An environmental leadership program that is “magical.” A music program that fills students with “one of the most amazing feelings.” And a theatre technician who is “vital” to a school.
Those are some of the programs — and staff — on the chopping block as school boards vote on their budgets for the next academic year. Provincial funding cuts by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives mean that boards, facing multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls, must cut and reduce programs and services. Also, provincial changes to high school class size averages — they will grow from 22 to 28 students over four years — will mean fewer teachers, fewer course selections and less one-on-one time between students and educators.
On Wednesday, public boards in Toronto, Halton and Peel will vote on the budget. Boards in Durham will vote June 26, and in York on July 9. The Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest with 246,000 students in 582 schools, faces a $67.8 million shortfall.
To understand the impact of proposed cuts, reductions and changes, the Star spoke with students across the GTA.
For Renée Roberts: Loss of ‘vital’ theatre technician
Renée Roberts is a budding artist — that’s why she attends Rosedale Heights School of the Arts in Toronto.
But losing its theatre technician, Bertan Kazazic, whom she says is “vital” to programming, would transform it into “another school with arts classes, instead of an arts school.”
“You can’t have an arts program without him,” says the 11th grader, whose studies focus on dance and visual arts. “Every single program … puts on a show and without him those shows won’t be able to happen.”
Weeks ago, the theatre technician — also called a technical director — at each of Toronto’s four arts schools received surplus notices, meaning they could be laid off and the position eliminated. Their responsibilities include overseeing set building, lighting and sound, ensuring safety during performances and instructing students on using relevant technology. Apart from custodial staff, they’re the only ones permitted on a ladder, which makes them key to putting on performances and shows.
Roberts says a Grade 12 project she was looking forward to doing next year involves choreographing younger students for a dance show — but now she’s not sure if it would go ahead.
“We work so hard for nine months straight in classes, every single day, and to not have that pay off with a great performance, is heartbreaking.”
For Ciara Rieder: Loss of ‘life-changing’ environmental program
Last semester, Ciara Rieder of Oakville was dealing with the stress and anxiety of being bullied at school.
Then, she was among a group of high school students from Halton Region accepted into a semester-long environmental leadership education program called the Bronte Creek Project (BCP), which is run at a retreat centre in Burlington and accommodates up to 80 applicants per year.
“It’s been amazing and life-changing,” said Rieder of BCP. “I haven’t gotten bullied this whole semester and my anxiety has basically gone away. And, I’ve been able to relax and not be superstressed out and high-strung about (assignments and tests).”
At her high school, she was an introvert — but at BCP, the 12th grader made friends and works well with others. Her mother says years of therapy failed to achieve the gains Rieder made in just one semester.
Rieder plans to return to high school next year, to boost her grades for university, and would love to apply for a co-op placement at BCP. But it’s facing elimination because it costs the board $500,000 in annual expenses related to transportation, extra staff and a property lease. Board staff are looking for ways to embed parts of BCP into its regular in-school program.
Rieder says the loss of BCP would be a blow, noting, “Every moment being there is magical.”
For Zaki Ul Haq: Loss of ‘one-of-a-kind’ teacher
Last month, Zaki Ul Haq, a 10th grader at Kipling Collegiate Institute in Toronto, was under “a lot of stress,” juggling tests and assignments with extracurricular activities.
“I had a lot of stuff in my head so I went to this teacher to get advice and he told me to get my priorities straight. And, that I should never be afraid to say, ‘No,’ to something if I can’t handle it,” he recalls. “It was very helpful. My marks were going down and after I stopped doing all of these extracurricular things my marks started going back up.”
The sage bit of advice was from his communication technology teacher Ronald Dubuc, who runs computer, video-editing and photography classes. He’s the kind of teacher who helps students with personal problems, volunteers to fix the school’s computers and lends technical support to other departments, such as Drama. And, when Dubuc is in front of the class, Ul Haq says he’s a great teacher, who has inspired him to want to pursue computer engineering in university.
That’s why he and his peers were recently moved to tears after Dubuc and other teachers there received notices that they are being bumped, and likely moved to another school.
“We had an entire weekend of just crying because we can’t let this person go,” says Ul Haq. “One of the things that made me want to stay in the school was him. He was an example of how teachers can be fun and how they can show learning in a creative way. He’s one of a kind.”
For Isabella McRae: Loss of smaller classes
After years of having difficulty with focusing, remembering and understanding things, Isabella McRae of Mississauga was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Following the diagnosis last year, McRae was given an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which outlines how a school will meet a student’s learning expectations through appropriate accommodations, program modifications and/or teaching strategies.
McRae saw improvements and wants to keep building on them. But the 11th grader, who attends Clarkson Secondary School, worries about class sizes swelling — because, although averages will hit 28, that’s just an average, meaning some classes could have about 40 kids.
Many students have IEPs, for a variety of reasons, so McRae wonders how a teacher with a class of 40 will accommodate everyone’s needs. Plus, she says bigger classes, with more distractions, will make it tougher to stay focused.
“I worry about how it’s going to affect how I learn in class,” said McRae. “It’s already difficult for me in a 25-student class, so I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in an almost 40-student class… And with such large classes that’s going to mean less one-on-one teaching.
“Next year is Grade 12 and I’m going to need all the help I can get,” says McRae, who plans to study psychology in university. “It’s going to be a lot more difficult for students who need a little extra help to strive.”
For Mya Pasparakis: Loss of Music Instruction
Mya Pasparakis started playing the flute two years ago at Bloorlea Middle School in Toronto.
“It feels great. It’s one of the most amazing feelings,” says the 12-year-old. “It allows me to express myself.”
But now the music program that this Grade 7 student loves appears to be hitting a low note.
That’s because the Itinerant Music Instructor Program, in which professional musicians go into elementary schools to instruct students, is facing a 24 per cent reduction in hours, travel time and travel expenses, which would save the board $1.39 million. The board says no positions will be cut, but instructors worry about future jobs and think schools with multiple existing IMI programs — for instance, strings, band and steel pan — will be adversely impacted as a thinning program is spread across schools.
Pasparakis, who does band classes twice a week, says a reduction “would lessen the experience because we wouldn’t be as creative.”
“I like playing with all the other flutes in my section, and the rest of the band, because we all sound great,” she says. “It’s fun to know that there’s other people who enjoy music the way I do.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74