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Opinion Don’t kill specialty schools. There are better ways to promote equality

From the organization that decided it was racist to have the word "chief" in its job titles comes another stroke of genius. A task force of the Toronto District School Board recommends doing away with arts and other specialty schools because they are too wealthy and white.

"In many cases, these schools and programs have served to limit enriched learning opportunities for students, especially those from the most marginalized communities," says the Enhancing Equity Task Force. So it wants them phased out. Farewell to the Claude Watson School for the Arts. Goodbye to the Rosedale Heights School of the Arts.

This would be killing excellence in the name of equity. The TDSB's arts and other specialty schools are wonderful places, drawing students all over the city and turning out skilled graduates who often rise to great heights. My daughter goes to one, the Etobicoke School of the Arts. Its halls teem with creativity. Dancers, singers, filmmakers, photographers, artists, playwrights, singers, musicians – all gather under one roof, finding beautiful ways to express themselves.

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Discarding these jewels would drive many talented kids out of the public system and into private and independent schools. If the goal is to attract more kids from struggling families and diverse backgrounds, the board should bring in measures – transportation subsidies, bursaries to cover expenses, programs to attract students from low-income schools – that would overcome barriers to access. Better to reach out than tear down.

Parents with children at specialty schools are justifiably alarmed at the suggestion the board might shutter them.

The TDSB is doing its best to calm the tempest over this loopy proposal. Director of education John Malloy says the board doesn't have "any intention" of closing the schools. He insists the report is only a draft and critics will have an opportunity to have their say before it goes to a board meeting for consideration. Yet look at the report online and there is the same Mr. Malloy, on video, saying people need to brace themselves for change and "we know that change is hard." He adds: "I think what's exciting about where we are right now is our commitment stance."

Exciting is one word for it. The record of the TDSB, a reliable Old Faithful of edubabble, is not reassuring. It was this very board, largest in the country, that distinguished itself earlier this month by banning the word chief from titles, out of respect, it said, for Indigenous peoples. No more "chief" manager of social work. Just manager now. That should do a lot for equity and Indigenous rights.

The report of the Enhancing Equity Task Force is in the same vein. It cites a study from a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that found students at arts schools have a higher proportion of white and better-off students than most. The study found that "these specialized arts schools are implicated in producing racial segregation and inequality." They are "places that cater primarily to white and privileged students in the board." When such schools focus on "Eurocentric forms of art, such as ballet or piano, those who excel in other forms of art, such as South Asian dance or slam poetry" may not do well in admission auditions.

Taking up the cry for justice, the TDSB task force calls for "systematic and comprehensive equity training" for all, with a focus on examining bias, power and privilege. Its recommendations go far beyond phasing out specialty schools. It is also down on gifted programs. It doesn't like optional attendance, the system that allows students to choose schools outside their designated district. It doesn't like how students are "streamed" into academic and non-academic studies either. In its world, all students would get enriched training and we wouldn't needed any specialized schools or streams.

In the real world, not all students are the same. Some thrive in a general-purpose school, others wither. My daughter's school, ESA, is a haven for the creative, often unorthodox kids who gravitate to the arts. For them, it serves as a safe place, a community of free souls where they can express themselves without fear of ostracism.

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They know they are lucky to be there. They realize that many – but far from all – of them are from comfortable families that invested in getting them to the level where they could make it into the school. But ESA is big on social justice. Many of its young creators hope their art will play some part in forging a better, more equal world.

On Tuesday the school will hold its annual Because I am a Girl night. It's a fundraiser for Plan International Canada, a group that works to ensure basic rights for children. There will be singing, dancing, films, spoken word – the works – all in aid of improving the lives of girls around the globe. Anyone who really thinks specialty school are nothing more than citadels of white privilege should come.

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