Three years ago, when Debbie King's daughter and her classmates went on a field trip to the Ontario Science Centre, they travelled from their school in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale to Don Mills. Transportation costs plus admission to the science museum that day: a mere $3.
"Our income has been unpredictable over the last few years," Ms. King said. "So there are times it wouldn't be an issue – no problem. There are other times where we can't afford that trip without the subsidy."
The subsidy in question was from the Toronto District School Board, which had designated the school her daughter attended, Queen Victoria Public School, near King Street West and Jameson Avenue, as one of its Model Schools for Inner Cities. As such, it was one of the 150 in the city facing the most challenges, with a large number of students living in poverty, so the school would receive a pot of additional funds so its students could tap into equitable learning opportunities.
Things began to unravel, however, when the board began to expand a gifted program in the school because it needed space for students. Children were being bused in from more affluent neighbourhoods in the west end. What started as one Grade 4 gifted class in 2009 now comprises 20 per cent of the population of Queen Victoria, altering the socioeconomic makeup of the student body and pushing the school above the cut-off point for additional funds – it is now ranked No. 151.
Its special status has been lost. And with it the extra funding – last year it was $24,000 – that comes with being a model school.
"It [is] unacceptable," said Ms. King, the co-chair of the school council. "There are a number of parents and a number of kids that will not have the same experience without that support."
The TDSB has said the school will instead receive transitional funding this year, about half of what it used to get. That money, the board said, should help subsidize field trips and bring professionals from the science and technology fields into classrooms, along with hearing and vision screening clinics.
Robin Pilkey, the TDSB's chair and trustee for the ward that includes Queen Victoria, said the board is committed to ensuring that children are not adversely affected by the change. All Grade 5 and 6 students, for example, will still be able to participate in the Island Natural Science School's three-day outdoor education program regardless of their family income.
But Ms. Pilkey acknowledged that the situation at the Parkdale school is emblematic of a larger issue facing the board: how to keep some of the city's poorest children from falling behind as neighbourhoods rapidly gentrify or as specialized programs change a school's population.
"We have to recognize that [Queen Victoria] is still a needy school," Ms. Pilkey said. But "we know what the city looks like and there is need everywhere now, and we can't just say it is schools that are under 150 that have need. Many schools have pockets of need. We have to recognize that."
The TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force is looking at how to distribute resources more equitably so that students who are marginalized but attend schools with a more affluent population are still being reached. Task force members, which include trustees, are speaking with parents and community groups to gather ideas on how to mitigate or remove social and economic barriers in schools so students can focus on learning.
The task force is also looking at the model-schools program. There are no plans to eliminate the program, Ms. Pilkey said, but staff may recommend changes. A draft report is expected to be presented to trustees in December.
The Model Schools for Inner Cities program, launched in 2006, provides millions of dollars in extra funding to the 150 schools facing the most challenges. Supports include nutrition programs, field trips, translators and vision screening. A school's rank is determined through the TDSB's learning opportunities index (LOI), which sorts the city's 471 elementary schools based on a number of factors, including household incomes, parental education and the proportion of single-parent households. The ranking is calculated every three years.
The LOI is based on the characteristics of students attending the school, not the neighbourhood. At Queen Victoria, when the gifted program was expanded and students were bused from different neighbourhoods, the school's LOI went from 64 in 2011 to 125 in 2014 and 151 after the most recent calculation.
Ms. King heard about the loss of the model-school status on the playground from another parent in early June, although she suspected changes were coming because of the gifted program. She was disappointed that no one was told earlier by school administrators and helped spearhead an awareness campaign for other parents.
Her eight-year-old daughter, Naomi, would always look forward to a bit of variety in the school day, and the special status allowed Queen Victoria to bring scientists into the school or take the children skating, she said.
"I felt it couldn't be ignored. I just felt a responsibility [to speak up]. It's about representation for me," Ms. King said. "I wasn't comfortable with people in an office far away, who seemed to lack understanding of our experiences, making decisions for us."
Karen Falconer, a TDSB executive superintendent responsible for the model-schools program, said several schools dropped off the list of 150 this fall when the LOI was recalculated. Neighbourhoods across the city have changed, she said.
Meanwhile, schools in parts of Scarborough – in the city's east end – and the west-end neighbourhood of Rexdale were added to the program, she said. More students in those schools had socioeconomic challenges and the schools could not get on the program list until the recalculation was completed.
Ms. Falconer said Queen Victoria's transitional funding should be more than enough to cover the costs of providing resources to students – even though it's half the previous year's budget. She said that when staff looked at what last year's model-school money was used for, they determined that $12,000 would be sufficient, adding that superintendents also have money to supplement school programs.
"I think, yes, being 151 is rough," Ms. Falconer said, "but it does not mean we're letting go of support for the school, because there are so many families who are in those circumstances. We would never do that. That's our job – to make sure those kids have a more even playing field and those families have more access."
Still, the parents of Queen Victoria are worried about how this will unfold over the next few years. Several parents on the playground said they are resigned to the fact that public education is two-tiered, and although the board provides grants to schools in high-need communities, it is unable to catch up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by schools in the city's richest neighbourhoods.
On a sunny Tuesday this month, students happily spilled out of the school onto the playground. Parent Rosemarie Legault watched her seven-year-old play and wondered out loud how she will be able to afford the class trips when Queen Victoria's transitional funding ends.
Ms. Legault is on the Ontario disability support program. She said she has to take money from her basic-needs budget to pay the rent for her one-bedroom apartment. If she didn't have access to the food bank, she said, she would be in trouble. She was setting money aside to pay for her daughter's class pictures.
"It helps these kids," she said of the model-school program. "Without that, these kids are not going to be able to go on trips. It's a choice between food in your mouth and $20 for a trip."
Nearby, Sharmini Ganesh, who has two daughters at the school, said she still planned to send her children on field trips, but it would be difficult. "Everyone will be affected a little bit. Everyone will be affected," she said.
Liz Kesten, who has two children at the school, teamed up with Ms. King to make parents aware of the change.
She said money is tight in her household. She works occasionally and lives in a co-op building with her partner and three children. She said that without the model-school program funding, she will have to choose which field trips she can send her children on.
"This is a diverse school that has people from all different walks of life and all different income brackets on a level playing field," she said. "They've ripped apart that level playing field."