TALENT OR LUCKY DRAW?
TDSB set to vote as parents denounce admissions lottery for specialty high schools
Budding artist Daran Divanbeigi has spent years honing his craft, by going to a specialized school and taking private violin and piano classes.
The Grade 7 student attends Toronto’s Claude Watson School for the Arts and dreams of going to a high school where he can nurture his passion for drama and music.
But he worries that may be in jeopardy because the Toronto District School Board is proposing to overhaul its long-standing admission process at specialized programs and schools, which focus on areas such as the arts, athletics, science, math and technology.
Students typically write entry exams, submit report cards, demonstrate ability or audition to get into some of the city’s most coveted programs. Under the new policy, to be voted on Wednesday, they would need to express interest in an area and, if oversubscribed, applicants would be randomly selected with priority given to those from underserved and under-represented communities.
“It’s not fair to students at Claude Watson who spent many years building up their artistic talents,” said Divanbeigi, about the grades 4-8 school near Yonge and Sheppard. “We’ve been improving our arts and getting ready for high school so we can do even more art.”
Like many classmates, he planned to audition for the Claude Watson Program at nearby Earl Haig Secondary School, figuring he had a good shot. Now Divanbeigi fears his education could be left to a lottery. He could miss “a lot of opportunities,” he said last week at a demonstration outside the board’s offices, where about 100 students and parents protested the change.
The TDSB says the new policy will remove long-standing barriers — such as geographic, socio-economic and race-based — and improve access to programming. It also wants student demographics in these programs to reflect the broader population, since a disproportionate number come from families with higher socio-economic status, two-parent structures and higher incomes.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said students will need to demonstrate interest, for instance through a written submission or video.
“Maybe you don’t have that formal education, or formal training in a certain field. But you have followed it for years. You have a passion, an interest, you’re willing to put in the hard work. That also now applies. And those students are just as deserving of receiving that specialized education.”
If trustees approve the overhaul Wednesday, it will affect those applying for September 2023. Applications will be handled centrally, rather than by individual schools. Among the TDSB’s 235,000 students, 9,000 are in about 40 specialized programs and schools.
The board has also launched a secondary review, to ensure a breadth of programming at local schools, so teens don’t feel the need to leave their neighbourhood. That will take about a decade to put in place.
Trustee Robin Pilkey supports the new policy, saying TDSB data shows large swaths of students aren’t accessing specialized schools because of their location, or the admission process discourages or eliminates too many.
“The idea that your child got into one of these programs based on their talent, which they had the privilege to nurture, I don’t think is appropriate in a public school system,” she said. “We need to make sure people have access to all programs.”
When asked about students who’ve been working hard towards the goal of getting into a specialized program, she says if they’re interested they can still apply and there’s a good chance they’ll get in. She also points out that accessing these programs was never guaranteed.
At Bloor Collegiate Institute, teacher and guidance counsellor Leela Acharya welcomes the change. Her school has the TOPS program (Talented Offerings in the Programmes of Sciences). Admission is based on an entry exam, and then a student’s profile, and accomplishments, are considered.
There have been many efforts to ensure equity in TOPS, she said, noting students come from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum and are racially diverse. But there’s been “a glaring absence” of students who are Black, Latin American, Arab, Indigenous and of Portuguese descent, and “excellent representation” of those who are East Asian, South Asian and white.
“There are certainly gaps in terms of access to the program,” said Acharya. The policy change “is a good idea. I think we should try it out and see if we can actually address these structural issues of the absence of these specific groups.”
She said TOPS is so well-known in working-class neighbourhoods, such as Thorncliffe Park, Regent Park and Danforth Village, that when students from there don’t get into it, they still want to attend Bloor’s regular program, which has increased its overall enrolment. The policy change means they should be able to offer TOPS to kids from communities that haven’t had access, she said.
The TDSB is confident that under the new policy educators will continue to provide high-quality programming. It says teachers may need to provide support and adjust lessons depending on students’ different starting points.
Parent Essien Udokang worries lowering admission standards will lower program standards, saying “It’s going to water down the program and it’s just going to blend into nothingness.”
“Folks like me, who can afford it, we’ll just put our kids in private school or pay thousands of dollars a month for private lessons instead of wasting their time in a program like this,” said Udokang, who represents a group of concerned parents and whose son is at Claude Watson in Earl Haig.
Udokang, who grew up poor, said he’s sensitive to children from underprivileged communities who are “deeply talented.”
“If there are students who have capability and through lottery don’t get picked … I think those will be the most hard done by. Because they will have talent that could’ve been cultivated through a high quality of teaching, instruction and opportunity, but now they would have just been randomly selected out of the process. But they can’t pay for private lessons.”
At the protest, Luanne Wang was with her son Nathan, who’s in a Grade 6 gifted program and loves science and math. He said he dreams of attending a STEM program. She believes the proposed policy is “introducing tremendous barriers.”
“If there is no merit-based selection process and admission is based on random lottery, or dependent on other factors that are not transparent, I think it’s actually closing doors to many, many students and families who are working hard towards that goal.”
Wang participated in the TDSB’s consultation process on the policy change, and feels the voices of parents aren’t accurately reflected in the proposed policy. At the meeting she attended, discussion centred on providing more access to students, which parents agreed with, suggesting programs be expanded to different schools.
According to a TDSB report on the process, more than 3,600 community members provided input. It says “feedback regarding admissions criteria is mixed at best” and notes “there was also no clear consensus on the use of a lottery for admissions.” The board says what was clear was that some families felt they couldn’t access specialized programs.
Guang Ying Mo, whose children are in grades 3 and 7, feels the TDSB is sending kids the message that hard work isn’t rewarded.
She doesn’t think the proposed change will achieve equity, seeing it as a short-term solution. She said inequities occur when certain groups lack access to social or financial capital, and would rather see the board provide more resources to students from those groups so they feel supported and encouraged to learn.
She said the real issue is structural inequality, and if that isn’t addressed by giving those kids and families sufficient support, “this problem will not get resolved.”
‘‘ We need to make sure people have access to all programs.
ROBIN PILKEY TDSB TRUSTEE