As Palmer sent the 5-year-old culprit to her room, she suddenly “felt like crap for yelling at my kids for eating. When you’re on a budget and have to stretch, you get stressed. They’re sneaking food because they’re hungry and you’re punishing them for eating — but a lot of the time you’re snapping because you’re hungry, too.”
Palmer’s family is rich in spirit, but in a city torn by gaps in income, they are poor. With Palmer on disability benefits, Makeba and 8-year-old brother O.J. are among a troubling 70,000 students of the Toronto District School Board whose families live on less, often much less, than $ 30,000 a year.
Toronto schools adjust for family economics
If the city is divided by wealth and poverty, so are its schools. Canada’s largest school board has the challenge of trying to give kids who have just come from the food bank the same odds of succeeding academically as their classmates who have just returned from a vacation in France.
Those odds get worse as the family income drops.
Ingrid Palmer knows the barriers poverty throws in the path of learning. It’s not just that tutors and enrichment programs are out of reach, she said, it’s that poor parents often don’t feel they have a say. Yet parents’ involvement in their child’s education is known to be key to kids’ success.
“When you’re low-income, you feel embarrassed asking for things; you don’t want to look inadequate as a parent,” said the mother of three. “You don’t want to be judged as always having your hand out — even though high-income parents often think nothing of making demands.”
Palmer has seen both sides of this divide. When her grown daughter was in school, they lived in a subsidized apartment in a high-crime neighborhood where, she said, the school seemed to do little to level the playing field for struggling families.
But in 2011, her luck changed. Palmer’s family got into a subsidized house in a middle-class neighborhood and her son was offered a spot at George Webster Elementary School in a program for children with autism.
“I couldn’t believe it; suddenly my son was at a school that provided a hot lunch every day at very little cost ($ 50 for four months, but no one is turned away) and a healthy snack in both morning and afternoon,” said Palmer. “For the working poor or those on assistance, the budget gets pretty tight after the first two weeks of the month. Sometimes there’s only $ 5 a week left for food, so a hot lunch is one less meal to budget for. It was amazing.”
“They have a medical centre on-site once a week, which is amazing when you’re on a strict budget, because sometimes you can’t afford the $ 10 to take your kids back and forth to the clinic,” said Palmer.
“Before, my son was almost non-verbal, but at George Webster the teacher interviewed me beforehand about his interests and I told her he loves cars, so she fashioned a whole curriculum around cars. He learned to hold a pencil by tracing the dots along a road. It was like she flipped the switch, and suddenly he was engaged. He totally exploded. Before you knew it he was reading Green Eggs and Ham to the class.”
But what truly shocked Palmer was the effort to reach out to parents who might feel disenfranchised.
No problem, shrugged Steinhauer. We’ll pay for a cab.
“I was blown away,” recalled Palmer, who went on to use those cab chits to become a political powerhouse in parenting circles: former co-chair of the George Webster parent council, former co-chair of a council of parents from 20-plus Model Schools, and an active member of the board’s Inner City Advisory Committee, running meetings across town.
“Model Schools bridge whatever gap we’ve ever had; they remove whatever is preventing you from being invisible.”
Palmer has taken these new edu-savvy skills with her as her kids switched to Bowmore Road Public School last fall for different programs. This school may not offer hot lunches or free extracurricular programs to its middle-income families, but Palmer now knows how to ask for help, with head held high.
“My son wanted to take chess lessons at the school this year, but they’re almost $ 200 and I saw no mention of subsidy, so I called up the company and asked and they gave me 75 per cent off. Same with an extracurricular program called Mad Science; I called and asked if we could have more time to pay, and they offered us a 50 per cent discount.
“Before my Model Schools experience I would have felt embarrassed to ask,” she admitted, “but now I know how to advocate for my child and take advantage of the resources that are available.”
“It’s just unfortunate that not every school offers all these supports, because there are low-income families in every school.”