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Students at John A. Leslie School in Scarborough despite the neighbourhood’s low income thanks to strong leadership and extracurricular activities.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe's Wealth Paradox series, a two-week examination into how the income divide is shaping Canada.

It's a tale of two postal codes.

The Woods family – mom Kathy, dad Peter and daughter Naomi – lives in M1N 2T2 on Courcelette Road. It's a quiet street of well-tended homes approaching million-dollar price tags, at the eastern end of the Beaches. Standardized test scores at Courcelette Public School are among the highest in Toronto. Ten-year-old Naomi has taken piano, swimming and karate lessons. On Tuesday evenings, she and a friend have a standing date. They build video games, supervised by her web developer dad. Mr. Woods works from home and reads with his daughter every night (Ms. Woods, a business consultant, is often on the road but makes sure to Skype in). Naomi read the entire Harry Potter series before her seventh birthday.

Ten kilometres away in M1P 3N7, in the heart of  Scarborough, third-grader Shazfa Noor comes home after attending Edgewood Public School and goes to the basement to play with her three siblings, watch television and use the computer. "I can't do soccer club or anything like that for all of them. I cannot afford that. It's too expensive for me," Latifa Sultana, Shazfa's mother said.

Last year, Ms. Sultana noticed her daughter struggled with reading; Shazfa would skip words. Ms. Sultana asked the teacher but was told not to be concerned. She spent half an hour reading with Shazfa every evening and created a folder of rhyming words for Shazfa until she saw an improvement in the girl's skills.

Ms. Sultana stays home while her husband works as a chef. They immigrated from Bangladesh in 1999. They moved to the Edgewood neighbourhood four years ago from an apartment building in East York to give their children a neighbourhood and a house to grow up in.

In theory, Naomi and Shafza would have equal opportunities to do well in school, participate in extracurriculars and move on to university or college. According to the OECD, Canada's educational system is more effective than that of most other countries in compensating for income inequalities. But the reality is becoming quite different. As neighbourhoods become increasingly defined by income in the country's cities, student achievement scores reflect that divide.

In Toronto, where income inequality is highest, wealth and test scores at Canada's largest school board are correlated. A Globe and Mail analysis, based on data obtained from the Education Quality and Accountability Office and 2010 income data from Statistics Canada, shows this divergence quite clearly. High-scoring elementary schools are primarily concentrated in high-income areas and vice-versa. In lower-income neighbourhoods, a higher percentage of students fail the reading, writing and math tests.

When it comes to gifted students, nearly 60 per cent came from the three highest income deciles, according to a 2010 TDSB study. Fully a quarter came from the very highest income group, and only 11 per cent were from the three lowest deciles.

The study also found that those kids identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods. Those disadvantages intensify through their schooling: Kids from low-income families also have a higher likelihood of taking applied courses in high school, leaving them less likely to graduate or attend university or college.

"Kids are already coming into school at a disadvantage and that disadvantage appears to grow over time, rather than lessen," said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.

Well-educated, high-income parents expect a lot from their schools and put pressure on teachers to perform. If those parents are absent, who is holding teachers accountable? Two years ago, Florida passed a bill to reward teachers for rising test scores, one of the key measures advocated by former governor Jeb Bush. Would merit pay for Canadian teachers help close the achievement gap? Progressive Conservative education critic Rob Leone said it's worth discussing. "All options have to be on the table because what we need to do is ensure that our kids are succeeding," he said.

The danger is that if left unchecked, income inequality in Toronto – and other Canadian cities – will lead to a greater concentration of high-scoring schools in well-to-do neighbourhoods. As housing prices continue to climb (since 2011, they've doubled), middle-class neighbourhoods with good schools become wealthy neighbourhoods and poorly performing schools are left behind.

Unlike cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton, where parents can choose which school to send students to, Toronto has rules surrounding geographic proximity. Students can only attend schools outside of their neighbourhood if there is room, and no schools with consistently high test scores have extra desks.

As a result, desirable schools drive surrounding real estate prices ever higher. Real-estate agent Patrick Rocca, who has worked in Toronto's Leaside and Davisville area for 20 years, said school catchment is "probably the No. 1 factor when people consider where they want to live."

There's a dangerous racial element to this divide. The majority of kids in families that earn more than $100,000 a year are white, while visible minorities, such as children from black, Middle Eastern and Latino families, tend to be disproportionately represented in the low-income group.

It's not supposed to be like this.

"Education is the part that holds the promise – that, if we're going to give everybody a fair start in life, the best place to do that is in school, where kids are. Schools provide a really important buffer to even out the chances for everyone," said Diane Dyson, director of research and public policy at WoodGreen Community Services, a social service agency. "To be rich is to know about possibilities. And so often poor kids don't know about possibilities."


On the ground, Naomi and Shazfa's educational experiences are both overtly and subtly different.

