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Toronto public school board proposes specialized academies

Chris Spence, TDSB director of education, wants to change the way boys are taught in school.

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Move over private schools, the Toronto District School Board is venturing onto exclusive educational turf with a selection of four new specialized schools.

In a re-thinking of education director Chris Spence's vision for an all-boys school, the TDSB is considering a package of elementary schools that would include a school for boys, a school for girls, a sports academy and a choir school.

"We want to provide what have traditionally been private school opportunities within the public system," said Dr. Spence.

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He and the board's staff hope to open the schools, called Elementary Programs of Choice, in the fall of 2011. They have compiled a report on the package of schools that a committee will debate and vote on next week.

Last fall, the director's proposal for an all-boys school drew loud criticism from some trustees.

"The take away from that was maybe we just don't need a boys-only school, maybe we could better serve girls," said TDSB chair Bruce Davis.

The package of four schools is meant to address some of those concerns.

"I think parents will love it," said Mr. Davis.

The all-boys school, called the Boys' Leadership Academy, would include students from junior kindergarten through Grade 3. The staff wouldn't necessarily be all-male, but the curriculum and teaching style would be geared toward boys through things like reading selections and increased physical activity.

The all-girls school, called the Girls' Leadership Academy, would recruit an older age group, in Grade 4 through 8.

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"The research tells us that some of the many challenges that girls face begin around that time," said Karen Grose, the TDSB's system superintendent for programs.

She cited engagement issues, self-esteem and body image as examples.

Demand will largely dictate the number of spaces available in each of the schools, and if the plan goes forward, the board will likely be considering school sites in high-need neighbourhoods.

"Every decision that we've been able to make so far has equity of access as being one of the core drivers in the decision," said Ms. Grose.

There will be no tryouts for the sports academy, which will be more focused on general fitness and nutrition than elite athleticism. Through partnerships with sports facilities and federations, the goal will be to expose students to a range of physical activities.

Likewise, there will be no auditions for the choir school. This represents a departure from other public arts schools in the city, and from the Toronto Catholic District School Board's St. Michael's Choir School, which see stiff competition for enrolment.

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Choir was chosen over an orchestra or band program because vocal music training transcends cultural and economic boundaries, according to Mr. Davis.

"It is the most democratic way of learning music," he said.

If the committee approves the report, which suggests a feasibility study on the programs, it will be presented to the full board in April.

The initiative is ambitious, especially at a time when the board faces a $17-million deficit. If the board votes to conduct a feasibility study on the program, cost will likely be a important factor. The board's hope is that by introducing these kinds of programs, it will be able to boost enrolment and attract students that might otherwise go to the private system.

"It's about retaining and attracting students," said Dr. Spence.

Mr. Davis said he is hopeful that the program will grow, and that parents and trustees will generate ideas for more specialized schools.

"I suspect that you will see some other innovations coming out of this," he said.

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Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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