Globe and Mail

What's this city doing right?

Children in Port Colborne scored the best over all in Grade 3 testing. It could be because everyone in the community works together toward common goals.

The Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 16, 1999

Port Colborne, Ont. -- Family Matters will run through to Saturday. It will be followed each Friday with a full page tracking the lives of Canadian families in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, as well as examining other family issues.
The series will be posted daily on:

Someone ought to send a royal commission here.

This may be the best place in Ontario to raise children. Of all the municipalities in Canada's richest province, this city of 19,000 has the smallest proportion of children falling through the cracks, according to academic and health measures.

Its children are thriving. But why?

This is not a wealthy city. Generally, the most affluent communities produce the most achievers. People here do not have much money in their pockets -- personal income is 8 per cent below the national average. The 14.7-per-cent poverty rate is pretty average. Unemployment, at 9.9 per cent, is about two points higher than the country's.

And yet on Grade 3 testing, one of the few markers of how ready young children are to learn -- and a predictor of their future performance -- Port Colborne has the highest proportion meeting or exceeding provincial standards in mathematics, reading and writing, according to a comparison of 50 municipalities provided by Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office.

It is first in reading with an astounding 97.12 per cent at or above standard, third in math and fourth in writing -- overall the best.

This 200-year-old city is also tops on another important community health measure: It has the lowest proportion (3.41 per cent) of babies born at low weights, defined as less than 5.5 pounds. The national average is just under 6 per cent.

Is it the coziness? Is it the out-of-the-way location on Lake Erie's snoozing north shore? Is it the parents?

Money isn't everything. Even the children of Kanata, an affluent suburb of Ottawa with just 4 per cent of its population living in poverty, could not match this small city's achievements.

Researchers all over the world are trying to pin down why some communities thrive while others are torn by delinquency and sickness. Their answers point to an elusive quality called "social cohesion," in which parents, children and the community work together toward common goals.

Port Colborne's got it. "Wovenness" is the word used by Ronald Rossman, the owner of Rossman's Furniture. The parents know the teachers, nobody is denied a spot on the hockey team because he can't afford the equipment or the fees (so Mayor Vance Badawey promises), and everyone watches over the children.

Or, as Tom Lannan, Port Colborne's impish 45-year-old recreation director, said of his childhood, "It seemed everybody knew everybody else. We had the principal next door, the chief of police three doors away and the sheriff lived behind us. Sheesh."

For context, the royal commission should probably know that this is a city that might have died over the past 20 years.

Tour the moribund industrial area, on the east side of the Welland Canal that cleaves the city. Notice the overgrown weeds obscuring the vast parking lot of Inco Ltd.? A generation ago, Inco had 2,500 employees (in Toronto a company would have to employ 250,000 people to have the same importance that Inco once had here); now, after downsizing, it has 200.

But there, on West Street, facing the ramshackle east side, lively new businesses are popping up to cater to tourists. There's an antique shop, a wine-and-cigar bar, a bookstore . . .

Social cohesion is best understood in action. The commission might begin tracking it at the home of 79-year-old Ruby Conway, the city's unofficial ambassador.

Witness #1: Ruby Conway, local historian

Mrs. Conway, a widow with bad hips, who endured chemotherapy last year for colon cancer without neglecting to write her weekly column for the local newspaper, lives alone on a gorgeous lakeside street, Tennessee Avenue, which was settled by migrants from Memphis in 1888. (Mrs. Conway wrote a book about it.)

"They call Niagara-on-the-Lake the prettiest place in the region," says the mother of seven and grandmother of 16, "but I think Port Colborne may be the homiest."

In large expensive homes, costing $250,000 and up on the lake side of the street, several widows live alone, some supported, like Mrs. Conway, on the pensions from their blue-collar husbands' factory employers.

"In any other city, people like me would have to go into a seniors' home," she says. "My God, when I was sick, I had soup coming in the front door and soup coming in the back door."

As if to underline her point, Bill the mailman comes along and steps into her enclosed front porch and hands her the mail. "Hi Co-co," he says to her dog.

And how did Port Colborne make the transition from heavy industry to tourism? Women entrepreneurs, Mrs. Conway says, opening up the local paper to a half-page of business ads. "Most of these businesses are owned by women."

But what about the youth? Will homeyness hold them here?