At Courcelette, more than 30 per cent of families make more than $100,000, according to the city. Almost all students meet the provincial standard on testing. At Edgewood, almost 40 per cent of families earn between $20,000 and $40,000. Only 20 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math in 2012-13. Edgewood also faces other challenges: A larger special-needs population and English-as-a-second-language learners.

When Courcelette's parents fund-raise, they use the money to fulfill the principal's and teachers' "wish list," buying iPads and whiteboards for the classroom, for example, or funding arts and science programs that bring in community guests. Edgewood parents "fundraise for a purpose," said school council chair Lisa Clarke. Two years ago, Edgewood parents raised money to buy six folding tables for the gymnasium so that students would not have to sit on the floor to eat their lunch. One study found that when it comes to the amount of money collected through fundraising in Ontario, schools in the top 10 per cent raise a much as those in the bottom 81 per cent combined.

At Courcelette, where there is a significant number of stay-at-home parents, the school uses a lottery system for field trips because so many adults jostle for a spot. At Edgewood's first school council meeting in September, only two parents showed up. Precarious employment – defined as a state of employment that lacks security and benefits, is on the rise in Toronto according to a report last year – and can make it particularly difficult for lower-income families to be engaged in their schools and communities.

Ms. Clarke, a mother of two Edgewood students, says the lack of engagement means teachers aren't necessarily as accountable. "You can't expect that you send your kids to school and everything works out. I think nowadays you have to do extra."

For Courcelette parents, providing enrichment for their kids comes so naturally that they barely notice they're doing it. "In terms of what I'm doing personally? Very little," Mr. Woods said, when asked about Naomi's extracurriculars.

"Parent expectations are high here, and if they find a gap, they fill it," said Gillian Main, a mother with two children, the youngest in Grade 6 and the oldest, now in Grade 11, graduated from Courcelette. She has hired a math tutor who comes to her home once a week "because my experience has been that my children are not excelling in math." Ms. Main and her husband moved to Courcelette Road in 2004, after studying rankings from the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, which placed Courcelette among the best.

The school board is aware of the achievement gap, and is making attempts to close it. One initiative provides additional funding to 150 TDSB schools, referred to as model schools, in low-income neighbourhoods for extra teaching supports, vision and hearing tests (with free glasses and hearing aids), nutrition programs and after-school activities. One of Latifa Sultana's older children is a product of the model school program, and participated in cricket and cycling. He applied and is now enrolled at a TDSB alternative school. Her eldest is in an International Baccalaureate program after receiving supports in school at an early age. Neither attends the local neighborhood high school – secondary schools are not organized by catchment.

But raising test scores also takes strong leadership. At John A. Leslie Public School in Scarborough, where about 70 per cent of parents were born outside Canada, students are thriving despite the neighbourhood's low income. There are plenty of extracurriculars, including cricket, to keep kids engaged; parents come in for literacy nights and math nights; and a book lending program forces kids and their parents to read together at home. "Everything we know about effective school works at building on student engagement and parent engagement. We know that if parents feel welcome in their child's learning, then that carries over into the home," Principal Greg McLeod said.


Income inequality isn't particular to Toronto, and other jurisdictions have taken steps to lessen its impact on education.

In the United States, the creation of school vouchers allows parents to choose which school their child attends, including private schools. In Vancouver, the opening of school boundaries means parents living in the east of the city often drive their kids to better schools in the west. But even though rules surrounding geographic proximity are not mandatory in Ontario, it's unlikely the province will abandon it.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said introducing school choice could exacerbate educational inequality, because low-income families don't necessarily have the means to drive their kid across town to a higher-ranking school.

Ms. Sandals said the solution lies in universal programs, such as full-day kindergarten, which has the potential to give every child, regardless of where they live, an early-learning experience. "You solve the problem through programming and not by opening by boundaries," she said. "Because quite frankly, we don't have any evidence that that actually changes things."

Carla Kisko, the TDSB's associate director of operations, agrees that opening up boundaries would be a nightmare when it comes to planning. "You [level the playing field] by focusing and looking at the data of students and really, truly putting intended additional support and effort to students that need the boost. That's happening every day," she said.

Principal Carol Cabral is new to Edgewood, and this year she started a home reading program and is working with staff to identify kids that need extra academic support. "We want the parents to be working with us. We want to give them the tools. We want to give them the strategies that we know will affect student achievement," she said. She is closely studying the EQAO results, and doing what she calls "intentional and strategic planning" to improve those scores. So when Shazfa takes the provincial test later this year, she is better prepared for the questions that come at her.

Is it enough to close the achievement gap? Long-time TDSB trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher has been heavily involved in the model-school initiative. "People like me like to think that we can. In our saner moments we know that we probably won't. But the minute you say 'You can't really expect to do that,' you lose the impetus, you lose the passion," she said.

With a report from Simona Chiose and Stuart Thompson.

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