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Instead, “we have clarified the recommendation by removing the reference to phasing out specialized schools and will, in the revised document, focus on improving access to them.”
Parents concerned that specialty programs offered at some schools such as the science program TOPS or International Baccalaureate will be phased out need not worry, added Malloy.
“This was not part of the recommendation and these programs will continue. What is clear is that the TDSB needs to find ways to expand the opportunities that these schools and programs offer.”
The proposal in the draft report — which is now open for public feedback with a final report to be released by year-end — called for a realignment of resources to instead focus on providing students from all neighbourhoods and backgrounds with enriched programs.
“Obviously, I’m very happy,” Isabella Vella, a Grade 11 visual arts major at Etobicoke School of the Arts, said after reading Malloy’s clarification. “But if they have no intention of doing that, you have to wonder why they put it in the document in the first place.”
She and her classmates were up in arms after learning about the report last week, added Vella, 16. She says she supports access for all students to specialized schools and much more arts in elementary schools so that kids across the city get more exposure and opportunity to pursue visual arts, music, drama and dance.
But she says it shouldn’t be at the expense of getting rid of thriving schools that students and staff are passionate about.
Controversy over specialized schools has overshadowed everything else in the ambitious 100-page draft report released earlier this month.
A year in the making, it is aimed at ensuring all students, regardless of where they live and their socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, have equal access to educational opportunities.
Among its recommendations for addressing systemic barriers is phasing out the controversial practice of academic streaming in Grades 9 and 10, a process already underway at the board.
It also calls for more integration of special education students into regular classrooms, a review of suspension and expulsion policies which disproportionately affect Black students, mandatory anti-racism training and steps in hiring and promotion to create a more diverse workforce.
A major thrust is taking “bold steps” to create “strong neighbourhood schools” that kids who live nearby want to attend.
That was part of the thinking behind the recommendation behind phasing out specialized schools — though no schools were named nor specifics provided.
While specialized schools benefit some students, they have also “inadvertently resulted in greater competition and disparities between schools,” and limited access for marginalized students, the report says.
It proposed that instead, resources be spread out across the board so that every cluster of local schools can offer a range of enriched programs.
Even those who have highlighted the inequity of the current system and said the discussion is long overdue weren’t in favour of doing away with specialized schools.
“I think everybody would agree there is a problem with unequal access to these programs whether it’s arts or sports or academic programs,” said Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
He co-authored an explosive study released last spring that found students in three specialized high schools in Toronto were overwhelmingly white and affluent and came from a small number of feeder schools.
“It the board is committed to equity it has to address that, but I really don’t think the answer is to dissolve these programs.”
Altering admissions and auditions requirements to reduce the chances of excluding students who haven’t had exposure to lessons or the arts is one way of being more inclusive, he said, along with providing more enrichment at schools throughout the system.
The issue touches on the challenge of balancing choice and equity in a large school board with a diverse population, said education advocate Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education.
“It’s easy to get caught up in one piece of it, but there’s an effort here to address something bigger,” she said of the draft report.
She said it’s vital that everyone involved in the school system care about equity and see themselves in the report. But starting the process by “taking something away” like arts-based schools undermines that by alienating that group of parents and students.
Phasing out those schools is “an upside-down solution.” Instead they should be examples of how to build enrichment into all high schools.
“If the end result of the task force is taking something away, then public education institutions will be in trouble.”
The argument to make such programs more accessible to all students is “a perfectly sound argument,” and should be the goal of education, says Kourosh Houshmand, a former TDSB student trustee now studying data journalism at Columbia University.
But it should be done by creative reallocation of resources for all schools and not lowering the bar by ending successful programs, he adds.
Houshmand, a graduate of Earl Haig Collegiate — also the site of the Claude Watson high school arts program — says his social media feeds were in a frenzy when news of the possible phase-out broke on the weekend.
“Let’s protect the great things the TDSB offers.”