Witness #2: Dana Rogers

Like the city itself, the slim 19-year-old college student had a difficult adjustment to make in her life. She is the child of a divorce. Her mother now lives in Timmins, Ont., while she lives here with her father, who works for Stelco Inc. in nearby Welland, and her stepmother.

"I think I came out surprisingly well, considering the situation. There was a point in my life where [the divorce] really did affect me, but I learned how to deal with it."

She move to Port Colborne as a young teenager (she's also lived in Timmins and Welland), and credits the city with helping her to make the adjustment. "It has a very accepting attitude. It's a very accepting community."

Teachers became her mentors. Ms. Rogers is now the head of the Youth Activities Council, a body set up by the mayor to deal with youth concerns. She is studying child-and-youth care at nearby Niagara College, while also working 30 hours a week at Wendy's. She expects to remain in "Port."

"I love it, I absolutely love it. I feel like there's no limitations. There's a lot of productive things you can do with your energy."

On the other hand, her two friends, 16-year-old Mike Parkes and 17-year-old Chris Schoen, also youth-council members, aren't sure where they will end up. It will depend where their careers take them, they say.

Witness #3: Pat Davis,
principal, McKay Elementary School

Mrs. Davis, born and raised in Port, is speaking in a stern voice to a six-year-old Grade 1 boy, who has been hitting his classmates and a teaching assistant. The boy borders on developmentally handicapped, and his mother and the school want to keep him in the mainstream as long as possible.

"Did you have a good day or a bad day?"

"A good day."

"Are you telling the truth? No, you're not telling the truth because you did hit someone today. Four! Four kids you hit today and you hit Mrs. Gagnon! Look at Mrs. Davis's face! What do I look like? Do I look happy?"

"You look mean."

"I am mean. I'm mad. It's not okay for you to hit kids in our school. Do you want me to call mommy? Can you go back to that classroom and listen to Mrs. Johnston and Mrs. Gagnon? No hitting! You don't hit kids! You use words and you talk to them."

Then she softens. If he makes it through the rest of the day peacefully, he can return to her office for a surprise.

Three generations of Pat Davis's family have attended McKay. The teachers and the parents know one another. Mrs. Davis stresses the importance of small schools. With 385 children, hers is the city's largest elementary school, she says. But at least one school is slated for closing under Premier Mike Harris's efficiency plans, and Mrs. Davis calls that a big mistake.

Whether a child succeeds or fails may depend on how welcome parents feel in the school, she says.

But why not visit a school in a poorer neighbourhood, she suggests, and dials ahead.

Witness #4: John Mastroianni,
principal, The New DeWitt Carter Elementary School

It's not really called "The New." That's Mr. Mastroianni's joke -- he's put the title on his business card -- and no one seems to mind. The title suggests the freshness and optimism of this bearded, easygoing principal, who lived in this poor neighbourhood for five years before coming to work here.

And the school has just a few more than 200 students. "I know these people," Mr. Mastroianni says. "I know many of them as neighbours. I know a lot of their children as neighbourhood children, and I think that creates a different attitude."

There is a shabbiness that is immediately noticeable on the east side of the canal, around the corner from the school. Three young teenagers sit smoking on a stoop. In comparison with other neighbourhoods in the school district, children here have a high degree of mental-health needs, according to a study five years ago, Mr. Mastroianni says.

About 40 to 50 children show up each morning at 8 for the school's free breakfast program, which offers, with the help of parent and teacher volunteers, pancakes or toast and bacon, pizzas, burritos, waffles or eggs (the menu changes daily).

How does the school buffer the effects of its students' poverty? "Good teaching," which involves "time, the dedication and the tenacity to keep after the parents and keep onto the kids until you get some co-operation and some lines of communication are built up," Mr. Mastroianni says.

It's not always easy. More than once, he has called a child's home to find that the phone has been disconnected.

Witness #5: Andrea Laviolette, young mother

When Ms. Laviolette's daughter, Brittany Deschamps, was born with a hole in her heart and she couldn't afford the heart monitor that would help keep her alive, she said as much in the local newspaper. The phone started ringing the next morning at 7 with offers of money. Brittany is now 4 and no longer needs the monitor.

Ms. Laviolette, 29, who has four children, including two stepsons, works as a cashier, and her family receives a supplement from social services; her husband has suffered two heart attacks and is off work. They live in a three-bedroom apartment.

