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Viewpoint: Changing Academic Standards, One Community Centre at a Time

Low-income communities are normally portrayed in the media as hubs for violence, troubled youth, and drug saturation. But youth living in lower-income neighbourhoods are not necessarily destined for lower academic success due to lack of opportunity, resources, and/or desire. Community centres like the Alexandria Park Community Centre in Toronto, offer a range of learning opportunities and educational support not otherwise accessible in schools, creating a space of belonging, and familial and academic support, which enriches the students’ educational lives through academic achievement and greater potential for success. These centres, found across the country, can take credit for changing the academic standards in marginalized and non-marginalized neighbourhoods alike, one youth at a time.

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Across Canada there exist pockets of “high-risk” communities that share certain characteristics, most of which experts and researchers correlate to poverty. These communities are normally portrayed in the media as hubs for violence, troubled youth, and drug saturation. While it is true that there are some pervasive issues directly related to lack of resources, one may need to take a second glance before siding with the media’s portrayal and/or one’s very own predetermined perceptions of what environments set the precedent for academic success.  If you have ever thought that youth living in lower-income neighbourhoods were destined for lower academic success due to lack of opportunity, resources and/or desire, I urge you to keep reading and discover, as I have, a very different world than the salacious world of gun-slingers and drug traffickers typically portrayed in the media as the prime activity in low-income housing communities.

The Alexandra Park Community, also known as the Atkinson Co-op, is nestled unassumingly in the downtown core of Toronto. There are 806 residential units serving approximately 2,000 residents, most of whom live on a fixed income. There is a burgeoning contrast between the Atkinson Co-op, which visibly lacks in resources, and the trendy overflow of splendour that surrounds it. During my exploration I was able to uncover this community’s best kept secret. While visiting the Alexandra Park Community Centre, I discovered that it housed and kept safe the most valuable treasures and ostentatious investments of this community: the youth.

Contrary to the reflection of how undervalued community centres may be to greater society (i.e. decreased presence in communities and lack of financial support for programming), “out of school programs serve as critical partners in assisting schools to fill [...] gaps, especially those serving low-income and working-class children of immigrants of colour.”[1] Research done by Irby, Pittman and Tolman emphasises that schools are only “one of a range of learning environments that share responsibility for helping students learn and achieve mastery... Community-based organizations, museums, parks, libraries, families, etc., are also themselves settings for learning and engagement.”[2] Community centres offer a range of learning opportunities and educational support not otherwise accessible in the schools. According to Lee and Hawkins, “community-based after-school programs have the potential to utilize resources and connect with children in different ways than school.”[3] Irby et al highlight that “because they are not necessarily associated with the expectations of school or other major institutions, students may feel more at home in intermediary spaces.”[4] Community centres offering after school programs create a space of belonging, and familial and academic support, which ultimately serves to enrich the student’s educational life through academic achievement and greater potential for success.

Mr. Olu Quamina, Child and Youth Program Coordinator at the Alexandra Park Community Centre, would attest that the community centre “is the nucleus of the community.” The roster of various programs catering to the residents of this richly diverse community has the ability to transport the youth past any stereotype to a point well beyond notions of social responsibility and program participation. Exchanges happen here. Ideas are born here. In many contexts, lives are saved here. Youth who would not otherwise have had an interest in school have traded in their long-standing ideas pertaining to the unimportance of academia for new ones geared toward goal attainment and academic success.

Executive Director Donna Harrow, Atkinson Outreach Worker Donnohue Grant, and Quamina work to implement specific program initiatives that propagate and ensure self-sufficiency while partnering with schools for visible continued support. S.E.R.V.E. (also known as Social. Emotional. Recreational. Vocational. Economic.-Opportunities for Youth, named after the five areas Quamina believes will make a difference in the lives of youth) and Concrete Roses are a few of Quamina’s recently designed programs geared toward the enhancement of youth’s lives through creating bridges of awareness between the relevance of skill development, academic success, and all other aspects of life. “We have changed the standard here. It is no longer ‘cool’ for youth to drop out of school,” says Quamina.

