Beware school boards bearing gifts

Beware school boards bearing gifts

.. A round of nine public “pupil accommodation” meetings, held in rapid succession this fall announced the arrival of 10 Elementary Alternative Learning Opportunity (EALO) schools.  At most of the meetings, Toronto’s school board staff outnumbered any parents and community members who came.  Interestingly, in every meeting, the same explanation was given for why each site had been especially selected to receive its new program.   It was because the site had enough space to accommodate it. Two of the schools selected, Shoreham P.S. in Jane-Finch and Highland Jr. P.S. in Scarborough, had narrowly escaped closure when they were involved previously in unsuccessful A.R.C.s

The speed of implementation is worth noting.  All nine meetings were held within a 5 week period from mid Sept. to mid October.  The final pupil accommodation review committee (PART) recommendation for each of the 10 EALO programs bore the same date as its public meeting.  All 10 new programs were slated to be on the agenda for approval from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Programs and School Services Committee on Nov. 2nd. Then it was on to the Nov. 16th Board meeting for final approval.  Slam dunk in two months.

These new ‘alternative’ elementary schools differ from the ones traditionally begun at the TDSB in that they are a ‘top down’ initiative. In the past, alternative schools began with a group of parents or teachers advancing a proposal for a school program with a different approach or theme for teaching curriculum. Then the parents or teachers (or often both) convinced their local trustee that there was enough support for the program and the trustee brought the proposal to the Board.

The idea for the EALO programs began with Director Chris Spence who had been advocating for the creation of a Boys’ Leadership Academy. However, enthusiasm for his idea was not to be found among the trustees. When the debate was done, it was decided to create four new programs instead of one although no community based parent group had ever asked for any of them. So in November, the TDSB  voted to approve two Boys’ Leadership Academies (to placate the Director presumably) as well as one Girls’ Leadership Academy, two Vocal Music Academies and five Sports and Wellness Academies all located in Scarborough and Etobicoke.

Statistics on enrolment, school capacity and the number students in each schools’ catchment areas figured large in all the P.A.R.T. recommendation reports. They pointed out how many more students the school could accommodate in addition to those already enrolled- even when including full day kindergarten. Many reports included data for children enrolled in non-TDSB schools in the school’s attendance boundaries. The recommendations included converting most of these EALO chosen sites to JK to Grade 8 elementary schools- unless this configuration happened to be in place already.

Among those who have been watching for the appearance of “magnet schools,” there is great concern that the Academies are being placed in areas where the TDSB has targeted schools for closing. Beefed up music and sports programs could attract enough parents to these schools so as to tip the balance in neighbouring school populations. Exodus from neighbourhood schools will cause a drop in enrolment which in turn will be spotted for the next round of A.R.C.s. Although students from anywhere in Toronto are welcome to attend the new academies, there will be no bus transportation provided. As is the case with all other alternative schools in Toronto, parents will be providing the transportation. Therefore, the possibility that the Academies will fill up with kids from the surrounding areas is a valid conclusion.

The two attached maps show where attendance is drawn from in two of Toronto’s parent driven alternative schools.  One is the Afrocentric Elementary School; it shows that school’s attendance is drawn from the surrounding local area. Public transportation, in the Sheppard-Keele area where the school is located, is bus only and would pose an ordeal for a child to travel across the city for a ‘program of choice.’ The second map shows that attendance for Oasis Secondary School is drawn from all over the city.  This is because the school is located on the subway line. The 10 proposed schools are located in Etobicoke, Jane Finch and Scarborough. None is near a subway stop. It is likely their attendance will be drawn from other schools in their immediate vicinity. This too fuels speculation that the real purpose of these schools is to attract students away from nearby neighbourhood schools, shrinking their enrolments and setting up the conditions for closing them.

Published online by Education Action Toronto this article was authored by adult educator, Janet Bojti, a member of the Save our Schools committee of Campaign for Public Education.