According to recent 2016 census data from Stats Canada, 22.2 per cent of children under the age of 18 in Nova Scotia lived in low-income families (this is based on Stats Canada definition of ‘low-income measure, after tax’). That is at least 35,000 young people across the province.
In Amherst the number is 34.6 per cent, or 605 young people who fit into this category. In Cumberland County that same measure varied from 19.3 per cent (160 people) in the area around Amherst toward Northport; 29.8 per cent (170 people) in the area of Pugwash and Wentworth; and 34.1 per cent (380 people) in the area around Springhill toward Parrsboro.
In Parrsboro itself the number was 32.4 per cent (60 people) and it was 32.6 per cent (75 people) in Oxford.
To be clear, those numbers are not strictly about poverty but rather refer to the number of school-aged children who live in households where the largest share of household income goes to things like food, shelter and clothing, thereby leaving little income for other things.
Usually when we think about students living in low-income households we focus on access to food, nutrition and personal welfare. This leads to things like breakfast programs and food or charity drives. Those are of course critically important but there may be other educational consequences for students living in low-income households.
The lack of income for ‘other things’ may mean students do not have access to books, musical instruments and other learning resources at home. They may not have Internet access or a digital device. They may choose not to go to a museum, an art gallery or the theatre, or to participate in after school music or sports programs because there is not enough money to go around. In crude terms, it may mean that some students do not have access to learning experiences beyond the traditional public school.
This kind of scenario is very similar to what Katherine Prince, a noted educational futurist, described as the ‘fractured landscape’ of public education, where ‘only those whose families have the time, money and resources to customize or supplement their learning journeys have access to learning that adapts to and meets their needs.’
This comes from Prince’s essay, ‘Glimpses of the Future of Education’, published by the American Alliance of Museums, through their Center for the Future of Museums, in ‘Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem’, 2014.
Admittedly Prince was writing about the future of individualized learning but something of the term ‘fractured landscape’ resonates here. If we ignore the census data it is not hard to imagine, just as Prince did, a landscape where equity is no longer important, where there are persistent achievement and opportunity gaps, and where people can be simply left behind.
As an alternative to the fractured landscape Prince described ‘a vibrant learning grid’ where all those ‘who care about learning create a flexible and radically personalized learning ecosystem that meets the needs of all learners.’
Here learning moves beyond the school setting. Students learn what they want, where and when they want. There is a ‘seamless community infrastructure’ for learners, which includes schools, museums, libraries, cultural institutions and community-based learning opportunities set up as ‘nodes’, or points on the grid, and students are encouraged to move from one to another as their learning leads.
There are no easy solutions but I think as a starting point we should ask ourselves one question: when we think about all of the things that contribute to student learning – everything from schools to cultural, historical and recreational resources – do we place them on a grid and link them together or do we see them as separate entities standing alone in the landscape?
Adam Davies is a member of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board