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Toronto My son’s school boundaries are changing: Here’s why I’m okay with it

If proposed boundary changes are approved, Kate Hammer’s son, 17 months, will attend Parkdale Public School instead of Garden Avenue Public.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Want to pick a fight with parents? Mess with the catchment boundaries for their kids' elementary school.

In five years as an education reporter I've had more e-mails than I can count from parents who bought a certain house in order to attend a certain school and who are outraged at the Toronto District School Board for changing that plan. The board tackles between two and four boundary changes every year, and rarely without a fight.

News of Toronto's latest proposed boundary change didn't come to me through my Globe and Mail e-mail account. I heard it from a neighbour while I was playing with my 17-month-old son on the sidewalk outside our home. We live on a swath of land in the city's west end that has been swept up in one of the most controversial boundary changes in years.

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Families who live in the blocks east of Roncesvalles Avenue and north of Queen Street West were informed by letter Sept. 18th that the board intended to change the school boundaries in order to address a crowding problem. Their children will attend Parkdale Public School rather than Garden Avenue Public School.

Parents in the community are up in arms. They've launched a campaign that has won significant media attention to stop the boundary change, which would move about 95 kids from Garden to Parkdale as early as next fall. The proposed change still has to go to a committee, then get approved by the full board of trustees, but parents here aren't wasting any time. There will be a community meeting at Garden Public on Tuesday and everyone involved is bracing for a strong turnout from outraged parents.

I know both those schools well. Garden Public is a tiny school of fewer than 300 students tucked under a canopy of old maple trees.

Parkdale Public, near Lansdowne Avenue, is a large school built for 800 students. It is one of the TDSB's Model Schools for Inner Cities program, meaning its pupils are some of the poorest in the city. I visited as a reporter in 2008 when Katelyn Sampson, a Grade 2 student who'd been given up by her crack-addicted mother, had been beaten to death by her foster parents.

The schools are a kilometre and worlds apart.

After hearing the news, I put my son down for a nap and did a very stupid thing: I looked up the standardized test scores.

I'm a regular on the Education Quality and Accountability's Office's website. I look up standardized test scores all the time. As an education reporter, I tell parents to take those numbers with a grain of salt. Schools that serve immigrant populations can look pretty bad through that lens, and the test is only a tiny snapshot of student learning.

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But I couldn't stop myself. I needed to know.

And the results were shocking. Garden's were among the highest I've ever seen: Ninety per cent of kids pass the test at all grade levels. Parkdale's were some of the lowest: Only about 30 per cent passed.

I'll be honest: I started to worry.

Many of my neighbours are frantic. Some are convinced there is a conspiracy behind the boundary change, that there must be financial gain for the TDSB in switching the boundary and that the board is "sacrificing" their children to Parkdale Public. (I've heard more than one parent use that word.)

It would be a shame for Garden Public to lose the children in our catchment. The boundary change that the TDSB is proposing would cut the only apartment tower and the bulk of the rental properties that feed the school. The result would be excising the few low-income families that currently attend that school.

The parents who are waging this battle, however, aren't the ones who maximize this socioeconomic diversity.

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I know many of the parents who are campaigning against the change. They want the best for their children. I interviewed some for a news story for this paper last week.

"It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under our family," said Angela Carter, whose daughter is in Grade 2 at Garden Public. "It just feels strange that they would move us for an under-populated school."

Myles McCutcheon has a son in Grade 1 and a daughter in daycare at Garden Public. "Everything about my child's life has revolved around this school," he said.

Both said that their biggest concern was uprooting their children from a school they had come to know and love. They said they'd wage the same fight if they were being switched out of Parkdale into Garden Public.

I believe them. But I can't join their fight, and here's why: In all my time covering education for this newspaper, I have heard from parents all over Ontario angry about a boundary change that would take their child out of a high-performing, wealthy school into one with more low-income and immigrant children.

I have never seen the reverse.

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The day before the boundary change was announced, a mom friend e-mailed me a classic Malcolm Gladwell story, Do Parents Matter? It appeared in the New Yorker in 1998 and explains how the field of developmental psychology was flipped on its head by the notion that parents actually aren't a major influence on the attitudes and interests of their children, that the friend group is what matters.

The commonly accepted truth is that the most important thing parents can do for their children is surround them with the "right crowd" – in other words, the other kids whose parents fall within the same education and income level as themselves.

There is truth to that, but it doesn't work in the way you'd expect, according to Charles Ungerleider, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia and leading Canadian expert on education.

Research from multiple Western countries has shown that children living in poverty are put at a disadvantage when they are surrounded by other poor children. But the reverse is not true – upper- and middle-class children are not at a disadvantage when they are surrounded by less-privileged peers.

"This is likely the case because the majority of the variation in student achievement – approximately 70 per cent – is affected by factors outside of school over which schools have no influence," said Dr. Ungerleider.

The 70 per cent is genetics, parental income, education and support. It's the reason the disadvantaged kids at Parkdale Public stand to benefit from this boundary change.

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Of the other 30 per cent – the stuff that the schools influence – the biggest impact is the quality of instruction.

That's an area the TDSB has been focusing on at Parkdale Public over the past decade. The principals have been hand-picked, rising stars who have been handed support programs and extra funding to help turn the school's reputation around. Students learn to play cello and violin in a free after-school music program. There is a pool and the school was one of the first in the district to offer full-day kindergarten in French.

A boundary change would inject more socioeconomic diversity into Parkdale Public and help the TDSB get ahead of what their projections suggest is an imminent crowding problem at some of the neighbourhood schools.

The boundary change is the only way to deal with crowding issues in the area in a meaningful way, said Manon Gardener, executive superintendent of the TDSB.

"Crowding is a problem and we need to have a long-term plan," she said.

The TDSB's finances are a mess and school infrastructure is at the heart of that problem. Eighty of the TDSB's schools are operating below 60-per-cent capacity which creates a ton of inefficiencies for a place that is forced to cut things like special education support and breakfast programs and to delay repairs to things like leaky elementary school roofs each year in order to balance its budget.

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Parkdale Public School is pretty empty. It's not the most empty at the TDSB, but it's got 427 kids swimming in a giant facility built for 800.

Two years ago, the school was full. The surrounding apartment towers were a hub for Roma refugees, many of whom fled Hungary partly because of the way their children were treated by the schools. Then, in 2012, the federal government started rejecting Roma refugee claims. The school lost 200 students in the first year, and then another 200 last year.

It was a hard time for Parkdale Public. Classes were shuffled and teachers declared surplus. The recent media coverage and comments from local parents have been another blow to the community.

"It's a little bit sad," said Christine Poloczek, a senior kindergarten teacher in the French immersion program. "I really love this school."

She said teachers at other schools are under the impression that she works at a "tough" school.

Parents are under the impression that paying $1-million for a home entitles them to access to a certain school.

But here's what Toronto parents need to know: When you buy a house, the school doesn't come with it. Sometimes that sucks, but ultimately, it's a good thing.

Earlier this week, a few days after the boundary change was announced, I went with my husband and son for a coffee at my favourite spot on Queen Street West, near Dunn Avenue.

It has a platform in the window where children can play with toys and make faces in the window. A seven-year-old Indian girl was there with her mother, who spoke broken English. The little girl was a firecracker in a pink dress with a matching shrug. She climbed up onto the platform with my son, and they shared a croissant.

I introduced myself to her mother and asked where her daughter went to school.

"Parkdale," she said, pointing north, toward the school.

I nodded.

"We'll see you there soon."

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