To her, Port Colborne is a big place; she's from Goose Lake, Alta., population 16, and she came here originally for a funeral, then stayed for college. She does not believe children of wealthy families necessarily do better than children of poorer ones. "The more time you spend with your child the better they do."

She offers her own proof: Her nine-year-old is doing well enough to have been accepted into French immersion classes at McKay.

Witness #6: Ronald Rossman,
owner, Rossman's Furniture

If the young people see the world, will they come back? Mr. Rossman did. He studied English and sociology at the University of Western Ontario in London, then was in Soweto for nine months in 1994. But when he found it hard to get a teaching job in the new South Africa, he returned to the family furniture business.

"Our name's been in town here since 1929, when they started building the canal. That's when my grandmother came down. She started a clothing store." (That store is still running.)

Mr. Rossman, 43, is one of a handful of Jews left from a community once large enough to have its own rabbi and synagogue. There are few visible minorities and few recent immigrants; 91 per cent of residents speak English at home, according to Statistics Canada.

But migrants from Quebec, Italy, Eastern Europe and as far off as China helped build this city, in the days that factory and labouring jobs were aplenty. "If it's white and it's WASPy, that's the way it is," Mr. Rossman says. "Everybody's welcome and we've got all kinds of minorities here."

Witnesses #7 and #8:
Angela Carter and Cheryl Booth,
Port Cares social agency

Port Cares was born around a resident's kitchen table 13 years ago, starting with one employee and a $12,500 budget. It now has 33 workers and a $1.1-million budget from governments and the United Way.

"There is a small segment of the community that has fallen through the cracks," says Ms. Booth, who runs a federally financed Brighter Futures program on the east side, which includes a parent resource centre in Dewitt Carter school.

"However, the cracks are now gouges and great craters" because of welfare cutbacks, rising housing costs and losses of housing subsidies, she says.

"I think people from Toronto maybe wouldn't recognize the level of poverty. Instead of trying to step over some folks, it's seeing a house that has some flowers in the garden, but there happens to be 10 people living in that house."

Teenaged pregnancies have become more common, Ms. Carter says, but they are not seeing any more low-weight babies than in the past.

What protects against the worst effects of poverty in this city? "The family and community support is that cushioning factor," Ms. Booth says.

Witness #9: Mayor Vance Badawey

At 34, this vigorous mayor, the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant and the son of a francophone mother, seems to embody the city's past and present. He is the third generation in his family to sit on the municipal council and he still runs the family's business, selling groceries to the marine traffic on the canal.

For more than a decade, the city did not grow, in population or in tax assessment. But in the past five years, it has begun making the transition to what Mr. Badawey foresees as the boom times ahead, led by tourism. He hopes to redevelop the old industrial area with a hotel and $180-a-round golf course, making Port Colborne into Canada's Hilton Head. (Right now, the city has no major hotel, not even a movie theatre. By Mrs. Conway's count, it has just three elevators.)

Mr. Badawey bumped into an old friend recently at a high-school reunion who was running a machine shop employing 50 people in Markham, a Toronto suburb. He tried to sell his friend on moving to Port Colborne.

When your employees get to work, they are already angry from fighting traffic, he told him. "It's basically work, work and work, until Saturday morning at 9 o'clock, when you get out of bed and you get to spend 48 hours with your family.

"Here, you leave to go to work at 10 to 8, you're at work by 8 o'clock, you can go home and have lunch with your family, go back to work until 4:30 or 5, go home and have dinner with your family, go coach a soccer team or go to Jaycees meeting and then watch Seinfeld and laugh with your kids."

His friend scratched his head. "You've got something there," the mayor quotes him as replying.

Mr. Badawey is a believer in demographics. Baby boomers are passing 45 and are ready to slow down. "We think you're going to see that shift back to small-town Canada."
NEXT: France versus Germany


The following are Port Colborne's attributes as defined by its residents:

1. Homeyness

2. Togetherness between parents and teachers

3. Strong volunteer ethic

4. Stability

5. Women entrepreneurs

6. Faith in the city

7. Good adult-education system

8. Unity

9. Accepting attitude

10. Not a big gap between rich and poor

11. $30,000 here is worth $75,000 in Toronto

12. Small schools

13. Pride in city

14. Respect for the poor

15. City takes care of its own

16. Mandate for growth

17. Wovenness

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