Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee Michael Coteau will always remember his first day at Leaside High School.
“The first thing I was asked is if I could play basketball,” recalled the then Grade 11 Victoria Park Secondary School transfer student. “I said yes even though I could hardly play any ball and I was accepted. A few weeks later after I did not show up for practice, the same teacher wanted to know what the problem was and I told him my feet were killing me.”
Raised in the tough Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, the strapping six-footer had changed schools simply to increase his chances of advancing to university instead of making the basketball team.
“I went to summer school from grades nine to 12 and the only reason I did that was because I was embarrassed every time I failed,” said Coteau, the Don Valley East trustee for the past eight years. “When I left high school, I had a 62.5 per cent average and I was still two credits short of graduating. That last summer was not fun because I had to attend summer school and work full-time and the only reason I was accepted to Carleton University is because they had an open door policy at the time.”
Coteau recognized at a very young age that education was his ticket to a better life. He has often said that he knows more young Black males that have died through violent crimes than have graduated from high school.
He resisted the powerful temptation to sell and use drugs or engage in petty theft and extortion, choosing instead to gut it out in the classroom even though he was not doing well.
“I grew up in affordable housing with two parents, but next door was Ontario housing and I was surrounded by bad options and distractions,” he said.
In his last year in high school, Coteau was turned on to politics.
When the building superintendent and management office both failed to respond to his request to repair a hole in a fence in his Flemingdon neighbourhood that would prevent kids from going to a dangerous ice pond, he called his MPP.
“Within hours of putting in that call, the fence was fixed and that was when I was made aware of the power of politics,” said Coteau. “At Carleton, I did some research in the library and decided that the Liberal brand was aligned to my line of thinking. I started volunteering for the party and working with then Industry Minister John Manley.”
Discouraged with politics after graduating from university in 1997 with Political Science and Canadian History degrees, Coteau headed to South Korea to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). He spent two years in the East Asia country.
“The best experience to build strength as a Black man is to be the only Black in a city of 2.5 million,” he said. “Prior to going to South Korea, I used to be shy and nervous. I am not that way anymore.”
On his return to Canada, Coteau was elected a public school trustee in November 2003 and one of the first motions he advanced – along with then trustee Bruce Davis – was a proposal for Canada’s largest school board to look at student achievement on the basis of race, ethnicity, mother tongue, gender, income and place of residence.
Trustees passed the motion in a close 11-10 vote to approve the development of a research program to gather the data.
“That issue made me realize the lack of understanding there was in public education when it came to issues relating to others in the community,” he said. “I remember sitting in boardrooms and hearing trustees subscribing to beliefs that racism doesn’t exist and therefore we shouldn’t put our children into boxes. My argument was that our children are in boxes at this point and race does matter when it comes to opportunity and success for them.”
During his second term, Coteau supported the establishment of the controversial Africentric Alternative School that opened in September 2009. That vote too was also close with trustees voting 11-9 with one abstention.
“I voted for it because I listened to mothers in the community asking for a chance to try something new,” he said. “I support local approaches but, overall, I don’t think the school should be seen as a solution to the problems in our community. The kids who are failing are on our radar, resources are being allocated and the issues are being discussed. Before we fix a problem, we have to have a system in place that acknowledges that the problem exists.”
Expanding programs that allow students to earn post-secondary credits while in high school and increasing mentorship programs are high among his priorities for his third term in office that began last October. He’s also pushing for elementary schools to be within walking distance of students’ residences and the creation of student internships with green-focused companies.
It’s however his passionate advocacy for digital textbooks that has propelled him into the spotlight here in Canada and the United States where he was on CNN last week. Trustees recently voted in favour of a plan that could save the board nearly $100 million in the next 10 years.
“Our school board spends between $8- to $15-million each year on school books and some of our kids don’t even have an option to take them home,” said Coteau. “In some instances, they don’t have the books and they have to share. In addition to the shortage of books, some of the publications are outdated. I think we can use technology not only in Toronto but in the province of Ontario to increase access, reduce our carbon footprint and make students more tech-savvy.
“The TDSB represents 10 per cent of the student body and we are spending money that the province should be using for books. Why don’t we have one standard math book that can be used and shared digitally, reprinted and owned by the province? I understand when you talk about creative stuff and opinion based things you might have to have different text books and different pieces. But there are certain things that are standard and I think we can reinvest that money in many other areas and increase accessibility just by going digital.”
Last May, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty agreed that digital media will replace school textbooks. He however said it would not happen in the near future because not enough families are equipped to make the switch.
“The key piece here is not about what device people will use,” said Coteau, a member of the TDSB program and school services committee. “It’s more about how we can organize this information today so that it can benefit those tomorrow. We are talking about content creation, organizing and accessibility and also how do we improve and update that information at a rapid pace.
“It’s like setting up a library. Before you buy the books, you figure out how much space you need, what the shelves are going to look like and what sections you want before you start populating the library. I think we can do better as a city, as a province and as a country and be real leaders in this area.”
Several American schools are embracing the iPad as a teaching tool. Last December, a Long Island school handed out 47 devices to students and teachers in two humanities classes. The school district intends to eventually provide iPads, which cost about $750 each, to all of its students.
The New York City public school system has ordered over 2,000 iPads and nearly 200 Chicago public schools have applied for 23 district-financed iPad grants.
In addition to his trustee duties, Coteau is the executive director of AlphaPlus, a provincially funded organization that provides expertise to support adult educators through research, information and training on innovative learning technologies.