Puja Gupta's nine-year-old daughter has gone through new-school jitters four times, and she is only in Grade 4.
She did junior and senior kindergarten at the elementary school across the street from her house in Brampton's Springdale neighbourhood before her parents switched her to a new French immersion school 1.7 kilometres away.
But by the time she was in Grade 3, the school's population had swelled so much that students were told they needed to move to a new school. Last September, that building was not ready, so she and her classmates were shuffled to a holding school 2.5 kilometres away. Finally, this past month, she moved into the school her parents hope she will stay in until Grade 8 – four kilometres from her home.
The switches may have brought chaos to the Gupta family, but most were part of a carefully planned growth management strategy by Peel District School Board, which is one of the fastest-growing boards in the country due to high immigration rates.
In the past two decades, many newcomers to Canada have chosen to settle in the 905 region rather than in Toronto due to affordability of housing, job prospects and established ethnic communities. While one in five Toronto District School Board properties faces the prospect of closing due to under-use, Peel grapples with the opposite problem. While the methods for accommodating a growing population may bring temporary disruption to the lives of students and their families, they have become more sophisticated in the past decade and are meant to save costs and space as the region matures.
Ms. Gupta says it has been frustrating to move her daughter between so many schools, and she believes it could have been prevented.
"They should work together – the builders, the municipality and the school board. This is the requirement, this is the population we're expecting," she said.
Suzanne Nurse, the vice-chair of the Peel District School Board, says boundary changes rank highest among parents' complaints, but it is not for lack of co-ordination by the board.
"This is all tied to ministry funding," she said.
The province funds the construction of new schools based on "sustained enrolment" rather than "peak enrolment." Although it seems counterintuitive, most new schools in Peel Region also have portables on their property that usually remain there for the first few years.
"That's when you see new homes, new households, family formation and the primary-aged children. Thereafter, the peak drops off," says Randy Wright, the board's controller of planning and accommodation support services. Rather than being left with a school filled with unused space a few years down the road, it's more economical to accommodate a bumper crop of students in the first few years in portable classrooms. After five or 10 years, the portables are usually gone.
Each year, his department drafts a comprehensive planning document that outlines new construction (both schools and additions), school-by-school enrolment trends and projections and boundary changes. Mr. Wright says his team has developed more sophisticated ways to plan for that: studying the birth rate, learning about new development approvals, considering how basement apartments and multifamily houses might affect the "student yield per household" in some communities.
While Brampton continues growing each year, Mississauga has slowed down as the city is nearly built out – Mr. Wright's team tries to stay on top of those population changes, too. This fall, five schools were identified as operating at less than 60 per cent capacity. Closing them is seen as a last resort, Mr. Wright said.
To buoy Mississauga's Riverside Public School, which is at 52 per cent capacity, the board has decided to add a French immersion program. Not only will it boost enrolment, it will also take some of the strain off a neighbouring French immersion school that is above capacity. At Macville Public School in Caledon, which is using only 58 per cent of its capacity, the board is adding a science and technology program to attract new students.
Sometimes the high-level planning at the school board still cannot prevent a situation like Ms. Gupta's daughter went through. Students usually are sent to a holding school while a new one is built only when school grounds have no more space to accommodate more portables.
"Multiple schools in a student's K-through-8 career is something we try to minimize, and we're seeking to do a better job of it," Mr. Wright said.