Special Report: Education

Systemic Racism and Class Inequality a Reality in Hamilton School Closures

Closing these schools and leaving a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population without any schools is an injustice that should be challenged.

By Yen Graham
Published February 27, 2017

This article has been updated.

Last year, I attended Louder Than a Bomb, a spoken-word event by high school students in Hamilton. In one performance, students at Sir John A. Macdonald (SJAM) spoke out against the perception that their school is dangerous because it is located downtown in a low-income, immigrant neighbourhood.

Sir John A Macdonald High School (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sir John A Macdonald High School (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The students showed pride in their diverse and vibrant school where the supports and dedication provided by teachers and staff have inspired many students to succeed. They also expressed a sense of injustice that their school was closing down.

SJAM is Hamilton’s only downtown high school. It has a large number of Black, Aboriginal, Asian and Muslim students. It offers strong programs to support Newcomers through their ESL program and Aboriginal Students through the Aboriginal Stay-In-School Initiative and through their Native Studies program which offers all students a greater understanding of Native culture. It is not yet clear whether these programs will be offered elsewhere.

SJAM’s central location makes it accessible by local transit and it is surrounded by local amenities including the local mosque, Central Public Library, James Street North Arts District, and agencies serving youth in the area.

The school is also close to many high-rises in the neighbourhood occupied by newcomers and low-income families. Having a school that is further away creates barriers to education for students who may already have challenges staying in school.

School closures often happen in low-income neighbourhoods where they are needed the most. In 2015, a report by the Elementary Teachers Federation showed that more than two-thirds of schools slated for closure by the Toronto District School Board were in poorer neighbourhoods. This is consistent with other school closures across North America.

One factor for this is that parents in these communities have less resources and influence than parents in wealthier neighbourhoods. As a result, their voices are often ignored by the powers that be who feel their positions will not be threatened for closing poorer schools.

SJAM was not originally slated as an option for closure as it was not one of schools identified as having low enrollment. But during the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's' (HWDSB) Accommodation Review (AR) process, parents on the AR committee opted for a new school, which meant closing SJAM along with Delta and Parkview, two other schools that also serve low-income students.

An AR is done when the school board wants to close or consolidate a school due to low enrollment. The review process is set up in such a way that it pits one community against another.

Schools that aren’t initially considered for closure often end up being closed, as parents in wealthier neighbourhoods try to stake out what is best for their children, and immigrants and low-income communities end up with the short end of the stick.

Sometimes immigrant and low-income families are not even aware that a decision is being made without their input. The minutes to the AR process reveal that the voices of SJAM parents and students were missing from the consultations.

Delta and Parkview parents tried to save their schools, but the HWDSB's short-sightedness pushed forward with the closures despite the negative impacts it will have on all neighbourhoods in the lower city.

The fact that the province removed the requirement to consider community impact from the AR process and the school board's willingness to go along with the process shows a lack of concern on the quality of education for low-income and immigrant communities.

Hess School Also at Risk

Now the local elementary school, Hess school, located in the same neighbourhood as SJAM, is also facing the threat of closure. Students at Hess are also largely made of refugees and new immigrants and come from over 30 countries.

Hess Street School (Image Credit: Google Street View)
Hess Street School (Image Credit: Google Street View)

The fact that the school board has not made any significant investments in this school since 1974 and is now proposing to close it, highlights the stark reality of how inequality is played out in the education system. Meanwhile, other higher-income neighbourhoods have had new schools built.

Of the nine schools in the present AR process, Hess is the only one slated for closure. During the AR committee meetings, five white parents from wealthier southern schools did not recommend to keep all schools open. They see the closure of schools outside of their neighbourhoods as beneficial for them as it could mean funding for renovations or additions for their schools.

Systemic racism and class inequality is a reality in school closures. For instance, Westdale, which has about the same enrollment numbers as SJAM, is located in a wealthy neighbourhood that would never face the threat of closure. The school board would never have closed Westdale and told students there to go to SJAM. Instead, it is SJAM students who must be inconvenienced by going a further distance to get to school.

