From the field

AN URBAN ALLIANCE

High school and UTSC students share the classroom to solve community problems

John Lorinc
Students looking at map on bulletin board

Last fall, several students from Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School in Malvern met with Raymond Cho, councillor for Ward 42, to talk traffic. They had a simmering concern about unsafe road conditions near their school.

The students walked Cho through a potential solution—a series of new pedestrian crossings that they had developed with third-year City Studies students from UTSC. Cho was interested and will take the ideas to a council committee for consideration.

“There’s some policy action taking place as a result of the research,” says Ahmed Allahwala, associate professor, teaching stream, in UTSC’s Department of Human Geography. “The ball is rolling.”

The project emerged from an innovative partnership that was established last year between UTSC’s City Studies program; TAIBU, a non-profit health centre in the nearby Malvern area; and the high school. TAIBU is concerned with disparities and barriers that affect the black community, and Allahwala met several educators at Blessed Mother through a contact at TAIBU.

After reviewing the curriculum, Blessed Mother Principal Nadia Young recommended that Allahwala’s students be paired with a Grade 9 geography class. The two classes broke into eight teams of six—three from Blessed Mother, three from UTSC. The teams then conducted workshops to develop research projects based on problems that face the area, which is home to many newcomers, racialized minorities and low-income families.

“The teams would go out and conduct community-based research from youth perspectives, focusing on issues of community well-being and social justice,” says Allahwala.

Blessed Mother geography teacher Michelle Paolini says her students were initially a bit tentative, but they developed good working relationships with the university class. She says the UTSC students gave them a sense of what higher education is like. “This was a great way for them to see it, without me having to say much.”

The project gave the teens a platform to have their concerns not only validated but put forward to planning officials. “They felt a lot of times that their opinions don’t matter,” says David Bazargan, a fourth-year City Studies student.

Other teams looked at how local park design could be rethought to minimize safety risks. One nearby park had only a single pathway, and walking through it meant confronting bullies. One change that could help: a network of paths.

Another team focused on the mismatch between facilities in the community centre and activities that local youth might actually do. “There’s just a basketball court and a skating rink, which isn’t that useful,” Paolini says. Adds David Bazargan: “We could work together to create a solution that catered not only to their needs, but also to the needs of the city.”