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Students at John A. Leslie School in Scarborough despite the neighbourhood’s low income thanks to strong leadership and extracurricular activities. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Students at John A. Leslie School in Scarborough despite the neighbourhood’s low income thanks to strong leadership and extracurricular activities. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

A tale of two schools: The correlation between income and education in Toronto Add to ...

This is part of The Globe's Wealth Paradox series, a two-week examination into how the income divide is shaping Canada.

It’s a tale of two postal codes.

The Woods family – mom Kathy, dad Peter and daughter Naomi – lives in M1N 2T2 on Courcelette Road. It’s a quiet street of well-tended homes approaching million-dollar price tags, at the eastern end of the Beaches. Standardized test scores at Courcelette Public School are among the highest in Toronto. Ten-year-old Naomi has taken piano, swimming and karate lessons. On Tuesday evenings, she and a friend have a standing date. They build video games, supervised by her web developer dad. Mr. Woods works from home and reads with his daughter every night (Ms. Woods, a business consultant, is often on the road but makes sure to Skype in). Naomi read the entire Harry Potter series before her seventh birthday.

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Ten kilometres away in M1P 3N7, in the heart of  Scarborough, third-grader Shazfa Noor comes home after attending Edgewood Public School and goes to the basement to play with her three siblings, watch television and use the computer. “I can’t do soccer club or anything like that for all of them. I cannot afford that. It’s too expensive for me,” Latifa Sultana, Shazfa’s mother said.

Last year, Ms. Sultana noticed her daughter struggled with reading; Shazfa would skip words. Ms. Sultana asked the teacher but was told not to be concerned. She spent half an hour reading with Shazfa every evening and created a folder of rhyming words for Shazfa until she saw an improvement in the girl’s skills.

Ms. Sultana stays home while her husband works as a chef. They immigrated from Bangladesh in 1999. They moved to the Edgewood neighbourhood four years ago from an apartment building in East York to give their children a neighbourhood and a house to grow up in.

In theory, Naomi and Shafza would have equal opportunities to do well in school, participate in extracurriculars and move on to university or college. According to the OECD, Canada’s educational system is more effective than that of most other countries in compensating for income inequalities. But the reality is becoming quite different. As neighbourhoods become increasingly defined by income in the country’s cities, student achievement scores reflect that divide.

In Toronto, where income inequality is highest, wealth and test scores at Canada’s largest school board are correlated. A Globe and Mail analysis, based on data obtained from the Education Quality and Accountability Office and 2010 income data from Statistics Canada, shows this divergence quite clearly. High-scoring elementary schools are primarily concentrated in high-income areas and vice-versa. In lower-income neighbourhoods, a higher percentage of students fail the reading, writing and math tests.

When it comes to gifted students, nearly 60 per cent came from the three highest income deciles, according to a 2010 TDSB study. Fully a quarter came from the very highest income group, and only 11 per cent were from the three lowest deciles.

The study also found that those kids identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods. Those disadvantages intensify through their schooling: Kids from low-income families also have a higher likelihood of taking applied courses in high school, leaving them less likely to graduate or attend university or college.

“Kids are already coming into school at a disadvantage and that disadvantage appears to grow over time, rather than lessen,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.

Well-educated, high-income parents expect a lot from their schools and put pressure on teachers to perform. If those parents are absent, who is holding teachers accountable? Two years ago, Florida passed a bill to reward teachers for rising test scores, one of the key measures advocated by former governor Jeb Bush. Would merit pay for Canadian teachers help close the achievement gap? Progressive Conservative education critic Rob Leone said it’s worth discussing. “All options have to be on the table because what we need to do is ensure that our kids are succeeding,” he said.

The danger is that if left unchecked, income inequality in Toronto – and other Canadian cities – will lead to a greater concentration of high-scoring schools in well-to-do neighbourhoods. As housing prices continue to climb (since 2011, they’ve doubled), middle-class neighbourhoods with good schools become wealthy neighbourhoods and poorly performing schools are left behind.

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