The lack of investment in immigrant and low-income schools is one of the barriers this demographic faces in access to quality education. The school board, whose staff and trustees are mostly white, do not have a real understanding of low income and immigrant communities.

These communities are already at a disadvantage when it come to accessing and influencing the political process. As a result, despite SJAM and Hess not having low enrollment, they have become casualties in the HWDSB’s aggressive quest for funding - funding that would primarily benefit wealthier schools.

We are now living in a world where there is growing xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism. Schools like Hess and SJAM can be a place to bring communities together and provide education against myths and stereotypes of immigrant, aboriginal, and low-income communities.

Closing these schools and leaving a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population without any schools is an injustice that should be challenged.

Update: updated to correct that the parent council only makes recommendations and does not vote on school closures. RTH regrets the error. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Yen Graham came to Canada as a Vietnamese refugee in the 1980s.


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By rgelder (registered) - website | Posted February 27, 2017 at 13:54:44

Bang on, on most counts. However, it should be pointed out that Westdale's enrolment is significantly higher than that at SJAM. The fact that the former was exceeding capacity while the latter was beneath was cited as a justification for closure during the ARC process. In fact, Westdale was disqualified from closure consideration entirely on this basis alone.

However, the reasons for this also evidence of the point this excellent piece makes. Can the HWDSB justify why there is such a concentration of specialized programming (ie. French Immersion, International Baccalaureat, strings, etc.) contained in a single school, and is it any wonder that the building is bursting at the seams?

Wouldn't it be sounder educational policy to spread such programming across the city so that some buildings would not be overcapacity while others are barely half full? I would submit that there is classism endemic in the decisions tactily made to keep programs of choice out of the inner city and in more affluent areas.

Thank you for this piece. I can tell you first hand, from more ten years of teaching in the building, that Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School is a special place as a function of the caring staff in addition to the reasons you provided. It is, indeed, a gem.

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By yengraham (registered) | Posted February 27, 2017 at 19:34:42 in reply to Comment 120833

Thanks for your comment.

I based Westdale's enrollment numbers on the HWDSB'S current projection found here under the Q and A tab at the bottom: http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/revitalization/sc... It shows Westdale at 1,163 for 2016 and then it fluctuates between 1272 to 1394 over the next 5 years, but below its 1521 capacity. But you are correct. During the Accommodation Review in 2012, Westdale capacity was over at 1657. In 2012, SJAM had an enrollment of 1,168.

I find it interesting that the HWDSB is projecting declining enrollment at Westdale. It just shows that enrollment numbers can be fluid and potentially change over time. Even the school board recognized this. In this article, it says the HWDSB is considering keeping the SJAM building just in case population increases indicate it needs to be reopened: http://www.900chml.com/2016/03/21/65691/

Also, the HWDSB keeps saying enrollment is not the only factor. Other factors such as building conditions are also considered. But schools in low-income neighbourhoods are often left to deteriorate and as a result are at the highest risk of facing closure.

Comment edited by yengraham on 2017-02-27 21:02:15

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By rgelder (registered) - website | Posted February 27, 2017 at 20:27:30 in reply to Comment 120840

Wow, I never realized how many people Westdale actually "kicked out" partly as a result of the re-opening of the second French Immersion program at Sherwood.

Going to look at those other numbers. Thanks again for your great piece and helpful commentary.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted February 27, 2017 at 17:27:14 in reply to Comment 120833

For a key reason why Westdale is "bursting at the seams," take a look at the way the school boundary was gerrymandered. The map is at:


Yes, where I live in the wealthy Durand mansion district, our children go to Westdale, in spite of the distance to Westdale being 50% greater than the distance than Sir John A. Can't have our children associating with the riff-raff!

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2017-02-27 17:34:00

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 27, 2017 at 14:15:17 in reply to Comment 120833

Another point about SJAM is that, with its central location, it would actually be ideal for bus-traveling highschool students to access if more special programming was there.

