BY: KATHY MCDONALD
The Roy Mcmurtry School (RMS) is a tiny gem situated in the most unlikely of spaces; a juvenile detention center. Why would I call the RMS a gem? Quite frankly you would have to meet the staff to understand why. Each and every staff member associated with that institution wants to be there. They have such passion and commitment to the students that it is truly my wish to see this infectious enthusiasm for student success permeate all staff in all school boards in Ontario. The school’s motto is “Education is liberation.” When I first heard of the Roy McMurtry Youth Center I knew it was a jail. What I did not know was that within the confines of this space was a school bursting with a staff that chooses to work there; a staff that was and is committed to unleashing the potential of each student and committed to reintegrating them back into society as positive, engaged and contributing members.
The school is headed by an outstanding principal Karen Hobbins. I even connected with an office manager from my son’s middle school. We had lost track. Only to have Ms. Walt resurface at RMS. I could not think of a better liaison for parents and the Board than Ms. Walt. Her compassion and dedication to the students of Peel are second to none. I cannot imagine a more suitable candidate for this role that could handle with compassion and sensitivity the plethora of demands, the concerns of parents and the confidential documents in her care. In my opinion, the most amazing thing about the staff is that they are all trained in restorative practices.
The school’s calendar is unique to the site and classes run throughout the year on a cycle which is different to the balanced calendar schools and the regular school calendar. Even the timetabling is different and the principal has quite a juggling act to perform as she tries to coordinate course requirements with students needs and well-being. The students while incarcerated earn credits towards their high school diploma. The RMS has a basketball team that competes against other school teams. The students also get to experience rich arts, science and IT programs in conjunction with the traditional core subjects. “It is sad that I had to come to jail to experience the best schooling experience of my life” student X says. Too often I hear our schools being referred to as a prison pipeline for Black males and when one examines the racial identity of the RMS students one may be tempted to reach a similar conclusion because of the disproportional over-representation of the Black and Caribbean community. However, after experiencing first-hand the magic that can occur when you set high expectations for students, when you respect and value all students and when the curriculum is student-centered and culturally relevant; I am encouraged. I am also encouraged by the work across several Boards. I will delve into this my next column.
The school has a lot of challenges that the staff has mastered and can almost seamlessly navigate. The staff at RMS are faced with a somewhat transient community that often leaves unexpectedly and without notice. Students may be located in the detention center for a few days, weeks or months; with many being incarcerated for a few years. Regardless of the length of their incarceration, these students need to have their educational needs met. There are often huge gaps in their learning as well as special educational needs. Although the curriculum is geared towards grades 9 to 12 the facility has accommodated students as young as twelve years old and as old as twenty-one years old. Many of the students are resistant to learning at first. The staff has to earn the trust of these students before they even buy into the program. It is truly disheartening that so many of the students had to be incarcerated before they feel connected to the educational system.
The RMS is scheduled to close soon as a result of a decision made by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The facility is slated to be transformed into a women’s prison. The youth that would traditionally be served by the RMS will go to smaller sites scattered throughout the Peel and across the GTA. It is important to note that the students at RMS are not exclusively Peel students. They are students from all across the GTA and beyond. As a Board, we have a duty to nurture these very fragile students because, despite their tough exterior, there is a child just wanting to be loved, valued and cared for. As a Board and a society, we have a duty to educate these children and not give up on them. I was blown away by the hope and raw potential that lies within each child that the staff at the RMS could tap into. I left the school with a deeper appreciation for the non-judgmental staff that goes to work every day and authentically inspires success, confidence, and hope in each student at the RMS. So, journey with the PDSB and work collectively, in earnest, to rise together to achieve success for these children, your children, and all children; irrespective of poor decisions that they may have made, poor mental health, poor educational achievements and poor financial circumstances. Walk Good. Belle Marché.