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Etobicoke School of the Arts students are seen in May, 2011.SARAH DEA/For The Globe and Mail

A proposal before Toronto District School Board trustees this week to overhaul the admission process to its specialized schools has created a firestorm of criticism in some corners, and pitted merit against accessibility in a publicly funded education system.

If the policy is approved by trustees on Wednesday, it would mean that students no longer need 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, they would need to demonstrate an interest in a particular field.

The changes to specialized schools at Canada’s largest school board are reflective of a challenge in public education – in attempting to respond to the demands of some families, educators must also prioritize creating opportunities for other families from marginalized communities.

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“We want to signal that every student who has a passion and who is committed to being part of a specialized program is welcome. And I think that’s our obligation as a public education system,” Colleen Russell-Rawlins, the TDSB’s director of education, said in an interview.

She heard from families expressing “relief” with the changes. They previously felt discouraged to apply because they couldn’t afford lessons outside the school day that they felt were a prerequisite for auditioning and getting into specialized schools.

She has also heard from those who felt the changes would water down the program.

Ms. Russell-Rawlins disagreed. “There’s the belief … that we’ve captured the total sum of students who are interested and passionate in these particular programs. The data doesn’t tell us that,” she said. “The data tells us that there are more students out there who could really benefit from these programs and who have raw talent and have been passionate about it for many years, who will excel in these programs.”

The TDSB’s specialized schools have been under the microscope in recent years.

In 2017, the board considered dismantling specialized schools so that it could distribute resources more equitably to students in 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 said it would look at its policies and practices to ensure it was not exacerbating or creating inequity.

Under the new proposal, students meeting the base requirements will be randomly selected if demand exceeds available spaces. Priority access would be given to students in underserved communities, although how that would work still needs to be determined. The changes would affect those applying for September, 2023.

Essien Udokang’s older son graduated from the Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. His younger son is enrolled at the Claude Watson Secondary Arts program, housed in Earl Haig Secondary School.

He finds the proposed changes “perplexing.” Students who enroll in specialized schools are not only interested in those programs, but they also show persistence and discipline. His son, now in Grade 11, has been studying viola since Grade 2.

“What’s going to happen is that ultimately there will be a watering down of programs and a disappearance of the programs in the end, because they can’t be sustained under that model,” Mr. Udokang said.

Mr. Udokang said the TDSB should not lower the admission standards of these specialized schools but enhance programming throughout the system. The board should also look at elevating the capability of all students interested in particular areas at the elementary level so they can confidently apply to specialized secondary programs, he said.

“Why can’t you have all of the schools provide some modicum of quality programming … but keep these beacons in society for exceptional students,” he said. “I sense that there really is a black spot on anything exceptional, anything elite.”

Joy Henderson has long advocated for an end to the “gatekeeping process” to apply to specialized schools. She has a child attending Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute’s exceptional athlete program.

Ms. Henderson understood her privileged position. Her son played soccer and had recommendations from coaches. However, she said the application process made her frustrated.

“Why does a Grade 8 student need a résumé to apply to a Toronto public school? It automatically shuts out students through what is required,” Ms. Henderson said.

She added: “I am happy they are moving toward an equity-based focus.”

Some specialized schools have already changed their admission criteria to make them more accessible. Rosedale Heights School of the Arts no longer requires students to audition, and instead students share expressions of interest. The TDSB is also reviewing all its secondary schools to include local programs so students don’t necessarily have to leave their neighbourhoods.

Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, co-wrote a research paper in 2017 that found specialized schools don’t mirror the board’s broader student population. Students in art schools were disproportionately white, and more likely to come from affluent homes, the research found.

More recent data from the board shows that 63 per cent of students in the elite athlete program identify as white compared to 29 per cent of all high-school students.

Similarly, 55 per cent of students in the arts program identify as white, compared to 29 per cent of all students. In the board’s Leadership program, 66 per cent of students identify as South Asian compared to 23 per cent of all high-school students.

Prof. Gaztambide-Fernandez is supportive of the TDSB’s proposed changes to eliminate auditions, although he suspects the makeup of students who apply won’t change. “I hope that I’m proven wrong,” he said.

“The role of public education is not specialization,” he said, adding that it should be to prepare students to encounter differences and to participate in society.

“By imposing these ideas of talent that are deeply exclusive and deeply racist, ultimately, what we’re doing is actually curtailing the ability of public education to provide opportunities for students to participate in society.”

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