*  There’s a backstory to this title.  A student who had recently moved up from GT’s class asked to be un-promoted, on the grounds that my class had too much democracy.  I believe that both GT and I took this as a compliment.  I actually don’t think the student’s definition of democracy is consistent with what I’m talking about here, but it’s too good a line to waste.


As I walk through the halls of my old school, it seems, well, fine. There’s a beautiful new mural of a canoeist surrounded by leaping salmon.  The staffroom cork board announces well subscribed trips TSO  dress rehearsals and Aga Khan museum exhibits.  My former classroom is agreeably messy, with names of classical philosophers scrawled in chalk on the bulletin board.  But still… Maybe it’s just the echo of my feet as I walk down the hall — when I started in 1994, the school was never empty.    Maybe it’s more than that; I’m just not sure.

What I do know is that community ESL has undergone a fundamental change since I started at Overland 21 years ago.  In many way the change has been fueled by forces that seem on the face of it benign or even desirable.  I’m also pretty sure that in some ways they have made things better for some people.  The fact remains though, that they are the main reason that Overland is now a location for lessons rather than an integral part of the life of many of our 3000 plus students.

One big change was the centralization of  assessment and class assignment.  And why not?  The adult education industry had become too multifarious; so many groups had a finger in the pie. Especially at the advanced level, there were so many different organizations providing valuable specialized programs, none of which knew about each other (Often I only found out about them through my students).  So there was often duplication of programs, or students shoe-horned into one class where another would have been better.  Why not have a central office responsible for assessing  students and assigning them to the centre that best meets their needs?  And let’s give that job to a third party so no one course provider can accuse another of poaching students (and funding dollars).  So yes it does make sense to set up central assessment centres and then assign students to the courses most suited to their needs.

Except,…. a model like this  downplays the importance of two things, actual physical location and role of the assessors.

So there’s the building.  Ok, it is a little dilapidated, and I’m sure students and staff would welcome ac and wifi, but it’s a classic 1950’s elementary school building, nestled in a little valley.    The generous windows and doors, the many multi-functional spaces, represent the openness and flexibility of Canadian culture.  To cap it all, if you require more obvious symbolism, the west facing windows on the second floor  look right into the branches of an enormous maple tree, which turns scarlet in the fall.

There’s a Parks and Recreation recreation area behind the school.  It’s used by Overland students, neighbourhood families, and the kids from the local private school.

The immediate area is made up of single family dwellings on large lots.  Most of the inhabitants are seniors who are at least second generation immigrants.  Many are active members of the Overland community, taking General Interest  Classes in computer skills or crafts, serving on the Advisory Committee, volunteering in the classroom or the community garden.  They become fierce and effective advocates for the school when its status is threatened.

Students usually come from a little farther away even when there are other programs closer to their homes.  When new immigrants arrived, former students used to bring them in to Overland, to introduce them and help them enrol in the language classes.  They came because the school was much more than the location for the classes that they took.  Overland was  a community centre, in the most literal meaning of the word.  It was the nexus of a community, one made up of new immigrants and established Canadians, children and adults.   The site offered continuous classes from 8 am until 9 pm, but much more: a library, a housing counsellor, pumpkin-carving competitions, Earth Day concerts.  An old TOEFL lesson focuses on the difference between “at school,” and “at the school,”  but for these students, the lines were blurred

And then there were the assessors.  They were integrally involved in the workings of the school.  They knew the students and the teachers as individuals rather than CLB numbers.  Assessing and placing students required a complicated calculus:  would the student respond better to a stricter, more traditional teacher, or a freer spirit ?  would the teacher be able to deal with a student’s learning challenges? Because the assessors worked at the same site, they were a constant presence in students’ lives.  Often they were involved in decisions regarding promotions and later class choices, but more than that, they served as mentors and often friends.  Students moved from class to class, formed new networks, bonded with different teachers, but the assessors were always there, and at times it was these relationships that motivated the students to stay with the program . When students finally “graduated,” to the workforce, to university, or to a bridging program, the assessors celebrated with them, having been with them since their first week in the school.

So what happens when the assessment becomes centralized?  Well naturally, the local assessors are no longer necessary.  Students are assessed by a clerical worker who sees them as collections of CLBs rather than whole people.  Contact is short, and there is no follow up with that person.   There is no longterm connection between assessment and  learner — and  nobody cheering at the finish line.

At the same time, the site loses its special status.  Students are sent to one place or another based on paperwork rather than a particular emotional connection to one location.  No longer can protective relatives bring new Canadians to the familiar space of the Overland office to help them register for English lessons: now students are given a map to an assessment centre at least two buses away.  The organic link between class and community is severed.  For a timid newcomer that extra journey may be daunting enough to discourage them from English classes altogether.

So yes, the new system may be more efficient.  There may be less overlap between programs.  The CLB  assessments may be more consistent.  But these changes erode Overland’s ability to function as it did in the past, as a special space, one that was so much more than the sum of its parts.