The problem of underpopulated schools in Toronto is the product of decades of slow change in family size and settlement patterns.
In the big picture, families simply aren't as big as they used to be. As Annie Kidder of People for Education explains it, it has purely to do with the preference for fewer children.
"My mother had five children. I had two. That's what it's about," Ms. Kidder said.
A large chunk of Toronto's school infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 60s, when there were more than 250,000 elementary students in the system. Today, elementary enrolment is just beginning to pick up again after a decade of decline, but it's only about 175,000 students.
"The enrolment decline is real," Ms. Kidder said. "Schools were built at a certain size for a certain number of students and now there are far fewer students."
Even as primary enrolment starts to slowly grow, enrolment in secondary schools will continue to drop for another decade or so, according to recent Toronto District School Board projections. But there will be a bump in the school-age population as the echo generation, the children of the baby boomers, have kids themselves and send them off to be educated. And then there's the question of immigration patterns – immigrants are increasingly moving to areas in the 905 region, areas that tend to be able to accommodate larger families.
Facing a budget crunch, the TDSB released a list of 130 underused schools this week – those operating at 65 per cent capacity or less – with the understanding that some would be closing. If the TDSB is forced to sell its properties, it does not want to let go of those that it may need a decade from now when a relatively underpopulated neighbourhood booms again. Examining the population shifts in the areas where these less-populated schools are located gives us a picture of a changing city.
The city's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, said predicting which neighbourhood will see an influx of young families is a challenge.
"As neighbourhoods evolve and change and the demographics of neighbourhoods evolve and change – and we know this is cyclical – you're going to see an ebb and flow with respect to the number of school spaces needed in a given neighbourhood," Ms. Keesmaat said.
"It's critical to take a long view. There are schools in this city where 15 years ago the school board was proposing to close those schools, and the neighbourhoods fought to keep them open. And now those very same schools are bursting at the seams because they're so full."
Deb Stoch is the mother of two children living in the High Park area. When they moved there, the area was in transition. Older, mainly Polish immigrant families were moving out and young families arrived. For a time, she was told, her postal code had one of the highest birth rates in the city. Her local school, Keele Street P.S., had to add a class when her daughter started in kindergarten. Now, it's in the process of building a three-storey addition to deal with a population that has continued to burgeon. Nearly every school in the area also has an alternative education program, she said. Meanwhile, schools within a five-minute ride on the TTC are considered underpopulated. She wonders why it wasn't possible to plan to accommodate some of this growth by spreading the student population to nearby neighbourhoods.
"There is no forethought given to the natural ebb and flow of families in neighbourhoods. Right now all of us have young kids, but what about 15 to 20 years from now?" Ms. Stoch said. "I'm happy for my kids to take the TTC, especially if it means saving somebody else's school."
One area where there is a cluster of underpopulated schools is St. Clair west of Dufferin, an area inhabited by older immigrant families. Will it soon boom? The trend of young middle-class buyers sweeping up single-family homes has transformed many neighbourhoods in recent years, from Parkdale to Leslieville to the Junction. The area of the city with the greatest proportional growth in its under-five population is down by the waterfront, in the condo-land that has sprouted south of Queen Street. But will those families stay in the area once their children are of school age?
Ms. Keesmaat added that the lopsided enrolment numbers across the city is an example of why planning is critical.
"The opportunity of building a complete community, where you build a variety of housing types, a variety of building sizes and a variety of amenities that serve people throughout their lifespan, is that it does provide some stability, because you have a variety of demographics living together," she said.
At the neighbourhood level, growth can be quite uneven. Gerri Gershon is the school trustee for the district that includes Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, where a new school had to be built just to accommodate the massive population of kindergarten kids.
"Our schools are filled to the brim," Ms. Gershon said. "There is a heavy Muslim population from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and they do have larger families."
Ms. Gershon, who was a member of the province's declining enrolment working group that produced a report on the subject in 2009, said that although many seem to jump to the conclusion that declining enrolment can be blamed on parents taking their kids to the private system, that doesn't seem to be borne out by the data.
The enrolment at Regent Park's Nelson Mandela Park Public School dropped to 41 per cent of capacity with 331 students in 2014. But in the next five years, the TDSB projects the school will be full, perhaps even slightly overcapacity by 2024.
Principal Jason Kandankery attributed the recent dip in numbers to Regent Park's revitalization process.
"Now that housing is being rebuilt, we're seeing an upwards trajectory."
School closings aren't new to the community, however, and Mr. Kandankery said sometimes they worked. Part of the Regent Park revitalization plan included closing the Regent Park/Duke of York Public School and consolidating it into the revamped Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
"If you can consolidate resources into one spot, then you can better service students," Mr. Kandankery said. "In the Regent Park context, the discusson is already happening. Nelson Mandela is not going to close."