Don’t destroy the magic of Toronto’s specialized schools in the name of equity

Host Elena Juatco, walks away with a trophy for Wexford Glee, of the Wexford Collegiate School For The Arts, the winners of the first-ever Show Choir Canada National Championships at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Toronto, in 2011. The competition brought together high school students from across Ontario to showcase their singing, dancing and performance skills.JENNIFER ROBERTS/FOR THE WORLD AND MAIL

The Toronto District School Board’s specialized schools and programs are one of the highlights of Canada’s largest public school system. Educating students in everything from filmmaking and advanced academics to math and cyberscience, they positively hum with talent and ambition.

Lately, though, they’ve gone through some tough checks. Critics say they are havens of elitism and privilege, attracting children from affluent, affiliated and disproportionately white families. In 2017, a TDSB equity task force advised the board to close specialty schools altogether. Parents rioted and the board rejected the idea, saying it would instead work to improve access to them.

Five years later, the TDSB comes back with a really silly idea. It would keep the special schools and programs but change the way students are selected for admission.

Right now, most come in by submitting report results, writing a test, or auditioning. The board proposes to get rid of all that. Most students would simply hand in a letter expressing interest in the program. Their names would go into a lottery and be chosen at random. As a board document puts it, “Admissions will move away from demonstrated strength and/or skill and instead prioritize a student’s interest in a particular program or school.”

Essentially, any student who thought it would be fun to be a dancer could have a chance at advanced training as a dancer, regardless of experience or aptitude. The problems with the idea are pretty obvious: first, that valuable resources would be devoted to students who don’t have much of a chance to become dancers; second, that truly gifted students could be denied the education that could make them extraordinary performers.

That seems terribly unfair to these eager young people. It also seems terribly unwise for a city that markets itself as an emerging global hub for technology and the arts.

The new policy could even fail in its goal of better access. Wouldn’t motivated and ambitious parents be more likely to let their children write interesting letters, just as many send their children into French immersion to give them a head start? The “upstreaming” that the TDSB is concerned about can continue as before.

The board, let’s be clear, is rightly concerned. A diverse school system like the TDSB has a responsibility to ensure that all students receive a quality education and equal opportunities for special training when they deserve it. But there are other ways to respond than just throwing open the doors, which will certainly change the uniqueness of these special places.

For starters, the board could do more to promote and publicize special programs, making sure parents hear about them and teachers look for promising candidates, especially in needy neighborhoods. Abolishing the application fee, as the board proposes, is a good idea. That includes expanding arts and other special programs in local schools.

Selective schools don’t have to be bastions of privilege. We have all heard of underprivileged people who have achieved great things after winning competitive scholarships at leading music schools, science academies or universities.

Honesty and excellence can coexist. Merit and justice are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the merit principle – talent over influence, hard work over wealth – helps level the playing field of society.

As it stands, students who want to attend a special school work on their essays and portfolios or spend long hours practicing for their auditions. It can be difficult, but competing is part of the game, just like in adult life. Many have spent years learning to play the violin or draw the human figure or design computer games. This is their moment.

If they’re lucky enough to pass, they’ll be brought together with other bright, dedicated, creative kids from all sorts of backgrounds (because these schools are far from the homogeneous collection of spoiled kids their critics would have you believe). Clumsy teens who may have struggled in mainstream school find their place. Some kind of magic happens.

It would be a shame to wipe it out in the name of equity.

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