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Sunday, December 4, 2022

TDSB gives some specialty high schools extra year to make programming changes – Toronto Star

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The Toronto school board is giving some of its arts-focused schools another year to review and modify their programs under a new policy aimed at breaking down systemic barriers and improving access but which has incited backlash among students and parents.
“Many programs and schools are aligned with the new policy, however some arts-focused programs and schools may require additional time,” said Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird on Tuesday. “They will now have an additional year to implement any changes to better meet the needs of the community.
“We are committed to working with staff in all schools, along with central staff, and superintendents to be responsive in the development and evolution of program structure to ensure equitable access.”
Teacher David Ambrose at the Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA) welcomes the pause, saying the past few weeks were chaotic as staff worked to revamp course offerings and program structures with a looming deadline and little guidance from the TDSB.
“There’s a bit of a sigh of relief that if we are going to do this that we can do it thoughtfully and with more consideration,” said the music theatre teacher on Tuesday, noting staff from specialty schools weren’t consulted on the new policy.
“My hope is that we can take a breath. And then maybe gather as the arts schools, and hopefully with some senior TDSB staff, to understand what is the actual big picture here that they’re hoping for, because it hasn’t been clear.”
Last May, the board approved an overhaul of its specialized schools and programs, saying the new policy would reduce systemic barriers — including geographic, socio-economic and race — and improve access for a wider range of students.
It was met with concerns that changes would water down the quality of highly competitive schools like ESA or Claude Watson School for the Arts.
The TDSB has nearly 40 programs specializing in the arts, science, math, technology, Africentric programming, cyber arts, leadership and athletics. Of the board’s 235,000 students, 9,000 attend such programs. A review of specialized programming was urged by trustees in 2017 following research by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that suggested students attending such schools tended to be white and privileged.
The new policy includes reviewing and adapting the way curriculum is delivered based on equity and ensuring it accommodates all students. For arts-focused programs, the board is recommending moving away from early sorting or tracking of students, which means a Grade 9 student would no longer enter a school specifically for film or musical theatre, but would have a more generalized arts education in the foundation years. Arts-focused schools that indicate they require additional time to alter the format of their programming will have until September 2024.
The most controversial part of the policy has been the change to the admission process. Previously, some schools based admission on merit, requiring auditions, portfolios or entrance exams. Going forward, students need only to submit an interest-based application and where demand exceeds space, a lottery will determine who gets the spots with priority going to students in underserved and under-represented communities. Applications will also be handled centrally, rather than by individual schools.
In May, TDSB director Colleen Russell-Rawlins told the board she wants students to have “a fair chance of acceptance into their program of choice, regardless of their identity, experience, ability, postal code or family income.
“It is our responsibility to remove barriers that prevent students from access to education and provide them the pathways to pursue their dreams and realize their full potential,” she said.
Details about how to apply have only just been posted on the board website. Some school websites still have general statements noting more information will be shared this fall, but with open houses scheduled for November and Grade 8 students already thinking about high school options for next September, there is growing frustration about a lack of guidance.
Despite the extension for changes to the curriculum, the new admission process will go ahead this fall as planned, according to TDSB spokesperson Bird.
“Open admission provisions of the policy will be in place for all students for September 2023 and some schools will be prepared to share their new program structure with students and parents/caregivers/guardians this fall.”
A group of parents from ESA submitted a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman, criticizing the board for a lack of due process and transparency and questioning the research upon which decisions have been made.
“The TDSB has work to do to meaningfully address poverty and inequality within the system,” the complaint notes. “This new policy, however, is not the way to go about it. We expect more from the TDSB.”
The board said the policy was developed after extensive consultation and feedback from students, parents and the community. “I think we’ve been very transparent through this process,” said Bird. “I recognize some may not feel that way, but we have had an in-depth consultation over a number of years on this topic.”
Meanwhile, an email sent by parents to the Claude Watson School for the Arts community is calling on people to contact their trustees urging them to support a motion to reconsider the policy put forth by trustees Alexander Brown and James Li for the next board meeting on Oct. 26, two days after the municipal election.
The motion requires two-thirds of the board — or 15 trustees — to be heard and then would be voted on. Brown and Li say their goal is to ensure any program changes are being driven by evidence and data, and that the consultations are given the proper length of time to get everything right.
“My understanding, from speaking to staff, is that they’ve just been told to change their programs and report back,” Brown told the Star on Tuesday. “That isn’t consultation. That’s direction.”
“You can’t just snap your fingers and change the whole system,” he says. “There needs to be a phased approach, there needs to be consultation with parents and with people who run the programs … Parents aren’t being informed and the staff of these schools don’t know what’s going on.”
Judith Taylor, mom to a Grade 11 student at ESA, says parents are mobilizing and, “We want the trustees to feel that transparency is necessary for re-election.”
She would like to see the trustees reverse the policy and the board engage in “authentic consultation” and share the data it is using to make decisions.
The board has also launched a review to ensure this type of programming is spread out to more local schools but this could take years, and Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, says she wants to see evidence that the TDSB is committed to building arts support throughout the city and not just at the expense of specialized schools.
“What the parents are sensing is poor planning and chaos … We are ensuring that the programs won’t be killed on our watch, and that the real focus is duplication, not eradication.”

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