Why are some high schools empty while others are overcrowded? The TDSB is trying to find out

The Toronto District School board is laying the groundwork for big changes that could eventually result in fewer schools, but better access to programs for more students.

Comprehensive review will lead to strategic plan for decades to come, board says

The Secondary Program Review will take years and could result in some schools merged or repurposed and a drastic change in what the public system looks in the coming decades. (CBC News)

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is taking a hard look at its high schools to find out why some are at half their capacity while at the same time others are overcrowded.

The secondary program review will take years and could result in some schools being merged or re-purposed, and a drastic change in what the public system looks in the coming decades, the board says.

"We know which schools are over-subscribed year after year. We know which schools are under-subscribed year after year," said Dr. John Malloy, director of education at the TDSB. 

"Some of our secondary schools may have 1,200 students and plenty of course options, [while] other schools, which may have become smaller for whatever reason, don't have that same course opportunity."

Under the board's optional attendance policy, students can apply to schools outside their catchment community that offer special programs, such as performing arts or STEM.

"Some schools are perceived as popular schools to apply to, whereas other schools may be wonderful but they aren't able to have the same reputation," said Malloy.

The TDSB's director of education, John Malloy, says the board has embarked on a comprehensive review that could result in merging or repurposing of surplus schools, but not in the near term. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We also know that sometimes if the programs were available at the school closest to home many of our students have said to us that they would choose it."

Malloy said some communities that have been historically under-served should also have access to enriched programming.

"Some of our families know how to navigate our system better than others," he added.

The review will also address the fact that the board has more schools than it needs because of changing demographics.

Back in 1976, the board had 140,433 students compared to the approximately 73,000 today. While enrolment is expected to stabilize over the next 10 years at approximately 77,000 students, the decline by almost 50 per cent has meant under-utilized school buildings.

"You're striving to have a thousand students in the building for the purpose of course options. You can see by that very comment that we have more buildings than we require," said Malloy.

He said the review may result in fewer schools eventually, but those that remain will have stronger programming and increased access to courses for more students.

"And of course it may mean down the road, with board approval and with the ministry's approval, because at this time we aren't able to consolidate schools without it. It may mean that eventually. But I do need to stress that that's not the starting point."

Leslie Wolfe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) in Toronto, said while this review is in its early stages, it will be transformational.

"People should definitely pay attention to this because it could fundamentally change how secondary education looks in this city," said Wolfe.

Leslie Wolfe, the president of the OSSTF in Toronto, says teachers will be watching the TDSB's review closely, but so should parents and students. (John Grierson/CBC)

For example, one scenario has students leaving their community school to go to satellite campuses for specific courses.

"So, I mean that's just one example. But there are all kinds of possibilities for what secondary education may look like in Toronto at the end of this process."

Wolfe also says the disparity between crowded and empty schools must be addressed.

Of the 112 secondary schools in the system, 25 are below 50 per cent of their capacity, while 18 are operating between 90 per cent and 110 per cent.

"Schools are competing with each other, sort of like in a private business ... for enrolment and it goes back again to the funding formula," said Wolfe.

"We went from every neighborhood having a high school where kids just knew they were going to go, to schools having to compete for enrolment."

The TDSB  has a budget of about $3 billion, which comes directly from the province based on student enrolment instead of local property taxes funding neighbourhood schools.

"At the moment, what the board is doing is basically mapping where all of its programming is at the secondary level  and they begin to look at access to programming with a view to making programs more equitably accessible across the city," Wolfe said.

"And so at this point it's an exploration ... We'll wait and see what happens with this because it's a very long-term, very major project."

Malloy of the TDSB said the goal is to have a strategic plan of the entire city organized by neighbourhoods by June 2020.

"We would not in any way be naming schools to consolidate or programs to change," he said. "I would suggest it would take at least five years if not more beyond the approval to actually implement."

Malloy said there will be plenty of opportunity for parents, students and teachers to provide their input, something Wolfe said is vital to the process. 

"There will have to be public consultations and they will have to be lots of communication by the board. You know this is a long way away. I'd be very surprised if we see anything the next few years."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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