Concern is growing among Ontario's public school board officials that students will switch to Catholic, French and private schools where sports teams and clubs are not affected by a labour dispute between teachers and the province.
Students in Grade 8 are currently deciding where to attend high school, and officials fear that ongoing strife within the public school system will push many parents and their children to consider other options.
"The real crux of the issue is in Grade 8 when you're looking at the spectrum of two years of potentially no extracurriculars in high school and you have a government that says that we should live in hope," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. "If there's an opportunity or desire to move, it may happen during that time period."
Enrolment numbers determine school board funding, so public high schools are at a serious disadvantage if they can't offer the same extracurricular programs as their French and Catholic neighbours.
"It will have an obvious impact and that's unfortunate," said Warren Kennedy, director of education at the Greater Essex County District School Board, which serves the Windsor area.
Board officials there have given high school sports teams until Friday to indicate whether they will be competing in the winter season. Mr. Kennedy said early signs have been hopeful, that many teachers are resuming extracurricular supervision, and that about 50 to 60 per cent of student teams are expected to be up and running.
Extracurriculars are considered by many students the best part of the school day, and many count on these them to help them earn scholarships and impress university recruiters.
Teachers withdrew their participation in sports teams and clubs in protest of the Liberals' Bill 115, which set a Dec. 31 deadline for bargaining, and enabled the province to impose a contract last week that froze wages and cut sick days. Though teachers can no longer legally strike, union leaders are meeting Wednesday to discuss next steps and have advised members not to participate in voluntary activities. Some leaders have even gone so far as to suggest that these activities could be withheld until the fall of 2014, the duration of the two-year, government-imposed contract.
Education Minister Laurel Broten told The Globe and Mail this week that "hope" is her only tool to restore peace to public schools. Whether normalcy can be restored to the school year will depend on what olive branch, if any, the new premier extends to teachers. The Liberals will choose a new leader to replace outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty at a convention set for the end of January.
Though extracurriculars are being cancelled at every grade level, public board officials are especially worried about losing high school students. Mr. Barrett said he has been told of a high school basketball player who transferred to the Catholic system so he could keep playing.
Elementary students must meet certain denominational and language requirements to enroll in Catholic or French grade schools. At the secondary level, however, enrolment is more porous, and provided there is room, Catholic and French high schools are more open to students of different backgrounds.
Still, the turmoil in the school system, which rekindles memories of teachers rebelling against Conservative premier Mike Harris in the 1990s, has some parents starting to look elsewhere.
Marilyn Croghan, a mother of three children aged 12, 9 and 6, is sympathetic to the teacher's cause. But she's also frustrated with the upheaval in public education and is seriously considering putting all three in the private system.
"Not that private school is the be-all and end-all of our woes here, but at least you feel like you have some control over the system and your child's education," she said.
Ms. Croghan, a Toronto resident, said her friends are also exploring their options. "There are all types of alternative schools and different boards, different philosophies and methodologies. I know many parents who may have been sitting on the fence like us – and who would prefer to stay in the public system if possible – but this may be the tipping point that pushes them over the edge," she said.
In the Amour Heights community at Wilson and Avenue Rd. Deborah Meek, a mother of three, said it's not that most of us are "angry with the teachers and/or the school as much as we're frustrated with the situation."
Ms. Meek has two kids already in private school – her nine-year-old son is at Crestwood and her 12-year-old daughter is at Havergal. But her 10-year-old son Cole has always been happy at Armour Heights Public School where he's done well academically. An athletic kids, the elimination of all sports at Armour Heights has dampened his enthusiasm somewhat. "He recently said to me, if this sports thing doesn't end can we look at different options next year," said Ms. Meek, who hopes it doesn't come to that. "Why is a 10-year-old thinking that? How sad."
To ensure her son is able to play hockey with his schoolmates, Ms. Meek recently paid for insurance, hired a lawyer to draw up waivers for players, and formed the Armour Community Team, which has practice ice time at the nearby York Mills Arena and will play in a non-TDSB tournament in January.
Ms. Meek, managing director of corporate recruiting company, WorkHarmony, followed the lead of other parent-led community teams, which also include the Wanless Community Team, the Brown Community Team, and the Bedford Community team. "We're very fortunate to live in the community we live in, and to have parents who are willing to go the distance and bring in paid programs," she said. "But what about the parents and children who don't have those means? It's not right."
"Right now we're not considering pulling Cole from the public system, but it's an option. What's saddened me about all this as a parent is that these are not kid issues."