner in the harsh competition for students and funding within the Toronto District School Board, where school closures, shortages of supplies and the prospect of further funding cuts are already stressing Canada's largest school system?
     Booth has recruited corporate partners for extra funding and to enhance the reputation of his school to keep it off the list of schools up for closing.
   But the very success of SATEC has some observers worried that the public education system in Toronto and in other cash-strapped school systems across Canada are abandoning the idea that all children are entitled to the same quality of education.
     SATEC is way ahead in the contest for corporate partnerships, but this is of increasing concern to those who believe profit-driven companies already have too much influence over how the taxpayer's money is spent on education.
     In 1998, the Toronto District School Board signed a deal with Cisco Systems, the US-based computer networking products giant, to introduce its own curriculum on networking fundamentals into selected high schools.
     SATEC rushed to join the company's international network of Cisco Networking Academies. The teachers, trained by Cisco, instruct the students in how to design, build and manage computer networks in courses over a two-year period. Upon passing and gaining their credits, they are qualified to take a test at an approved Cisco training centre in Toronto.
     If successful, the students become Cisco Certified Networking Associates, which qualifies them for networking positions in the information technology industry.
     Jacqueline Latter, a parent activist and a spokesperson for the Ontario Education Alliance is concerned about the trend towards such corporate partnerships in Canadian schools.
     She fears that a school system where some institutions are able to provide better programmes and facilities than others because of the lobbying capability of a local principal leads one away from the democratic cornerstone of a universally accessible education system.
     This could lead to a ''hierarchy where one little group has more rights,'' she says.
     Corporate partnerships are increasingly important as educational officials and politicians in Canada place a greater emphasis on instilling computer and technology skills in the school curriculum to prepare young people for the job market.
     But children of poorer parents are excluded, says a Toronto District School Board researcher Maisy Chung. She estimates from a recent survey that more than 40 percent among lower income families report no access to a computer in their homes. She adds in this category, children of immigrant and non-white backgrounds predominate.
     More than half of the students attending Toronto high schools are considered members of a ''visible minority,'' says Chung.
     R.D. Gidney, a professor of education at the University of Western Ontario defends the emphasis on technology skills and the greater reliance on corporate partnerships in Canadian schools. ''Business at least by the late 1980s began to claim that it needed more influence on what was going on in schools.''
     Gidney says he is not crazy about companies writing history curriculum for a school, but he has no difficulty relying on companies like Cisco Systems for their latest computer expertise. ''The biggest problems the technical courses have had for decades are unless you have got a hell of a lot of money like you had in the 1960s, they fall behind. So you suddenly find yourself teaching something that nobody in industry uses anymore.''
     Others like Bob Davis, author of the forthcoming book, 'Skills mania: Snake oil in our Schools?' and a retired Toronto high school history teacher, worries that with the emphasis in education on how to do various things, the larger context of what is going on in the world at large is being lost. He finds that many kids come into the classroom generally confused and ''mixed up about their basic beliefs.''
   Davis bemoans how language skills and mathematics have replaced basic subjects like literature and history in Canadian schools. ''There is more focus on training for work and less on how to live in this society and how to live in the political system.''
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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