In February 2003, the Toronto District School Board announced the discontinuation of General Interest courses. Clearly, they did not expect learners to organize and fight back, but fight back they did. Two seniors, Jack Henshaw and Gerry Lang, along with others, took the lead in organizing Citizens for Lifelong Learning. They organized community meetings, lobbied TDSB school trustees and provincial politicians, got media attention, and secured over five thousand signatures on a petition. Thanks to their advocacy, the program was reinstated in August 2003.
But the story doesn’t end there. It has taken nine years to rebuild the program to where it was in 2003 when the program was discontinued. In the meantime, the demand for General Interest courses has grown. Three years ago, when the Board moved to deliver the calendar to every household, 6000 students could not be accommodated by the courses offered. In spite of its obvious popularity, the program was not expanded to meet the demand.
To be fair, the TDSB receives no support from the Ontario government for General Interest learning for adults. In 1986, the Ontario government cut funding support for these programs and has never reinstated even a portion of this. Even so, the TDSB has continued to support General Interest programs for the community. The Ontario government needs to do the same.
Although General Interest programs are suited for all ages, seniors make up over twenty-five per cent of the students. Newcomers, low-income adults, and seniors study a wide range of courses such as art, business, communications, computers, crafts, dance, languages, music etc. Whole program areas - liberal arts, history, cultural studies, sociology, literature, art history, music appreciation and political science - have remained untapped.
TDSB General Interest programs are well-suited for seniors. They are organized for the sake of lifelong learning, rather than for credit towards a certificate, diploma or degree. They are both accessible, since they are offered in local schools, and affordable, when compared to college and university programs.
In reality, General Interest courses are ideal for many adult learners who want to learn something new just for the sake of learning something new: newcomers, who want to move beyond English as a Second Language classes and establish friendships through shared interests; low-income earners, who want to learn something new but can’t afford the fees for credit courses; or those who simply want to broaden their educational horizons and participate in a community of learners.
Given that the aging of the baby boomers means that the number of seniors will be increasing every year over the next decade, that the Board is closing underutilized schools and selling them off, and that the General Interest programs are oversubscribed, one might well ask why the program is not growing exponentially.
Jack Henshaw and Gerry Lang continue to lobby for the expansion of the program. Both Jack and Gerry currently sit on the Continuing Education Advisory Committee of the TDSB. Adult students at the TDSB are lucky to have two such dogged advocates. Jack was the Coop Coordinator for the Engineering program at the University of Waterloo and Gerry was the Human Resources manager at the LCBO. They are exceptionally astute advocates, but at this point they are also very frustrated.
The merits of the program – keeping seniors engaged with learning and with the community, allowing newcomers to move from ESL classes into mainstream learning, opening up learning opportunities for low-income learners – have been presented over and over again. The benefits of lifelong learning to the health of older adults are now fully recognized. Research, such as that undertaken by Brock University’s Community Health Sciences Professor Miya Narushima, endorses the view that for seniors, learning really is the best medicine.
So what is to be done? How can the public, seniors, newcomers, and low-income earners convince the Board to actively grow the General Interest program? First of all, you can contact your school trustee and tell him or her that you would like more General Interest programs. Let your trustee know what programs you would like, and where you would like them. Secondly, you can ask your Member of Provincial Parliament to advocate for funding for General Interest programs.
Go to www.tdsb.on.ca .Click on About Us. Look on the right side and click on Wards and Trustees. There you will find a map and contact information for all Board Trustees. Or call 416-397-3000, explain where you live and ask to speak to your trustee. Go to www.ontario.ca Put Legislative Assembly in the Search engine to find your MPP. Or call 416-326-1234 and ask for help in identifying your MPP. June is Seniors' Month.
Further Note: Jack Henshaw received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal on June 27, 2012. Jack was recognized for over seventeen years of advocacy for adult and seniors' education General Interest programs.