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Mara Cole and her sons Evan (left) and Darren at home in Toronto Aug.10, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Mara Cole and her sons Evan (left) and Darren at home in Toronto Aug.10, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Prestigious program will stay at Toronto high school despite overcrowding Add to ...

The Toronto District School Board is adamant that one of the most prestigious high-school programs in the country will stay put in a high-needs community, despite growing calls to move it from a north-end school so crowded that some students have resorted to eating lunch in the washroom.

The board has prevented the relocation of TOPS, the Talented Offerings of Programs in the Sciences, because they say it’s integral to the ethnically and economically diverse communities it serves.

The host school, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, draws students from Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park – but it’s about 400 students above capacity. Most of those extra students are TOPS students who come from outside the community.

The result is hallways that become a mosh pit between classes, students sitting in stairwells and on dusty floors to eat their lunches, and an athletics field has been partly consumed by portables.

“The board’s sitting on half-empty schools all over the place and yet for some inexplicable reason, they continue to hold the program hostage,” said Mara Cole, whose two eldest sons attended TOPS. “There’s absolutely no educational case for this.”

Ms. Cole and some of her supporters have been called racist and elitist for insisting that the program should move. But TOPS students are as diverse, ethnically and economically, as their host community. They come from all over the GTA, from private schools and public housing. One recent graduate, who is now on full scholarship at Harvard, needed financial assistance in order to afford his public-transit pass.

“These are good kids who don’t get suspended and do well on standardized tests, so who would want to give us up?” said Michael McMaster, the program’s curriculum leader.

Demand for TOPS is growing, as graduates win more than $1-million in scholarships each year. The annual TOPS information session draws so many families it has to be simulcast in the school’s gym and cafeteria, and about 500 students write the admissions tests and essays to win one of just 60 spots in the Grade 9 class.

Those who can afford it pay a $400 fee, which covers the cost of annual field trips relating to their advanced course work in math, English and the sciences.

With a challenging, intensive curriculum – and a proud extracurricular tradition that resembles U.S. private schools – the program nurtures intellectual curiosity and builds a lifelong bond between its students. TOPS is the best of what a prestigious private education is meant to be, but offered in a public setting.

The teachers who run the program say they have to turn away deserving candidates and that the program could grow. They’ve asked the board to move TOPS from Marc Garneau, near where the Don Valley Parkway meets Don Mills Road, to a new location with more room and better access to public transit, but the TDSB has told them they must stay put while satellite programs are opened instead.

“Moving the program from Marc Garneau is simply not feasible, nor would it be in the interest of the school and community as a whole,” education director Chris Spence recently wrote in a letter to the school and surrounding community. “Our view is that a program that has produced many outstanding graduates should be accessible across the system so that more TDSB students can benefit from all it has to offer.”

A second TOPS site was opened at Bloor Collegiate in 2009, and last month the TDSB announced it would open a third in 2013. But students and staff at the Marc Garneau site feel they’ve been cut off from the new sites, unable to pass on the teaching tools and traditions that have made their program so successful.

The satellite programs don’t alleviate the problems at Marc Garneau, Mr. McMaster said.

“It doesn’t do anything about our crowding problem,” he said. “We are a math-, science- and English-focused program, and students come from all over the city and beyond – yet we have to have science classes in portables and facilities ill-suited for science classes.”

Shari Shcwartz-Maltz, a spokeswoman for the TDSB, said the board hadn’t received any complaints from the local community about the crowding and that most of the teachers at the school think TOPS should stay.

“This has not been a detriment to anyone’s learning; successful graduates continue to come from the program,” she said.

Independent consultants hired by the board about three years ago arrived at the same conclusion, and recommended that the program should stay at its current location and build satellites to expand.

TOPS students and alumni disagree, and have launched a campaign to have the program relocated. They’ve built a Facebook page, posted videos on YouTube and written letters to Dr. Spence.

Yasmin Mostafa is a local student about to start Grade 12 who says the crowding makes her trips through the hallway perilous. The petite 16-year-old often gets hit with backpacks and jostled between classes, so she’s developed a technique of keeping her elbows up.

TOPS’s presence at her school has allowed her to take a couple of specialized courses, but she still believes it should go.

“I think it would be really good for everyone if they moved,” she said. “They’re just so squished.”

The TDSB has had success in the past in helping high-needs communities by introducing prestigious programs such as the International Baccalaureate into their schools. The Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park communities around Marc Garneau are dense with recent immigrants and low-income families packed into single-family apartments.

“The TOPS program is very much at the heart of what the school is and it has been a very successful program at that school for 24 years,” said Gerri Gershon, the trustee who represents the area.

She said a summer enrichment program was introduced this year at the neighbouring feeder school, Valley Park Middle School, in order to help more local kids get into the TOPS program. She hopes to have an addition put on the high school so that the extra students can be more comfortably accommodated.

The school board has been accused of giving special treatment to this community before. Valley Park Middle School recently won notoriety because an imam has been leading Friday prayers in the cafeteria during class time.

TOPS teachers involved in the admissions process say that community favouritism led to a difficult decision in 2009. Michael Hussey, an English teacher who helped start the program 24 years ago, refers to it as “the day of the switch.”

He and his colleagues say they were directed by board staff to tinker with the admissions process and admit two students from the local community into TOPS at Marc Garneau. Two students from elsewhere in the GTA lost their spots and were invited to attend the Bloor Collegiate TOPS program instead.

Ms. Gershon and Ms. Schwartz-Matlz said they had no knowledge of a switch.

Mr. Hussey is very proud of the TOPS program, but he says he loses sleep over whether he’s helping students by recruiting them to the program and the school’s crowded conditions.

“The trap is that while I know that what we do is a wonderful thing, the implication for hundreds of people at Garneau … are not things that I can countenance,” he said.

Though her oldest children thrived after TOPS – 20-year-old Evan was just accepted to medical school after only three years as an undergraduate and 17-year-old Darren won scholarships to attend Queen’s commerce this fall – Ms. Cole decided not to let her 14-year-old son, Griffin, apply.

“The program just won’t survive if it goes on like this,” she said.

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