Smaller high schools may be on the chopping block as Ontario school boards work to implement the Ford government’s plan to phase out thousands of teaching positions over the next four years.
Although the province has put a moratorium on closings, the Toronto District School Board says merging schools was already on its radar as part of an overall revamp to improve secondary programming — but the province’s mandate to move from an average class size of 22 to 28 makes it all the more necessary.
In a report to the board earlier this week, TDSB staff noted that “when teacher allocation is tied to enrolment, secondary schools with lower enrolment cannot offer a full range of programs for students compared to higher enrolment schools. For this reason, staff will be reviewing lower enrolment secondary schools with an eye to consolidate in an effort to boost programming options for students.”
A report is due in June, and “the government’s class size announcement requires us to use more limited staff in very effective ways … In the shorter term, we know that students in high schools with excess capacity and therefore smaller number of teachers are not receiving the range of programs that are offered in low capacity, higher enrolled and higher staffed schools.”
Consolidating 10 to 15 high schools would also save up to $15 million, it notes, which can be “reinvested to improve student learning.”
Schools under 800 students are considered small, with the ideal size about 1,000 to 1,200, said board chair Robin Pilkey.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the government has no plans to lift the moratorium.
“The TDSB has a number of surplus properties and empty schools in Toronto,” said Kayla Iafelice. “Unlike the previous government, our government respects the importance of schools to their communities and rejects their reckless approach to closing schools in this province.
“Our government continues to stand behind our moratorium on school closures.”
But for boards dealing with the loss of teachers, and the need to offer enough quality programming for teens, closing and merging schools may have to be on the table, said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
While the average is moving to 28 students, some classes actually need to be much larger to offset classes that must be smaller, such as tech or auto shop classes.
In her own Kawartha-Pine Ridge public board, Abraham said “the biggest problem is we cannot offer classes because we just don’t have enough kids to fill the class and meet the average.”
And it becomes a huge problem when Grade 12 offerings are curtailed because those are courses students may need for post-secondary programs.
“One school is cancelling writer’s craft (English) in Grades 11 and 12. You can take a different English, but it’s not the same skill set,” she said, adding that the loss of specific science classes will also take its toll.
Students may have to take night classes, or travel to a neighbouring school to pick up the credit elsewhere — but for boards outside urban areas, those option may not be feasible.
“This is creating a future for our secondary schools unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Abraham said.
“We struggle with how to do this,” she added. “We are just changing the landscape of secondary school, and what it’s going to look like when this is done, we don’t know. And how does this actually help our students be successful for post-secondary, no matter what their pathway is?”
The Toronto board has consulted with students about the changes they’d like to see in high school, which includes more caring adults, stronger programs and more support from teachers.
“It’s not just about school closings, it’s about programming,” said Pilkey. “We’ve been working for the past couple of years, with students and communities and parents about what schools should look like.
“If we have more students (in a building), we have more staff, and a better chance of offering more electives and pathways.”
The government’s plan to boost class sizes, she noted, “has speeded up the conversation.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy