Categorized | Education

Optional attendance is killing neighbourhood schools

Posted on 15 December 2016 by admin

Jason Kunin 

Vaughan

After 90 years, Vaughan Road Academy — the high school where I have spent the past 17 years of my teaching career — will close at the end of this school year.

Unfortunately, I’ve been down this road before. In addition to the fact that our main feeder school was closed three years ago, this will be the fourth school I have taught at that will have closed.

The string of school closures that has trailed me throughout my career is partly due to declining enrolment — a result of exploding housing costs that have priced many families out of the Toronto market — yet it’s also a byproduct of TDSB’s “optional attendance” policy, which is killing the neighbourhood school.

Since 1999, the TDSB has allowed parents to opt out of sending their kids to their local school and send them out of their catchment area. Introduced in the chaos of amalgamation in the late 1990s, optional attendance bears the free-market thinking of the right-wing Harris government that created the TDSB. It was all about giving families “choice” and making schools compete for “customers.”

While this might sound good in theory, what we’ve seen as a result of this policy is a consolidation of students at a small number of schools perceived to be the “good schools” where the demographic, not surprisingly, is richer and whiter. And so while some schools are desperate for students, others are packed to the gills.

The TDSB’s own data confirms this, revealing 117 elementary schools and 29 high schools at or above 100 per cent capacity. Lawrence Park Collegiate, for example, was at 146 per cent, with 1,290 students in a school that holds 882, while George Webster Elementary School, with 657 students crammed into a building that holds 299, was at 220 per cent capacity. And these are just two examples.

My own school, Vaughan Road Academy, with a capacity for 1,179 students, is currently sitting at an enrolment of 223 students, while parents in our catchment area apply for — and continue to be granted — optional attendance for their kids at neighbouring Forest Hill Collegiate, a smaller school that is currently packed at 120 per cent capacity.

System-wide, if you add up the total capacity of the buildings and the total number of students, the TDSB data showed it operating at 75 per cent capacity overall — not exactly numbers that would suggest a need for the massive off-loading of school properties, which the Wynne government has been pushing as a way to pay for the $3.5 billion needed to meet the capital repair backlog in Toronto schools. Enrolment is simply not spread out evenly.

No one would deny families have often made decisions about where to live or buy a home based on the local school, and optional attendance in some form has actually been around for a while. Even in the preamalgamation days, parents had been allowed to send their children to a school out of their catchment area if, for example, the kids had special needs that could not be accommodated by their local school. Eventually, a loosening of the rules allowed for the proliferation of alternative programs in the 1980s.

With optional attendance, however, parents are able to shop around much more freely. Consequently, sending a child to school is no longer necessarily an act of investing in one’s community but about investing in one’s child, period. Rather than being vital centres of their communities, schools are being reduced to mere service providers.

There are definitely good arguments to be made for allowing parents to find programs suitable to their child’s interests and style of learning. Yet while granting families choice may often benefit children and families, the reality is that choice is more often likely to be accessed by those with more mobility. Families for whom even the price of TTC fare is a barrier to coming to school are far less likely than more mobile, affluent parents to take advantage of the optional attendance policy.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of special programs and boutique schooling in TDSB over the past two decades mostly target the same shrinking pool of “academic” students.

Simply put, the poor have fewer options about where to live and go to school.

It’s not a surprise that, as the Toronto Star reported in February 2015, the bulk of underenrolled schools happen to be located in poorer neighbourhoods.

While the Liberal government is demanding that TDSB consolidate low-enrolled schools, informally, consolidation has been happening for years based on where parents and students have been choosing to go, with those choices based sometimes on the ways in which factors such as race and class have shaped the school’s reputation.

No matter how much the board or the Ministry of Education can talk about how they believe schools should be “community hubs,” this is what the market model does to the neighbourhood school.

Jason Kunin is a teacher at Vaughan Road Academy, which is scheduled to close in June 2017.

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