TDSB votes to change special school admissions policy

Students from the Etobicoke School of the Arts are seen in May 2011.SARAH DEA/The Globe and Mail

The administrators of the Toronto District School Board have approved a policy to modify the admission criteria for specialist schools amid criticism from some families that it would weaken curricula.

The new admissions process means that students no longer need to audition, submit portfolios, or pass entrance exams to gain admission to one of the TDSB’s more than 40 specialized schools and programs, which include arts, athletics, science and math.

Instead, each type of honors program would have a standard admissions process, which could include demonstrating “an active interest or passion,” according to the new policy adopted by administrators Wednesday night. Students meeting the requirements would be randomly selected if demand exceeds available places.

Ahead of the vote, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, director of education for the TDSB, told administrators she could not lead a system where students are denied access to programs because of their identity, experiences, their postal code or family income.

“We must remember that public education is for everyone. It is our responsibility to break down the barriers that prevent students from accessing education and provide them with the pathways to pursue their dreams and achieve their full potential,” she said.

Changes to special schools have caused divisions between families and brought issues of accessibility and merit to the fore.

Some parents argue the new policy will negate the hard work students need to earn a place and ultimately water down the programs. Others say enriched programs in public schools should be accessible to all students, not just the privileged, and that admission shouldn’t require resumes or expensive extracurricular courses.

Ms Russell-Rawlins said she had received “countless emails” about the policy change which framed the dialogue as one pitting access against quality, equity against excellence. She said the changes to admissions are “a barrier for students that we’re removing.”

“As Principal, I can confidently say that there is no shortage of motivated, passionate and talented students at the TDSB who deserve excellent local programs or the opportunity to participate in a central student interest program,” said she declared.

The board said it would consider how to provide priority access to students from underserved communities.

The TDSB is also looking at all of its high schools to include local programs so students don’t necessarily have to leave their neighborhoods to access enriched programs.

The council’s specialist schools have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

In 2017, the board considered dismantling the schools to distribute resources more evenly across the system, particularly for members of marginalized communities.

This proposal was abandoned after the parents protested. The school board is committed to reviewing its policies to ensure that all students can access these enriched programs and that it does not exacerbate inequities.

A 2017 research report, along with data from the TDSB, shows that specialist schools do not reflect the broader student population and that students in these programs are more likely to come from affluent homes.

Recent data from the TDSB shows that 63% of students in the elite athlete program identify as white, compared to 29% of all high school students. In the school board’s arts program, 55% identify as white, compared to 29% of the high school student population.

Data from the board shows that in its leadership program, 66% of students identify as South Asian, compared to 23% of all high school students.

Some specialty schools, including Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, have already changed their admissions requirements to make them more accessible.

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