Specialized arts programs at Toronto District School Board secondary schools are populated primarily with students who are white, wealthy, and from the same parts of Toronto, says a new study. 

The study, conducted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, looked at populations of students entering three out of four arts-focused TDSB schools at the grade 9 level. Researchers compared these students to those in other elementary schools, with grade 8, across the board.

Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, lead author and an OISE associate professor, told Metro Morning on Monday that administrators, staff and students at these publicly funded schools mistakenly believe that their schools are diverse. 

"We found, in fact, the schools do not mirror the diversity of the city. The students are twice as likely to be white. They come from the top third of the income hierarchy. And their parents are more likely to have high degrees of education," he said.

"Moreover, we found that the students actually don't come from all over the city. In fact, roughly half of the students who enter grade nine at these schools come from 18 schools with eighth grades out of a possible 197 schools. One-quarter of the students come from only five schools. They are coming from schools that are equally homogenous.

"These are exclusive schools," he said.

Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez

Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, lead author and an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says the study found that arts-focused schools in the Toronto District School Board are actually 'exclusive schools.' (CBC)

Gaztambide-Fernandez said the schools are exclusive in part because of the admissions process, which requires time and preparation, and the curriculum, which takes a traditional, Eurocentric view of the arts. 

For example, he said, the arts in these schools mean such disciplines as ballet, orchestral music, studio painting and sculpture. 

"We think it's not just the admissions process but who sees themselves in these programs," he said.

The study found that 67 per cent of students in the schools with specialized arts programs are white, as compared to 29.3 per cent of students in TDSB elementary schools with grade 8. It also found 56.7 per cent of the students at the arts schools come from high income families, compared to only 30.4 per cent of students in the other elementary schools.

Schools not named in study

The study does not name the schools, but according to the TDSB, specialized arts programs are offered at four schools: Etobicoke School of the Arts, Wexford Collegiate School of the Arts, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, and Claude Watson Secondary Arts Program at Earl Haig Secondary School.

Gaztambide-Fernandez said the study raises questions: Why does the board have these schools when they are exclusive? Should they be exclusive? Could these programs be more accessible by removing the admissions process?

"These are public schools. The public is paying for these schools," he said. "One of the things we heard over and over from parents and some teachers is that these schools are kind of like private schools within a public system." 

Given the findings, he said the board needs to think hard about the curriculum, to ponder how these schools contribute to cultural life in Toronto, to rethink admissions practices so the schools are not exclusive and to rethink its approach to arts education in general.

With files from Metro Morning