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A group of students from marginalized communities has been excluded from the lottery system set up for admission to the Toronto District School Board’s coveted elementary alternative schools, with officials blaming an outside company for the error.

In an e-mail to families on Monday, the TDSB explained that it prioritized Indigenous students and applications from siblings for the next school year. A computer system then separated students from under-represented groups, including Black and Middle Eastern children, and those who identify as LGBTQ, who would randomly be offered 25 per cent of spaces as part of the board’s mandate to have the schools reflect the overall student population.

However, the remaining applicants from this pool who didn’t receive a spot in that round were also somehow excluded from the lottery system for the remaining seats, the TDSB stated. That would amount to roughly 75 per cent of available spaces.

“To address this issue created by the vendor, staff are reviewing the random selection process and taking appropriate steps to offer additional seats where possible,” the TDSB stated in its e-mail. It did not apologize to families for excluding their children.

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The TDSB, Canada’s largest school board, shifted the admission process this year for its sought-after specialized programs and schools to address historical inequities that excluded certain groups of students.

The change means that applications are handled centrally, not by individual schools. A certain number of spots for the coming school year would be filled by marginalized groups, and the remaining students would be randomly selected and placed on wait lists if demand exceeded spaces.

The change to the admission process has sparked division among families at the high-school level, where students no longer need to audition, present portfolios or write entrance exams to be admitted to one of nearly 40 specialized schools and programs that range from the arts to athletics, sciences and math.

Instead, each type of specialized program has a standard admission process, which could include demonstrating an interest. Some families have argued that it undermines merit and would ultimately water down the program. Others have said that enriched programs in public schools need to be accessible to all students, not just the privileged who can afford expensive extracurricular lessons.

The TDSB said it received more than 1,200 applications for 458 available seats in its 17 elementary alternative schools. Students could apply for admission for up to two schools.

The alternative schools tend to have smaller student populations and have different focuses, including social justice, democratic education and entrepreneurship.

Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a TDSB spokesman, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that the board was reviewing and identifying available spaces, even though families have said their children are on wait lists. The board is also looking to add more spaces, she added.

“We recognize that this has directly impacted students,” she said. “We are taking immediate steps to address the issue and to offer additional seats where possible.”

Ms. Schwartz-Maltz did not identify the third-party vendor that used a computer program to generate the list of applicants. She said the “oversight” was “discovered when staff reviewed data and results from the random selection process.”

Parents Yukimi Henry and Shibil Siddiqi said they were confused and then angry to learn that the process had excluded children, including their son. Their 11-year-old son had applied to two alternative schools for the fall. He is on the wait lists.

“Of course, that was disappointing. But we accepted that because we assumed that the process that was in place was procedurally fair, and it was equitable. And now it comes to light that it was neither of those things,” Mr. Siddiqi said.

“It’s not just about him not getting in. It’s about the process that’s unfolded.”

The couple support the TDSB’s shift to provide more equitable access to alternative schools. However, they worry that the board is not being accountable or transparent.

“What the board has demonstrated with this particular situation is that they really are incapable at this point in actually implementing even the system they have set ostensibly to address these historical inequities,” Ms. Henry said. “So, we’re not left with a whole lot of confidence as to how they continue this process of trying to address some of the systemic factors.”

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