Gentrification puts pressure on Saint-Henri schools to adapt to new social mix

Community organizations say middle-class families have higher expectations and are putting new pressures on the historically working-class neighbourhood’s schools to provide the kinds of programs and activities they expect for their children.

Influx of middle-class families brings high expectations for local schools — for better or for worse

École Secondaire Saint-Henri is the only French-language high school in the Saint-Henri district. (Stephen Smith/CBC)

It takes a kind of daring honesty for a candidate to admit at the height of a municipal election campaign that she doesn't want her kid to attend the neighbourhood high school. 

Running for her third term as councillor in the Southwest borough, Projet Montréal's Sophie Thiébaut told CBC News she was speaking as a parent when she said she didn't want her daughter to attend École Saint-Henri, the only French-language high school in the city's Saint-Henri neighbourhood.

"As a parent, I would like my child to go somewhere else, because I would like her to get the best education possible, but she wants to go to Saint-Henri because her friends will go there," said Thiébaut, who was first elected to the Southwest borough council in 2009.

It might seem an extraordinary admission for a twice-elected politician with a background steeped in community organizing and social development, but Thiébaut says it's the sad reality of Quebec's education system, which puts academic success and competition over diversity in the province's classrooms.

"I think it's important to have a vision linked with the social diversity of students, linked with different skills to keep diversity among the students, but the system isn't built for that: it's built for excellence," Thiébaut says.

"It's not good for the district because it means that the better ones, with the best results, go somewhere else, and the others stay together."

Yet Thiébaut worries that keeping her own daughter at École Saint-Henri, with its dismal academic reputation, could work against her down the road when it comes to applying for other schools.

"It would be difficult to not show that she was just at École Saint-Henri.… I would like her to have better possibilities."

Gentrification: Good or bad for Saint-Henri schools?

With the much-debated gentrification of Saint-Henri in full swing, its impact on local schools has been overshadowed by a series of high-profile attacks on upscale restaurants and businesses in the neighbourhood.

Community organizations such as Solidarité Saint-Henri and a student support group, Le Milieu éducatif La Source, say middle-class families have higher expectations and are putting new pressures on the historically working-class neighbourhood's schools to provide the kind of programs and activities they expect for their children.

The 45-year-old École Saint-Henri's grounds have been improved in recent years. (Stephen Smith/CBC)
That pressure, they say, has left Saint-Henri schools trying to balance these interests with the needs of kids from low-income or impoverished families.

Some see this new pressure as a good thing, but others worry the neighbourhood's more disadvantaged residents could ultimately lose out.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the rising number of more middle-class students is producing greater social diversity in Saint-Henri's schools, if only at the primary school level for now.

That's seen as a welcome development — as long as inclusivity remains the order of the day.

"Having strong students alongside weaker students, it's very important. We need that mix, and it's happening in primary schools in Saint-Henri, in Pointe-Saint-Charles and Little Burgundy," said Violaine Cousineau, who represents the district as an independent commissioner with Montreal's French-language school board (CSDM).
CSDM commissioner Violaine Cousineau says middle-class parents are, in some cases, forcing social diversity on schools in the Southwest borough, and that's a good thing. (Radio-Canada)

"There are now middle-class families who have decided to invest in the future of the schools in those neighbourhoods and send their children to those schools, and they're creating, even forcing, social diversity."

Cousineau said middle-class parents tend to be more engaged on the governing boards of schools and involved in projects like the revitalization of school yards.

They are also active at the political level, she observed, pushing borough councils, school boards, and even the province for improvements to their local schools.

"It's nice to see," Cousineau said. "These are families that want to cohabitate with more disadvantaged families. They've made the conscious, voluntary choice to send their children to more disadvantaged schools.… This isn't just for their children, but for the common good."

Differing needs

Julie Mercure, director of Milieu éducatif La Source, agrees that classrooms that include students of all social and academic levels are a win-win situation for both them and the community.

However, she worries the interests of more vocal and engaged middle-class parents will marginalize other Saint-Henri students with different needs.

"They don't necessarily understand extreme poverty or live in a situation of extreme vulnerability, so they have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of a family like that, and what they want doesn't necessarily respond to the needs of the majority," she said.

Julie Mercure, director of Milieu éducatif La Source, says the pressure to develop more advanced academic programs has school administrators in Saint-Henri facing some stark choices. (Solidarité Saint-Henri)
Mercure said many Saint-Henri parents don't have a good rapport with staff at the schools their children attend because they didn't go far or have a good educational experience themselves.

"It's harder to get those parents engaged — but that doesn't mean their voice is any less important," she said.

The greater social diversity that is now evident at Saint-Henri's elementary schools, however, is still not the case at the local high school, École Saint-Henri, Cousineau said.

That's a situation that she says needs to change.

Changes in the air?

Nearly a third of high-school-aged students in Montreal go to state-subsidized private schools, and still others are skimmed off to specialized public high schools outside the neighbourhood. 

Cousineau said that's deprived schools like École Saint-Henri of a socially diverse student base and oriented them toward programs that meet local needs. 

"[École Secondaire Saint-Henri] has an administrative and teaching staff that are incredible and without equal, but most of its programs are designed for students with difficulties or immigrants," she said.

"They don't have international programs, specialized programs that we know middle class families look for. If we don't change that, we're going to find ourselves in a situation where students from those families aren't being enrolled.… It's urgent."

CBC requested an interview with École Saint-Henri's principal, Camille Gouin, but wasn't successful.

École Saint-Henri also houses a trade school. (Stephen Smith/CBC)
​Julie Mercure said the pressure to develop more advanced academic programs has school administrators facing some stark choices.

"They're under pressure to put in place the most attractive and interesting programs possible. But, by putting their energies into them, are they penalizing the energies that could be spent on children with great difficulties?" she asks.

"There are many, many people in this neighbourhood with great difficulties, both academic and personal.… So choices have to be made."

Fault lines

In the meantime, École Saint-Henri remains dogged by a poor reputation that Mercure and others say is out of date and doesn't reflect the current reality.
Shannon Franssen, co-ordinator of Solidarité Saint-Henri, worries about the effect of greater numbers of parents sending their children to high schools outside the neighbourhood. (Solidarité Saint-Henri)

"It's actually a pretty amazing school, and there are amazing things happening there," says Shannon Franssen, co-ordinator of Solidarité Saint-Henri, an umbrella organization that represents 27 community organizations in the neighbourhood.

Franssen said Solidarité Saint-Henri is now actively looking at ways to change the public perception of the high school and to promote its many successes.

Doing so is vital, Franssen says — as long as middle-class parents are inclined to send their kids to schools outside Saint-Henri, the fault line between the neighbourhood's have and have-not residents will only deepen.

"People sending their kids to the same school is a big way in which people meet their neighbours and develop a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and we're wondering if it's having an impact on the social fabric of the neighbourhood," she said.

"The idea of the neighbourhood school contributes to social cohesion and people getting to know their neighbours, having a sense of belonging in the neighbourhood, and being able to develop an informal safety net around their kids."

"They know other parents, they know their teachers — all of that is what a community school can help develop."


Stephen Smith


Stephen Smith is a journalist with CBC Montreal.