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Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, said there was 'tremendous interest' among students wanting to attend specialized schoolsPOOL/Reuters

The Toronto District School Board has seen an increase in applications for its specialized high schools after it overhauled the admission process to better reflect students’ demonstration of interest and improve accessibility – a move that was criticized by some families for undermining merit.

Around 2,300 students applied for high-school arts programs for September, up from about 1,400 last year. Similarly, more than 4,000 students applied for math, science and technology programs, compared with almost 3,000 the previous year.

Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, said there was “tremendous interest” among students wanting to attend specialized schools. The board, he said, increased the number of spaces in about 40 per cent of the programs “to provide greater access to students who express interest” in them.

Unlike in past years, students no longer needed to audition, present portfolios or write entrance exams to be admitted to one of the TDSB’s 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.

Mr. Bird said the board used a lottery system for almost all the programs because demand exceeded spaces. However, 20 per cent of the seats were held for and filled by specific racialized groups, including Indigenous and Black students, as part of the board’s mandate to have the programs reflect the overall student population.

The changes to specialized schools sparked division among families, and brought issues of accessibility and merit to the forefront.

When the board brought forward the changes last spring, some parents argued it would negate the hard work students needed to earn a spot and, ultimately, water down the programs. Others said that enriched programs in public schools need to be accessible to all students, not just the privileged, and admission should not require a résumé or expensive extracurricular lessons.

Other jurisdictions have also experimented with the admission criteria for its specialized programs and schools. San Francisco’s board of education voted in June to return one of its elite high schools to a merit-based admission process, only two years after switching to a lottery system to address a lack of diversity. The reversal was prompted by a grassroots campaign and a change in board members.

The TDSB’s specialized schools have been under the microscope in recent years. In 2017, the board considered dismantling them so that it could distribute resources more equitably to students who are from economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods and who are unable to travel across the city to access enriched programs.

That proposal was dropped after an outcry from parents. The TDSB at the time said it would look at its policies and practices to ensure it was not exacerbating or creating inequity.

Mr. Bird said there is a wait list for most specialized programs, as there has been in previous years. Students will be moved off the list as others decide on their placements and spaces open, a process that would typically carry on until late February.

Margaret Greenberg, principal at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute, said her school will have two Grade 9 classes, roughly 54 students, for its math, science and technology program.

She said that six times as many families this year compared with last year attended online or in-person sessions to learn about the program. She credits the interest to the TDSB streamlining the process so students apply centrally, as opposed to individual schools, and removing the portfolios and other criteria from the application process.

Ms. Greenberg believes many students did not apply in past years because they didn’t feel as confident that they had a strong chance of being admitted compared with someone who had built a portfolio.

“When we know that we are not getting a group of students who are as capable or as interested and as deserving as everybody else, and the only thing that’s stopping them from being in these programs is the way that we have them indicate interest, then something has to change,” she said.

“Overwhelmingly we see that when we put students in opportunities to show their abilities and knowledge and skills, that they meet the challenge.”

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