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Toronto Toronto school board mulls end to specialized schools in order to reduce learning disparities

The TDSB’s Enhancing Equity Task Force is looking at how to distribute resources more equitably so that students who live in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods and are unable to travel across the city are still able to attend enriched programs.

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A proposal drafted for the Toronto District School Board is recommending the phasing out of specialized schools, including ones focused on the arts, in an effort to give the city's poorest children more access to enriched learning.

But there is concern from some parents that such a move to create a level playing field will also see students losing out on opportunities that specialized schools offer.

The TDSB's Enhancing Equity Task Force is looking at how to distribute resources more equitably so that students who live in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods and are unable to travel across the city are still able to attend enriched programs.

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Its draft recommendations, released earlier this month, included a proposal that every cluster of schools offer a variety of specialty programs, and once this is in place, the TDSB look at phasing out specialized schools.

"The Task Force recognizes that specialized schools and programs … while benefiting certain populations, have inadvertently resulted in greater competition and disparities between schools," the report stated. "In many cases, these schools and programs have served to limit enriched learning opportunities for students, especially those from the most marginalized communities."

Canada's largest school board is grappling with how to keep some of the city's poorest children from falling behind as neighbourhoods rapidly gentrify and specialized programs change a school's population.

Parents and students at Earl Haig Secondary School were informed by school council in an e-mail late last week of the draft proposal that could phase out the Claude Watson Arts Program, housed in its building.

Margaret Chan, whose daughter attends Claude Watson, said that without the arts school, her daughter would not have dreamed of pursuing film as a postsecondary option.

"The solution is not to cancel programs, but to devise more ways to allow marginalized populations to access the programs," Ms. Chan said. "Cancelling specialized programs would mean cancelling future generations of artists."

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Her daughter, 17-year-old Britney Ngaw, called the proposal "insensible." She described the arts school as an "inclusive and welcoming environment."

The TDSB runs a handful of specialized schools, including those focused on the arts and technology. It is unclear from the draft report which schools could be phased out.

The head of the TDSB said on Sunday that the concerns from parents and students are premature. He said that this is a draft report and the community can provide feedback this month.

"I don't believe the board has any intention of closing specialized schools, nor would it be my recommendation as director," TDSB director of education John Malloy said. "What we are looking at however, is ensuring that all TDSB students have access to the great programs that are offered at only some of our schools."

The task force, which includes trustees, are speaking with parents and community groups to gather ideas on how to mitigate or remove social and economic barriers in schools so students can focus on learning. A report is expected to be presented to trustees in December.

Although the TDSB provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for differences, it is unable to catch up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars schools in the richest neighbourhoods obtain through fundraising.

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In Ontario and elsewhere, a two-tiered public-education system has been the subject of debate. In Quebec, for example, students must pay fees in the range of $50 just to take entrance exams to get into certain public high-school programs.

Earlier this year, parents in the Gatineau region organized Mouvement L'école ensemble, a group pushing to end what they say has become the segregation of students in Quebec's school system. The split exists between students in private and public schools but also within the public system itself as kids with better grades are picked for special programs, the group says.

"Our education system is supposed to be a social ladder," the group's spokesman, Stéphane Vigneault, told Montreal's La Presse newspaper. "In fact, it's pushing kids down."

Their effort comes a year after the Conseil supérieur de l'éducation, a government policy advisory body, concluded in a report that Quebec has, for a number of years already, been locked in a "quasi-market logic that encourages the development of a school at different speeds." It warned that the fairness and wider effectiveness of the system were at risk.

With a report from Nicolas Van Praet

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