Faced with declining overall enrolment, competing Ontario school boards have been pouring millions into recruiting drives, hoping the attractions – from better landscaping to specialized sports programs – can lure more students through their doors.
Ontario is in a unique position where four distinct publicly funded systems – francophone public, francophone Catholic, English Catholic and English public – are present in every corner of the province and all drawing from the same pool of students. The fact that public funds are being spent by boards to compete against each other may raise eyebrows, but success in maintaining a school's population can be the difference between keeping doors open and having them close forever, according to board officials.
"There's no loyalty in schools," said David Thompson, chair of the Near North District School Board in North Bay, about four hours north of Toronto. "It's all based on programming."
His board began offering International Baccalaureate programming in one of its high schools two years ago. The IB diploma program is a two-year curriculum that offers a more challenging course load and develops skills not necessarily emphasized in provincial curricula.
Mr. Thompson said the board has noticed a bump in its student population coming from nearby boards.
This fall, the Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, will start spending $1.3-million to improve the curb appeal at some of its high schools. The money will go toward signage, parking areas, landscaping and playing fields – if they are visible from the roadway – among other projects.
"The research is basically what our customers are telling us they want," said Peel board spokesman Brian Woodland. "This is the voice of parents and students saying, 'We want to come in the morning to a school that is not only structurally great inside but actually is a place that's appealing on the outside.'"
The board is also giving high schools a total of $800,000 to spend on extracurricular activities – everything from a new football team to professional development for coaches – and has created an athletic director position.
The public school board struck a committee a few years ago after principals said they were losing students between Grade 8 and high school. The proof was in the numbers: More than 1,600 students, enough to fill one or two schools, left between 2012-13 and 2014-15.
"If you believe your school is the best place to learn, then you have to provide to the community what they want," Mr. Woodland said. "We have to provide what the community is asking for."
Schools have been vying for students as birth rates decline. Concerns have been raised of boards spending public money on advertising when music classes are being cut, for example. But observers say the reality in Ontario is that the student population has dropped and since funding from the province is on a per-pupil basis, if a school does not keep enough students walking through its doors, it cannot sustain an array of programs.
"Because money is so tight, it makes the competition for students feel even more desperate in a way," said Annie Kidder, executive director for the advocacy group People for Education. "It can make the difference between whether you can keep a school open or you have to close it."
Ms. Kidder was hesitant to criticize the use of public money on advertising, curb appeal and extracurriculars to draw students.
"If boards are spending money on building the quality of education … that is money well spent," she said.
Some school boards are reluctant to openly admit to competing with their neighbours.
In Windsor, Ont., the Catholic board recently opened sports academies so students can do gymnastics or play soccer, baseball or hockey in the morning and then attend classes the rest of the day. The board is establishing an agribusiness-type academy at one of its schools in January.
Stephen Fields, a spokesman for the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, said students who are engaged in school tend to be more successful academically. Pressed further, he added: "Obviously we're interested in attracting more students to our programs, but that's because what we think we have to offer is really truly innovative and good for students."
The neighbouring public board has felt the effects of the sports academies and other programs offered by the Catholic board. It has seen about 300 students go elsewhere for Grade 9. The board is having difficulty competing because it is dealing with a deficit and, as a result, can't necessarily invest in new programs.
"It's been tough," said Scott Scantlebury, of the Greater Essex County District School Board. "Numbers are going down and we're competing for the same shrinking pool."