When I was in school I had the option of going to Westbound Secondary to access some special programming, and balked at it because of its location - my friends told me "you have to take 2 buses, and because it's not located on any major intersections you still have to hoof it a few blocks from the stop" and so I did not opt to take the special programming at Westmount.

SJAM is one bus from everywhere.

Having a bus-accessible school seems like a no-brainer.

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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted February 27, 2017 at 20:50:30

The HWDSB governance is wholly broken. Trustees are part time, meaning most of them have jobs on top of their trustee duties. There are only 11 trustees to cover 15 wards, which means at election time several of them in combined wards find themselves with an impossible number of voters to connect with. Their campaigns get very little media coverage compared to Council races. Many trustees have seen the position as a personal stepping-stone, and don't seem to care much about education.

Senior HWDSB staff have long taken advantage of all of this and basically run the board as they see fit. Without looking this up, I can safely guess that none of them live anywhere near SJAM, and in fact I wonder if many of the people with great influence over Hamilton's education system aren't actually from other cities. They heavily prioritized putting the new education centre on the mountain, near the LINC, and it wasn't for the benefit of parents or children.

While the rest of the city has woken up to the fact that our downtown is a jewel, the HWDSB is sprinting away from it like it's on fire.

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted February 27, 2017 at 21:46:13

Just as reprehensible, they’ve been poisoning students with Discovery Math, for a decade.

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By HamiltonBrian (registered) | Posted March 01, 2017 at 19:17:44 in reply to Comment 120843

I'd counter that instead of "poisoning," it hasn't been taught well, nor explained well enough to parents. That's just me speaking as an educator who teaches with a problem-baed, inquiry approach.

But that's not the issue at hand. What is, rather, is the nature of the HWDSB top-tier structure and their decision-making.

Comment edited by HamiltonBrian on 2017-03-01 19:18:39

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By AinslieWood (registered) - website | Posted February 28, 2017 at 20:02:42

The arguments in this article also apply to the decision to sell Prince Philip in Ainslie Wood to renovate George R. Allen (now Cootes Paradise) in neighbouring Westdale. There were 4 Westdale residents and 2 Ainslie Wood residents on the Accommodation Review Committee, even though Ainslie Wood has a much bigger population. The then-trustee, Judith Bishop, lives in Westdale and aggressively pushed the ARC towards saving both of Westdale's elementary schools, while cheerfully sacrificing AW's single elementary school. There was rule-breaking and unethical conduct by that self-serving trustee during the ARC process. According to the Spec's Code Red, the median income in Ainslie Wood is slightly more than half that of Westdale. The percentage of visible minority residents in AW is more than double. AW has 4 big Hamilton Housing buildings, while Westdale has zero. Yet Westdale has two elementary schools and we have none. Class warfare is alive and well in the HWDSB, as the parents of Hess St. and SJAM are learning to their sorrow. My family went through the same hell and I offer them my sympathy. The HWDSB is elitist and corrupt and should be abolished ASAP.

Comment edited by AinslieWood on 2017-02-28 20:43:32

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By PDrummond (registered) | Posted March 01, 2017 at 00:02:10

With respect to recommendations vs. voting referred to in the update, I'd like to elaborate on this process.

Option 1, the only option put forward by the board, recommends the Hess Closure. The AR Committee voted to have staff investigate alternative options. All but five committee members voted to see what it would look like to keep all the schools open with tweaked boundaries.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 01, 2017 at 12:33:12

Thank you for pointing out the elephant in the room, Yen. The rather brazen class dynamics here are shameful, but it's reassuring to know that there are enough justice-minded parents on the ARC that self-serving West Hamilton Privilege can't be hidden behind a velvet curtain.

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By Luther (registered) | Posted March 01, 2017 at 16:46:28

Thank you so much for this very moving and informative article. What can we do going forward? Are the parents of SJAM students aware of this? Are people from the school reaching out? What would you suggest I and other people in the community do to help point out these issues, and force change?

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By Cayareed (registered) - website | Posted October 19, 2017 at 13:46:08

Glad to read about those initiatives. Well, I hope we will see the world without xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism in the near future

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