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Play equity: Should parent fundraising determine the quality of Toronto’s schoolyards?

Rose and Milo Rebick-Sustar play at a playground at the Parkdale Public School in Toronto on Friday.

Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Parents and staff at Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School are in the midst of a fundraising drive to revamp the school's aging playground. The price tag for the five-year project is steep – $500,000 – and a quarter of it will have to come from parent fundraising.

"It's a pretty big goal for a school like Parkdale, but we're trying," says Darren Sustar, a co-chair of the parent council.

The west-end neighbourhood is diverse, with a high number of low-income families and recent immigrants, making the fundraising target a significant barrier for getting rid of the swampy grass and dilapidated wooden play structure.

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Not all schools face the same struggle. Data obtained from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) show that parents in affluent neighbourhoods are often able to rally funds for playground equipment that nearly match Parkdale's five-year goal in just one year.

In Bennington Heights, just north of the downtown core, the elementary school was able to raise $100,000 in a year for its playground. And in the rapidly growing Leslieville community in the city's east end, parents quickly pulled together more than $50,000 at Morse Street Junior Public School. Its playground now features multiple play areas, a fancy wooden feature and a giant climbing structure.

Overall fundraising numbers from the 2015-16 school year show that multiple elementary schools were able to raise well over a quarter of a million dollars a year, while others struggled to raise one-fifth of that.

Playgrounds are increasingly becoming symbolic of the inequity in Toronto schools, a phenomenon driven by strict provincial rules on parent fundraising and growing financial challenges for the school board, which must choose between fixing leaking roofs or replacing aging slides.

Yet, experts say that playgrounds are a key area of the school experience that affect student engagement and social development and they question if their quality should be determined by the wealth of a neighbourhood.

A survey by the Toronto-based advocacy group People for Education found this year that for every $1 that a low-income neighbourhood is able to raise for its school, affluent neighbourhoods are able to raise $49. That ratio has increased from $1 and $25 nine years ago.

The Ministry of Education is mindful of equity and doesn't allow outside funds to be used for classroom learning materials, textbooks and most parts of infrastructure. Fundraising money is usually spent on field trips, guest speakers and technology such as iPads and laptops. Playgrounds are an exception to the infrastructure rule.

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Ministry of Education spokesperson Heather Irwin said the ministry provides money to the school boards to keep up their facilities, but it's up to individual boards whether they spend it on playgrounds or other school facilities. Ms. Irwin added that boards have some options to level the playing field with fundraising as well.

"To promote equity, the [fundraising] guideline also encourages school boards to support donations to board-level funds, or matching programs between schools and/or school councils," Ms. Irwin said in a statement.

Richard Christie, senior manager of sustainability at the TDSB, acknowledged that there is a gap in the quality of playgrounds across the city and said there shouldn't be a reliance on parents to fundraise for them. But he says the current situation is an unfortunate reality that comes with the lack of funds the school board has at its disposal. The board is dealing with a $3.7-billion backlog for pressing repairs.

"We're only given X amount of dollars and we have all these facility needs, and of course you're going to put it in for the leaky roof, or for the boiler that's going to fail," Mr. Christie said. "School grounds, unless it's a safety issue, have really been at the bottom of the priority list, which is why some schools are in the state they're in."

Carl James, a professor at York University who studies equity in education, says that unequal playgrounds present a problem because they can have a significant impact on a student's education experience.

For kids who already live in lower-income areas and have less access to fundraising in their schools, playground conditions that are subpar can pile on to a child's negative experiences.

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Prof. James says students in lower-income neighbourhoods, who may already require more support, could internalize those shortcomings and that it ultimately affects how well students engage in class or develop social relationships.

"The question is then, how can schools operate at an equal measure to respond to the needs of some students?" Prof. James said. "[You must] consider what goes on in that community, in that school's surroundings and in the culture in that school."

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, added that leaving playgrounds to be handled by parent fundraising is troubling when the fundraising gap between rich and poor schools is so large.

"Where do we draw the line?" Ms. Kidder said. "What do we see as core parts of education that should be paid for by taxes so that there's no inequity, and what are the extras where fundraising has a role to play?"

Ms. Kidder says she definitely considers playgrounds as infrastructure and says they should be paid for by the education system.

At Parkdale, Mr. Sustar says that a recent effort to raise around $30,000 this year was "monumental." But the neighbourhood has also undergone radical economic shifts in recent years as families with higher incomes have started to move in. Mr. Sustar says before that gentrification, raising even a modest sum would have been impossible.

"Five or six years ago, a parent council would only raise $10,000 or $11,000," Mr. Sustar said. "And that was only enough to take Grade 7 and 8s to field trips and for graduation."

Mr. Sustar says he's fortunate that he's at an income level that would allow him to move to another neighbourhood if his children's school in Parkdale wasn't meeting his expectations.

But not everyone has that option – especially lower-income families who need to stay in areas where there is low-cost or subsidized housing.

"It affects marginalized kids for sure," Mr. Sustar said. "They probably right away realize they don't get the same shake as an affluent kid who can leave the school."

But it's not only parents in marginalized parts of Toronto that have issues with how playground fundraising works. Over at Bennington Heights Elementary School, Nick Oldland, a former member of the school's parent council, says he's frustrated that playgrounds are one of the only things that parents are able to fundraise for.

Mr. Oldland said that while parents were able to raise six figures for a beautiful new playground, there were other infrastructure problems such as rotting portables and chipping paint that he would have rather spent the money on. But he couldn't, because guidelines say that core infrastructure must be paid for by the school to promote equity.

"What ends up happening is, out of a sense of frustration, the money ends up being spent on a playground," said Mr. Oldland, who currently has two children at Bennington Heights and two others who have graduated.

"The last thing parents want to fundraise for is the playground."

As a children's author who has travelled to a wide variety of TDSB schools, Mr. Oldland says that in his experience, schools in low-income areas don't have some of the same major infrastructure issues because of their designation as priority schools, which can put them at the front of the line for repairs.

While the TDSB's Mr. Christie acknowledged the funding issues that led to those problems, he says that the board's situation is improving slowly.

Over the past two years, the Ministry of Education has increased funding for infrastructure projects at the TDSB, meaning that the board can tackle more projects than it was able to before.

This year, the board was able to work on 12 school grounds that otherwise would have not been done. In 2016, it was able to work on another eight schools.

But Mr. Christie says that in a rapidly growing city such as Toronto, families shouldn't be facing this problem where their school grounds aren't funded.

"These school grounds are becoming increasingly important as public assets and green spaces," Mr. Christie said. "The broader public sector … needs to come together and recognize these school grounds as incredibly important assets for the broader community."

Mr. Christie pointed out that in central parts of Toronto, many of the school grounds bring vital greenery not only for students, but for the community at large. He called on funding to also be provided from institutions beyond the TDSB and Ministry of Education.

"This is all about quality of life … and creating a city where people want to live."

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