The TDSB's Two Solitudes
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The TDSB’s Two Solitudes

With many area schools facing potential closure due to underutilization, others can barely keep up with rapidly increasing numbers.

Yesterday’s construction progress on Swansea PS. Photo courtesy of Christopher Higgins.

Christopher Higgins and Jason Kunin are both longtime teachers with the Toronto District School Board, but the state of their respective schools couldn’t be much more different. Higgins’ Swansea Public School in the city’s west end is bursting at the seams, and a major construction project will see a 16-room addition to the 125-year-old building this fall. Kunin’s Vaughan Road Academy, on the other hand, reflects a grimmer reality: with enrolment below 50 per cent capacity and falling, the school is on the TDSB’s list of schools at risk for closure. The tale of the two schools shows what happens when rapid neighbourhood demographic shifts and school board policy decisions collide, and how it affects their respective communities.

“It seems there are two solitudes among schools these days: the ones that are way underutilized and the ones that are way overutilized,” says Higgins. The English and IT teacher has been at Swansea PS since 2003, and recalls declining enrolment at the school as recently as 2010. But that quickly changed.

The addition of the Queensway townhouse development and the nearby Nxt condo towers in 2013 quickly densified Swansea’s catchment area. With this school year’s addition of all-day kindergarten, enrolment saw another spike, squeezing students into impromptu classrooms adapted from storage spaces, spare rooms, and a collection of portables. Higgins himself has been teaching out of one half of the school’s library since the beginning of the year.

“It worked really well as a library,” he politely says of his makeshift classroom. In the meantime, he’s maintaining a blog of the addition in-progress.

The cramped space scenario is one Kunin’s now-endangered Vaughan Road Academy might have faced not so long ago. Enrolment was on the rise when the English, social studies and film teacher first landed on the scene in 1999, partly thanks to the school’s introduction of an International Baccalaureate program two years earlier. But since peaking around 2005, enrolment has been on a slow and steady decline. The school has lost about 50 students a year for the past decade.

“Last year was probably the first year that I thought, ‘We probably won’t be able to hold this together much longer,’” says Kunin. “Some of the teachers who were the heart and soul of this place have left, or were surplussed.”

Kunin has noticed that the surrounding neighbourhood is getting younger. The older Italian homeowners who occupied the area when he first moved in over 15 years ago are being replaced with young couples with small children, or none at all. The community’s population of high-school-aged youth, however, has dwindled. “The daycares in the area are packed. That hasn’t reached us yet,” he says.

The TDSB’s policy of Optional Attendance might have hurt attendance rates, adds Kunin. The policy was adopted by the TDSB in 1999 and granted students the ability to apply for schools outside their immediate catchment areas. While this encouraged many schools to develop magnet programs to improve their enrolment odds in the district’s new market model, Kunin argues that the role of schools as community hubs suffered as a result. With nearby York Memorial and Forest Hill Collegiate Institutes facing overflow, Kunin can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently for his professional home of 15 years.

“Consolidation could happen. Making the kids in our catchment area actually come here—that would help,” he says. “But I don’t know at this point. Maybe there’s nothing that could happen.”