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Life at the Intersection: Community, class and schooling

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A review of Life at the Intersection: Community, class and schooling By Carl James, Fernwood, 2012. ISBN: 9781552664704

Life at the Intersection: Community, class and schooling is an effort to challenge stereotypes about one of Canada’s most high-profile neighbourhoods, the intersection of Jane and Finch in Toronto.

Carl James, Director of the Centre for Education and Community at York University, puts forward a “counter-narrative” about the neighbourhood and its schools. He argues that public perceptions, reinforced by disproportionate negative media coverage, see such communities as “incubators of trouble and violence.” Perceptions of the community, in turn, become stigmatized markers of identity that affect students’ opportunities in tangible ways and limit critical reflection on the social structures underlying communities’ challenges.

The book focuses on the contradictions faced by students and schools in the neighbourhood. James argues that students are “con-fined to educational institutions that struggle and fail to recognize their inherent abilities, potential and hopes” and that most students and families see education as essential to their aspirations. He shows that students are committed to using their education to “pay their dues” and make their community stronger – while also using it to “escape.”

The challenges facing Canadian urban schools serving predominantly racialized students living in poverty are somewhat different than in the U.S. or U.K. James asks painfully honest questions. Why, with relatively equitable public funding and many educators “doing their best,” is school success still elusive? Why are the effects of initiatives like Model Schools for Inner Cities and the school-university partnerships disappointing?

Ultimately, James argues that a “community-centred approach to education” is required. Educators need to more effectively tap into the community itself as a source of “cultural wealth.” Program, curriculum and pedagogy must be informed by the knowledge, skills, and abilities used by community members to survive and resist an unjust system. Approaches such as Participatory Action Research build students’ capacity for critical reflection as well as the skills and credentials required for advancement.

The book is enriched by James’ deep involvement with the community, and the voices of students. This strength is also a limitation, as the portrayal of the problems depicted – ones he argues are “not merely about equity, class, race or social justice but life and death” – outweighs more nuanced and careful recommendations about how to make things better for these schools and students.

First published in Education Canada, March 2013