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Toronto Toronto school board’s draft proposal to 'reform' gifted program has parents worried

Eleanor Stainsby’s two children, Josh (left) and Ryan are in the gifted program. Ms. Stainsby says if the TDSB adopts the recommendation, many of these students will become bored and start acting out in school.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A program designed for gifted students deepens divisions along socioeconomic lines and should be "reformed," according to a proposal drafted for the Toronto District School Board that has been met with concern from parents, who argue that changes will cause advanced students to lose out.

The recommendation by a task force charged with studying how to create a more level playing field is the latest proposal to receive pushback.

Last month, the TDSB's director, John Malloy, was forced to drop a proposal from the task force's draft report to phase out specialized schools, including ones focused on the arts, after an outcry from parents and students.

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TDSB drops proposal to phase out specialized schools

Canada's largest school board is grappling with how to distribute resources more equitably so that students who come from marginalized communities or socioeconomically disadvantaged households are able to access enriched learning opportunities and don't fall behind.

School boards across the country wrestle with best approaches to educating gifted students. The TDSB's program includes congregated classrooms within certain schools for students designated as gifted. Edmonton Catholic Schools, meanwhile, does not have a separate program for gifted students and these children remain in their regular classrooms.

"Teachers are able to scaffold learning, differentiate classroom experiences and provide opportunities for students to extend their learning beyond the traditional confines of a grade," said Tim Cusack, Edmonton Catholic's assistant superintendent of learning services.

In a draft report released last month, the TDSB's Enhancing Equity Task Force noted that programs such as gifted are "deepening divisions along socioeconomic and racial lines, and contributing to the deficit mentality toward certain students, especially Indigenous and Black students, that educators, administrators, and even fellow classmates may hold."

The task force recommended the gifted program be "reformed," and some parents said they worried that it could include integrating gifted students into mainstream classrooms with supports.

Eleanor Stainsby, a parent with two children in the gifted program, said that if the board adopts the recommendation and moves gifted children into regular classrooms, many of these students will become bored and start acting out in school. Ms. Stainsby is among a group of parents who have written to the TDSB to express their concern with the task force's recommendation.

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"I would assume that any school board would want as an objective and as a mandate to have children reach their full potential," she said. "Gifted children need tailored learning strategies. They need to have a challenging curriculum and they need teachers who are trained in gifted education."

She added: "If my children had to go into a regular stream … I'd be really concerned about them just disengaging from school."

The TDSB said that the gifted program will not be cancelled, and no final decisions have been made on any of the task-force recommendations.

The task force members have been 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 has proposed that once students have equitable access to enriched programs, optional attendance be phased out. Optional attendance means that students can attend school outside their designated local school. The report said that some parents and students seek out what they perceive as good schools and have the economic and social mobility to do so. That results in others being left behind and further entrenches the idea that some schools are better, according to the report that looked at studies examining the over-representation of white students in arts programs and schools.

The report will be updated and is expected to be presented to trustees in December.

Many parents who learned about the draft report in recent weeks have been critical of some of the proposals. Mr. Malloy released a statement late last month clarifying some of the recommendations and stating that specialized schools and programs, including the International Baccalaureate, would not be phased out.

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"What is clear is that the TDSB needs to find ways to expand the opportunities that these schools and programs offer," Mr. Malloy said in a statement. "Changes need to happen to ensure each and every student can achieve high academic achievement and success in school."

Owen Lo, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the university's gifted education program co-ordinator, said it is important that the TDSB examines the composition of its gifted program. He said that in large cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, racial lines are often noted in gifted programs since some cultures tend to focus more on their child's academic achievement.

"In my opinion, gifted programs should be provided in large Canadian cities," he said. "However, it should be implemented [with a] solid understanding of the development of intelligence, as well as sufficient sensitivity that shuns socioeconomic and/or racial lines. It should also be implemented in the least segregated way."

The TDSB has a universal screening test in Grade 3 to make the process of identifying gifted students more equitable. Previously, it was up to teachers to identify students who would be well served in the gifted program or parents had to advocate for their children to be tested.

Toronto parent Tanya Barrett, who has three children in the TDSB's gifted program, said that if the task force believes that the gifted program isn't diverse, perhaps the school board's screening tool needs to be re-examined.

She said that equity in schools means supporting children who are struggling. She added: "Equity is having gifted programs and providing differentiated learning to keep kids in school and keep them engaged. That is what equity is."

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