I Got Sent To America: The Effects of Educational Streaming in Ontario

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J.B. Tyrrell Senior Public School
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I.S. 231 Magnetech 2000

In the summer of 1998, I went to spend some time with my dad in New York. He and my oldest sister had moved there almost two years prior and I really missed spending time with them. I remember talking to my dad on the phone about coming and how exciting it would be. He spoke to my mom, they sorted some stuff out, and voila! I was New York bound. New York in June 1998 was were it was AT! I had never been exposed to Black American culture as a teenager so this was my first foray into it all. My dad lived in Rosedale, Queens at the time and it was a predominantly black neighbourhood back then. I remember the smells of street meat on Jamaica Ave, the dollar vans that would take us anywhere we wanted to go that operated faster than the buses. I remember the food, especially a New York slice dripping in cheesy (but oily) goodness or the Chinese food that wasn’t even close to authentic Chinese food, but tasted oh so good! I remember the music. DMX dropped his iconic first album that summer. Everyone in NY was going nuts because he was the hardest rapper to hit the streets in a minute. Sigh. Amazing memories.

And I distinctly remember the day my dad told me I wasn’t coming back to Canada. I felt like I was in the twilight zone because I couldn’t understand what he was saying. But he told me that he and my mother had had a conversation and had decided that me staying in the States was the best thing for me. That was it. No further explanation was really given. If you know anything about Black/Caribbean parents, they feel zero need to explain anything to their children. I remember the devastation of feeling like my life was being determined by other people and that I didn’t get a say, and I resented that. While I eventually got over my upset and adjusted to my new reality, I was still very hurt over how it happened. It wasn’t until years later, having a random conversation with my mom in the car as she drove from the Buffalo airport to Toronto, where I learned the real truth behind why she had agreed to let me move to the States.

In 1996, my mom, my younger sister on my mom’s side and I moved to Scarborough from Etobicoke. We had a nice two bedroom apartment on the main floor of a high rise building at Warden and Finch. I remember loving our apartment. My mom wasn’t a fan of the area per se, but we made do. She worked hard and provided for my little sister and myself as a single parent. We were enrolled in the local primary school there and had a pretty normal upbringing (minus the one time I got flashed by a white guy in a car while walking to school and another incident where I was temporarily stalked by a black man in a car). But outside of that, life was pretty normal. Or so I thought. Unbeknownst to my mom and me, there were forces in the education system that were secretly attempting to determine my future in terms of educational opportunities. When I was in the 6th grade and enrolled into North Bridlewood Junior Public School, I had a teacher who was elderly and at the end of her career. I distinctly remember her never being a fan of me from the first day I met her. I’m truly not sure what this teacher did not like about me as she didn’t know me, but I chalked it up at the time to her being close to retirement and probably just being done with kids and teaching in general. While this teacher openly wasn’t a fan of me, she couldn’t deny my advanced and superior skills in English & Writing class. She had to put me in the advanced group as I was flying past the other students in this particular subject. I finished out my year with good grades and having made athletic contributions on the track & field team and placing medals for the school. I was looking forward to the 7th grade at J. B. Tyrrell Senior Public School.

When I got to Tyrrell, there were two main classes for the 7th grade: 7A and 7B. I was split into 7B. When I entered my class for the first time, there were faces I recognized from my previous class at North Bridlewood and there were new faces from neighbouring schools. My teacher's name was Mrs. Barbara and for the most part, she was nice and a pretty good teacher. She was very affectionate in an appropriate way, she celebrated our wins and our class definitely was more lively than others. I had no idea that at that time, I was being streamed into a class that was geared towards grooming us for trade skills and 2 year college programs. We had been deemed as not being capable of handling university level courses, so we had slightly different classes, curriculum and academic focus as opposed to the 7A class. I as a 13-year-old kid had no awareness of any of this. It was at a parent-teacher conference, where my mother was asking my teacher about her credentials and her teaching history that she realized what was happening. My mother could not understand why I was in this class as my grades had been very good and I was in the advanced English class at North Bridlewood. So how did I go from being in an advanced class to now being put into a class where I was being taught by a teacher who specialized in dealing with children with learning disabilities, emotional issues and the like? I remember my mom telling me that she never really got a good or clear answer from my teacher at the time when she asked about this. Being that Tyrrell was the only school I could go to and there would be zero point in going to the TDSB as any parent with black children in Toronto knows how that goes already, my mom had extremely limited options. Or so she thought, until I was in New York living my best 14-year-old life that summer. After telling my dad her experiences with my teacher and the concerns she had, my dad had the brilliant idea of me staying permanently in New York as I was already there. He had been trying to get me to move pretty much since he moved and saw this as a golden opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. They would arrange for my clothes to be packed up in a small brown suitcase I had, and that was that. Looking back on it now as an adult, while proper communication with me about what had happened and why this decision was being made would have been nice and would’ve helped my transition tremendously, I completely agree with my parents that me moving to New York at that time was in fact actually the best thing for me and my future.

New York toughened me up like no other city on this planet ever could. Even though I was hurting and missed my friends and family in Canada, I had no choice but to move on. I attended I.S. 231 Magnetech 2000 in Springfield Gardens, Queens (now closed). It was a predominantly black school, which was a huge culture shock for me. I had never seen so many black students in one school before in my life. I could literally count on 1 hand how many white students and teachers we had in that school. I had black teachers, a black principal and black administrators for the very first time. I learned about black history openly. It was everywhere in my school. After graduating from I.S. 231, my family and I moved to Valley Stream, Long Island where I attended Memorial Junior High School and then went on to Valley Stream Central Public High School. I graduated on the honour roll, which I maintained for most of my high school career. I made the Who’s Who in American High Schools list for 3 years. I received acceptances to 2 of the 3 universities I applied to and received academic scholarships to both. There is no way that any teacher can determine a child’s life path in the 6th or 7th grade. The fact that the Ontario school system for years was arrogant enough to believe that they could tell where a student was going to be better suited without any investment in that student is beyond insidious. It sets children up to fail before they even start their lives. Those teachers and educators in Scarborough could not derail the purpose for my life. God and my parents had much bigger and better plans for me.

I’m grateful to my parents for doing what was necessary to ensure I had the best possible chance to succeed. But what about all the kids who didn’t have the opportunity I did to get out? How has the effects of the first wave of educational streaming that was executed changed their lives? What opportunities did they miss out on that they will never get back? I don’t take any of the experiences that I got to have as a result of the choice my parents made for me for granted. As an adult, I can see the wisdom in their decision. But my mom shouldn’t have had to make a decision like that in the first place. No educational system should force a parent to take such drastic measures just to educate their child properly and give them a fair chance at success. I’m happy to hear our current administration confirm that this program will no longer exist. It only took 24 years and countless lives affected for our government to finally get this right.

I am a Certified Life Coach, blogger, podcaster and entrepreneur currently residing in the Toronto, Canada area. I am a proud member of the CBCC.

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