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Critics urge Toronto board to move ahead with special-program schools

Hao Chen Yu, 8 reads the news as one of the Teaching The Kids News developer, teacher Kathleen Tilly works with other students in the library at Eglinton Public School in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

After more than a year of debates, briefings and reports, the trustees of the Toronto District School Board have analysis paralysis, critics say, and need to move forward with a proposed group of private-school-like academies for next fall.

The academies, known as Programs of Choice, include all-boys, all-girls, sports-focused and choir-focused schools. Trustees will decide whether to open them next fall in underutilized schools, or request that staff conduct more research, at a board meeting late Wednesday.

"The board has become bogged down in the paralysis of overanalyzing these programs," said Faraz Chandhery, a parent who lives near Highland Heights Junior Public School, which would contain the Girls' Leadership Academy. "To me, it's a no-brainer because the school board is in a crisis situation and we're looking at an opportunity to mitigate that."

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Declining enrolment has left many TDSB schools operating below capacity with diminished resources. The Programs of Choice would operate within the unused space inside such schools, likely attracting more students and therefore more funding.

"We don't need more analysis, we need to make a decision," said trustee Soo Wong, whose ward would host the girls' academy. "We have gender-based classes in my ward and they're doing very well."

But resources are already stretched thin, and the programs would require staffing and about $285,200 in startup costs.

"There's no concrete documentation around how this would work, how it would affect learning, there's no concrete numbers in terms of the impact of drawing teachers from other schools and the impact on local schools," said trustee Cathy Dandy.

There is concern that the TDSB is going too far with its growing list of alternative schools. Trustees are also considering an Africentric high school and a Portuguese alternative school, and opponents say the board should be looking for a more holistic approach to improving student achievement.

If trustees ask for further research, they would dash any hopes that the programs could launch before the fall of 2012, which will mark three years from the time TDSB director of education Chris Spence first proposed the idea of a boys' academy as part of a strategy to help struggling students.

"I'm the eternal optimist," he said. "Excellence is not synonymous with sameness, every school does not have to be the same and I see this as an opportunity to find new and innovative ways to engage kids and hopefully get better outcomes."

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Staff's proposal would see a Boys' Leadership Academy opened at Calico Public School and The Elms Junior Middle School; a Girls' Leadership Academy at Highland Heights Junior Public School; a Sports and Wellness Academy at Carleton Village Junior/Senior Public School, James S. Bell Junior Middle School, Rene Gordon Elementary School, Donview Middle School and Shoreham Public School; and a Vocal Music Academy at Heather Heights Junior Public School and Ryerson Public School.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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