As the wind chill drove temperatures below -10, Rajnesh Walia was outside a suburban Toronto-area elementary school, shivering through the layers of clothes he had worn for his overnight mission, thinking to himself: "Kids – if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be sitting here."
Mr. Walia, a resident of Brampton, Ont., was camped outside through much of Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday with about 140 parents, all braving the cold so their children could land one of 85 coveted spots at Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School.
The publicly funded high school, which has a strong reputation in the community, accepted students from its feeder elementary schools, but had 85 spots left over after students in its catchment area registered, that it offered to children who live within its boundary but had attended other school systems.
The turnout was unprecedented, according to a school-board spokesman, and comes at a time when more families are choosing schools for their children because they no longer believe that getting good grades at the neighbourhood school will necessarily ensure success.
It is unusual for families to line up for a spot in a public school. In some districts in British Columbia, parents do it to ensure their children get into French immersion. Other school boards use lottery systems for specialized programs such as Mandarin immersion.
With declining birth rates, school districts in many parts of the country compete for students by offering hundreds of specialized programs, focusing on arts, athletics, teaching philosophy, language and culture. Empty desks mean less funding from the provincial governments.
In B.C. and Alberta, parents are free to send their children to any school in the district as long as spaces are available.
Ontario houses four distinct publicly funded systems – francophone public, francophone Catholic, English Catholic and English public – and competition for students is fierce. At the secondary level, if there is room, Catholic and francophone high schools are open to students from the different other systems.
Mr. Walia got in line around noon on Tuesday and secured spots for his twins, a son and daughter. They start high school in the fall. Families who were at the back of the line were put on a waiting list. "This is the best school in the area. This is their first choice," Mr. Walia said from his home on Wednesday.
Bruce Campbell, a spokesman for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said families have lined up to get their children into several other schools in the area. It has been happening at Cardinal Ambrozic for the past three years, but this week's turnout was higher than previously, and arriving the previous day was unusual, he said.
The school caps its enrolment at 320 students per grade. Registration for Grade 9 was in January for Catholic elementary-school students, and Mr. Campbell said the Cardinal Ambrozic school advertised on its website earlier in the year that 85 spaces would be available for other area students on a particular date.
"It obviously has a good reputation that makes parents want to to send their children there," Mr. Campbell said. He added: "Hats off to those parents who sacrificed that one day for their kids. It was unbelievable."
Mr. Walia said he was trying to warm up at home on Wednesday after spending 18 hours outside the school and would let his children know they were registered when they returned home from school.
"I'm satisfied. This step is over. … I've done my job as a parent," he said, with a laugh.