On her first day in a new school in a new country, Dora Maticsek couldn't see the blackboard. Neither could she speak enough English to tell her Grade 4 teacher at Parkdale Public School that the lessons written in chalk looked fuzzy, nor that she was getting headaches nearly every day from straining her eyes.
Fortunately for Dora, now 10, Parkdale is one of 158 schools within the Toronto District School Board that receive extra funding for supports such as vision screening, nutrition programs, translators and family field trips through the Model Schools for Inner Cities program. The $8.9-million initiative could face the chopping block at a meeting of the Toronto District School Board Wednesday. Trustees have been threatened with a provincial takeover if they do not draft a plan to tackle their projected $110-million deficit.
Although the program has won international attention for the TDSB, funding is increasingly difficult to find. And Model Schools is just one of a handful of cherished programs that could get squeezed out. The question trustees will have to ask is whether it's fair to give the neediest students more at a time when they have so little to give.
Trustee Shelley Laskin said she believes Model Schools works, but the board needs to re-evaluate how much it spends on the program.
"I don't think we should blindly say that some people need more money to succeed," she said.
Trustee Chris Glover is a defender of the program. "We've got to make sure that we're providing equitable opportunities to the kids in our schools, and that doesn't necessarily mean equal [funding]," he said.
TDSB staff are supportive of the program, and have included it among the cuts they've suggested to trustees. "Sometimes people criticize the program by saying we give, and give, and give," said Manon Gardner, the TDSB's chief academic officer. "But we receive too."
Since it was launched in 2006, staff have been collecting data on the impact of the Model Schools program. Suspension rates at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, one of seven involved from the beginning, fell from 14.3 per cent to 2.3 per cent over three years. Absenteeism also dropped, while student participation in extracurricular activities and parent participation in school councils climbed. Academic results, as measured through standardized tests, have been more mixed.
The Canadian Achievement Test, administered by the TDSB to assess basic reading and math skills at every grade level, has shown that most students in Model Schools raise their performance to meet the Canadian standard within three years of starting the program.
Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office, however, hasn't detected the same gains. Dora's school, Parkdale, for example, has seen reading, writing and math scores at both the Grade 3 and the Grade 6 level slip between six and 10 percentage points over the past three years. Other schools, which have been part of the program for longer, including Nelson Mandela, Firgrove and Bala Avenue Community, have seen EQAO scores climb. Bala Avenue, for example, has seen Grade 3 writing scores jump 13 percentage points over the past three years.
Parkdale's principal, Susan Yun, said her school's scores suffer because of a high annual turnover of Roma students, many of whom speak very little English when they first arrive in Canada. She says that without the support of the Model Schools program, her students would fall behind. Ms. Yun and her staff call the weeks leading up to Christmas "disclosure week" because that is when students confess about the conditions they will face over the holidays at home. The most common complaint is hunger, and the school keeps more than a dozen backpacks filled with onions, oranges and pasta in a room off the main office.
Students are allowed to pick them up any time, no questions asked, as long as they return the empty backpacks. Ms. Yun says she sends close to 100 backpacks home a week.
"It's hard to learn when you're hungry," she said. "All we want is for our kids to have the same opportunities that every other kid takes for granted."
With capital funding for new school buildings frozen and the province putting pressure on the TDSB to close schools, nothing is off the table. Trustees are considering selling off parts of schoolyards, and cutting out busing for French immersion students – a move certain to be unpopular with the board's most vocal and highly involved parents.
Trustees will begin the debate over which programs to save Wednesday evening. Ultimately, they'll have to determine what cuts can be made that won't affect some students unfairly. "I'll tell you what's fair," said Ms. Yun, the Parkdale principal. "Dora being able to see the letters on the blackboard."