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Kate Blumberg and Sophie Daum are music students in the Claude Watson Arts Program at Earl Haig Secondary School.

During fourth period on April 29, a classroom of mild-mannered music students in the Claude Watson Arts Program started yelling. They were upset about a motion to change the Toronto District School Board’s specialized schools and programs policy, which is headed to a vote on May 25.

Threats of dissolution have loomed over the TDSB’s specialized programs for decades. The latest presents a flimsy argument – effectively proposing change for change’s sake.

The TDSB proposal’s stated aim is to give everyone an equitable chance at securing a spot in a specialized program. To do this, policy-makers suggest restructuring the programs and offering admission on the basis of interest rather than demonstrated skill, using a lottery process with racial and socioeconomic quotients instead of merit-based deliberation.

Toronto school board to decide on admissions process for specialized schools

The proposal, however, would hinder the success of the TDSB’s own student body. At the core of this proposal lies the detrimental message: Unless everyone can have it, no one should. TDSB policy-makers have confused equity with equality, and talent with privilege, failing those who need the extra support by offering nothing.

The proposed solution is to randomize the selection process of specialized secondary schools on the basis of interest. This premise neglects the existence of talent and the importance of showing commitment, turning a well-deserved education for an artistic child into a game of chance. If it is passed, this policy will defeat the purpose of specialized programs.

At Claude Watson, a specialized arts program that operates within Earl Haig Secondary School, the lack of diversity in some disciplines is an issue of accessibility, not talent. The TDSB’s limited arts offerings in elementary and middle schools cause some disciplines to imply a prerequisite of costly private training.

Claude Watson administrators have worked to eliminate obstacles and biases in the selection process – skill tests, admission fees, report cards and reference letters have all been dismissed from the requirements – but children with access to supplementary enrichment are still at a broader systemic advantage.

To address the inequity between programs, it was proposed that all arts be generalized for “a period” of time before students focus on a specialty. The vagueness of this plan would allow the TDSB to use an excess of discretion; details might be decided for convenience over quality.

Regardless, pathways will be limited. Generalized arts classes in Grades 9 and 10 are not prerequisites for the Grade 11 and 12 Claude Watson courses. Without completely restructuring the curriculum, there will be no access to the Claude Watson courses currently being offered.

Based on 2022 data, applicants to the visual arts discipline outnumber all others at least threefold, so only 20 per cent are accepted. The need for a specific number of students in each major could force a secondary, more rigid assessment between the junior and senior grades. Many students may have to choose between a specialty they do not enjoy and having to start over at their home school.

The motion for the new “student interest programs policy” is infantilizing, disheartening and harmful to young artists. Toronto’s artistic youth, regardless of race and class, take their arts focus seriously and see a public specialized program such as Claude Watson as their best opportunity for enrichment.

If Claude Watson becomes less skill-focused, children from wealthy families can get the same quality of arts education elsewhere, but other equally talented children cannot.

The proposed policy is a shortcut designed to compensate for the TDSB’s failure to disperse resources effectively. Specialized programs should change the demographic of the student body by prioritizing disadvantaged students, but the TDSB must also do its part.

Passions should be pursued and fostered in a student’s formative years via a richer art curriculum in all elementary and middle schools. The policy assumes that disadvantaged students cannot succeed in auditions, underestimating both their natural abilities and teachers’ capacity to see past training or lack thereof.

Equitable access can co-exist with skill-driven specialized programs without having to resort to an arbitrary lottery. Merit-based admissions are essential not only because they present opportunities for a student’s voice but because they afford teachers insight into the student’s attitude, motivation and potential.

Our program is not faultless. We agree wholeheartedly that motivated and talented youth of all backgrounds deserve accessible enrichment and that we need to prioritize opportunities for neglected students. Diminishing those opportunities is not part of the answer.

Policy-makers fail to understand what sets specialized programs such as Claude Watson apart. At the heart of the program is a shared attitude of tireless pursuit. Students are constantly and enthusiastically striving toward excellence. Staff are dedicated to the accommodation and development of their students. It is exhilarating and fulfilling.

This attempt to solve the equity issue by restructuring the program will destroy its very purpose. It will not work – it may further deprive talented, disadvantaged youth who would benefit most from a program like ours.

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