This sentiment is echoed by Patrick, who largely credits Quamina and the Alexandra Park Community Centre staff for supporting him in the successful pursuit of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT) scholarship. Although Patrick is aware that those unfamiliar with the Alexandra Park Community perceive his neighbourhood to be “a criminally-based environment”, the environment that he has come to know and love is much different. For Patrick, much of his environment is guarded safely between the walls of the community centre. “The Dexler Johnson program, movie nights, homework club... all of the centre’s activities helped to keep us out of trouble” explains Patrick. He has participated in these programs for several years and has had the opportunity to assume leadership roles. “The centre is where I learn how to become a better person while being an example for others.” When asked where he sees himself in a couple of years, Patrick answered with a smile, “I want to be in a position where I am able to give back to my community and pay tribute to all those who have helped and taught me along the way – furthering my education will help me to do just that”.

Ellie also largely attributes the tenacity of her academic second wind to Quamina and the support she felt throughout the community centre. “Prior to moving to this area, I was going to drop out [of school].” At that time, Ellie had just lost her mother. She was also recovering from an eye operation. Although she had been born visually impaired, the operation had rendered her completely blind. “The centre was incredibly welcoming and was definitely an instrument of change.” Not only is Ellie one of the beneficiaries of the centre’s initiatives, but she has also assumed a role as an imparter of those same initiatives. Ellie is a role model for the youth at the centre. She helps and supports children who are not visually impaired to learn how to read. “I felt that I had a greater purpose.” Ellie has since switched schools, career paths, and with the support and resources of the community centre, has also been successful in the attainment of the CHFT diversity scholarship. “These programs help to spotlight a group of people that most would glance over,” says Ellie glowing with appreciation. “We are here, we have voices, and we are beating the odds.”  

Community centres may be seen as an oasis that refreshes and rejuvenates the spirit of academia. The youth who frequent the Alexandra Community Centre strongly vocalised how important the centre was to them. So on their behalf, and on the behalf of youth from communities across Canada who may not have the opportunity for their stories to be heard, a special thanks goes out to those whom Ellie refers to as “the unsung heroes”: community centres responsible for joining the Quamina’s, the Harrow’s, the Grant’s, the CHFT diversity scholarships, and schools of the world, whose collaboration has resulted in changing the academic standards in marginalized and non-marginalized neighbourhoods alike, one youth at a time.

EN BREF - Les médias représentent généralement les collectivités à faibles revenus comme des plaques tournantes de violence, de jeunes en difficulté et de toxicomanies. Mais les jeunes vivant dans des quartiers défavorisés ne sont pas nécessairement condamnés à une réussite scolaire moins brillante par suite d’un manque de possibilités, de ressources ou de volonté. Des centres communautaires comme l’Alexandria Park Community Centre à Toronto offrent un éventail de possibilités d’apprentissage et de soutien éducatif dont ils ne disposeraient pas ordinairement à l’école, suscitant un lieu d’appartenance et un soutien familial et scolaire qui enrichit la vie éducative des élèves en leur ouvrant la porte à la réussite scolaire et à un potentiel plus élevé de succès. On doit à ces centres, répartis à travers le pays, de changer les normes scolaires dans des quartiers marginalisés ou non, un jeune à la fois.


[1] A. Wong, “’They See Us as Resource’: The Role of a Community-Based Youth Center in Supporting the Academic Lives of Low-Income Chinese American Youth,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 39, no. 2 (2008): 184.

[2] M. Irby, K. Pittman, and J. Tolman, “Blurring the Lines: Expanding Learning Opportunities for Children and Youth,” New Directions for Youth Development 97 (2003): 18-19.

[3] S. Lee and M. Hawkins, M. (2008) “’Family Is Here’: Learning in Community-Based After School Programs,” Theory Into Practice 47, no. 1 (2008): 53.

[4] Irby, Pittman, and Tolman, 18-19.