Open Letter: Student Concerns Over TDSB Task Force Decision

Students in the International Baccalaureate® Diploma Programme. Image courtesy of the International Baccalaureate® Organisation: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/diploma-programme/

To the Chairperson, Trustees, and Director of Education of the Toronto District School Board,

It has come to the attention of the Federation of Canadian Secondary Students | Fédération des élèves du secondaire au Canada (FCSS-FESC) that the Ensuring Equity Task Force (EETF) has recommended for the phasing out of “optional attendance and specialized schools” in the TDSB, in an effort to “eliminate disparities between schools” and increase equity. We, at the FCSS-FESC, strongly oppose adoption of this recommendation, on the grounds that, while well-intentioned, it is counter-intuitive in its goal and directly contravenes the EETF’s call for increased student voice.

Recognizing that there exists a problem of inequity in the TDSB, we would agree with the EETF’s assessment that programmes should be implemented to alleviate this issue, specifically on inequity between schools. However, the complete elimination of specialized schools and optional attendance would work against this goal, ultimately. Although this may seem initially beneficial to solving this problem, it should be acknowledged that in refusing to offer specialized programmes, demand will likely go elsewhere. The implications of this include a possible shift of affluent students to private schools or neighbouring school boards which still offer the specialized programmes. On the issue of optional attendance, well-to-do parents may have more incentive to relocate to catchment areas of historically successful public schools, leading to more explicit socioeconomic segregation in this regard. This would also exacerbate school fundraising problems, and inequity between schools in that. These may seem extreme, but they remain distinct possibilities. Even in the case where students stay in their geographically determined schools, by the removal of specialized programmes, people will have to look outside of school for pursuit of a subject in depth. Here, richer families will be able to afford the extension material; poorer families will not. In any case, inequity is likely to rise, not fall, through this proposal.

For the credit of the EETF, they do try to address some of the concerns posed above; for example, they indicate that there should be a realignment of resources so that specialized programmes can be offered at each and every school. However, this is unrealistic at best. A large advantage of specializing schools in certain subjects or offerings is efficiency. The bigger programme at a certain school will always cost less than many small programmes at other schools, while also being able to give students more depth in their specialized area. On the same token, while small specialty courses at every school may seem to provide greater access and breadth compared to the our current system, this may not be the case given how courses need sufficient enrollment to take place. A niche art course will not run if only three people are interested in it, and through that, students will still have close to no access to this material through school. In fact, pseudo-specialization could arise from this, if the demographics of one area allow for specialty science courses to run whilst the demographics of another leads to specialty music courses. This then creates a geographic advantage/disadvantage, as well as a favouring of large schools, that will have more people to justify running those enriched courses. If school clusters are implemented and students are given the right to attend those institutions provided they live in a specific catchment area, this problem may be alleviated. However, then the distinction between the new and old system will be negligible, as most people who attend enrichment programmes do so with one near home. This leaves the main change as one of more bureaucratic oversight, which is decidedly not worth the expenses and planning involved. In all of this, the EETF’s plan of action finds problems in more than one area, which should be just cause for reconsideration.

Moreover, we feel that in this proposal, the voice of the student is often diminished. By its very nature, in disallowing specialized programmes, it prohibits the self-actualization of students through their school, making it less likely that they will see themselves to leadership and empowerment, both of which were set forth as goals in the EETF report. Additionally, a large number of students in these specialized programmes feel as if their voice and concerns are not being heard. One person who attends a specialized programme asserts that “being surrounded by like-minded students is sometimes the sheer reason that some of us attend school.” To not consider this aspect would be to ignore the concerns of those within the programmes themselves. Many students in regular stream programmes also take issue with this, with the argument that those “schools should be willing to accommodate their students’ needs and aspirations and give them the opportunity to be the best that they can be,” with the use of “their own personalized learning experience.” Those who are in those specialized programmes are simply those who feel that such a programme better fits their learning experience. As well, the elimination of the optional attendance clause can have some serious implications on student life. In the case that a student is being harshly bullied/faces a hostile environment at a school, for example, they will not be afforded the opportunity to transfer to a place where they can get a fresh start. This can leave them with difficulty in receiving a good education at the school they attend, and it leaves them without an increased sense of empowerment.

The FCSS-FESC, in spite of our disagreements with the report, applauds the EETF for tackling this difficult topic and encourages further discussion on methods of solving issues of inequity in the TDSB. Nevertheless, with everything in consideration, we would implore the TDSB to reject the EETF recommendation, unless the proposal comes with more nuance and study, and instead recommend the exploration of alternative solutions. Student voice and empowerment, as key pillars of the FCSS-FESC purpose, stand as significant issues in this process. To alleviate this, we also call on a higher level of cooperation between the EETF and student interest groups for collection and analysis of students’ opinions, to forge an equitable and universally beneficial path forward. From our Organization, we will continue to study and work to ensure that any proposed solution is one that works for all students in the TDSB.

Thank you,

The Federation of Canadian Secondary Students | Fédération des éleves du secondaire au Canada


Originally published at www.fcss-fesc.ca.