12/05/2016 02:51 EST | Updated 01/19/2017 11:34 EST

TDSB Optional Attendance: Drake's High School May Close, Revealing Ugly Truth In Toronto

The reasons behind the school's dwindling numbers aren't pretty.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Toronto public school board made the final decision to close Vaughan Road Academy. The board will decide what to do with the property in 2017.

Some days, it seems like Jason Kunin knows the whole neighbourhood.

The English and film teacher has worked at Toronto high school Vaughan Road Academy (VRA) for about 16 years, but he also lives just five blocks away in the Oakwood/Vaughan area.

“There are whole families I’ve taught every kid, I know the parents, I go into the local coffee shop and I see the parents there, say ‘Hi.’ Former students work in the neighbourhood... It’s nice. It’s a little village, and I get to work in this little village.”

As one of Drake’s alma maters, VRA has also received attention from the global village. But even the Canadian celebrity’s shoutouts in songs and wearing the school’s uniform in a Super Bowl commercial haven’t saved VRA from an unfortunate fact: its population has shrunk to nearly nothing and it is facing possible closure.

The almost 90-year-old school was built to hold a little more than 1,000 kids. In 2015, it finished the school year at 30 per cent capacity, with just 276 students. This year, it’s down to 223.

Kunin and others say one of the reasons behind VRA's dwindling numbers isn't pretty: the stigmatization of schools in lower-income or multi-ethnic neighbourhoods.

The Oakwood/Vaughan area (also called OV or Oakwood Village) is sandwiched between St. Clair Avenue West to the south and Eglinton Avenue West to the north. Dufferin Street forms the border on the west and Winnett Avenue on the east.

The area is changing with gentrification, but it’s still predominantly home to mixed-income families who are largely Black Caribbean, Filipino, Portuguese, Latin American and Italian.

According to the 2011 census, the average after-tax household income of the 21,000 people who live in Oakwood/Vaughan is about $57,000, which is below the city average of just under $71,000.

“It is a mixed-race, mixed-income neighbourhood — rapidly gentrifying — where shopkeepers know your name, neighbours sit on their porches, and kids play in the streets,” wrote Kunin in a Toronto Star op-ed. “Property values have more than doubled in the last decade. I couldn’t afford my own house today.

VRA is one of nearly 130 schools in Toronto’s public board that have an extremely low enrolment — 65 per cent or below. Although closure hasn’t officially been announced, it’s looming.

“Our enrolment probably peaked in 2005. After that, we started to lose, on average, about 50 students a year,” says Kunin, who has taught at the school since 1999. “Over a period of a decade, that adds up to quite a bit.”

Kunin chalks up the downward spiral to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) policy of “optional attendance,” which allows students to request to go to a school outside their boundaries.

“I think optional attendance has really helped destroy the neighbourhood school,” he said. “A lot of kids that should be coming to us don’t, they’ve been granted optional attendance at other schools.”

“There’s lots of research that says when you have a system of choice and specialty schools, you start to divide kids along socioeconomic lines."

The system is meant to give students and parents more flexibility to pick the best school and program for their kids. But it has some not-so-great side effects.

“There’s lots of research that says when you have a system of choice and specialty schools, you start to divide kids along socioeconomic lines; even along their interests,” Annie Kidder, founder of the advocacy group People for Education, said during an interview on CBC’s Metro Morning. “Part of the hope for public education is that it builds social cohesion, if we start dividing kids up then we lose part of that hope.”

Misinformation leads to school abandonment

Kidder went on to explain why parents might opt out of a neighbourhood school, like VRA.

“Sometimes it’s from misinformation, sometimes parents think ‘Oh, there’s a lot of newcomers at that school, I don’t want my child to go there,' not understanding that in fact overall, on average, newcomers do way better in school than Canadian-born kids … They get worried about the rest of the population or they look at the test scores and they go ‘This isn’t a good school, I’m going to send my kid to a different school.’”

Kunin is seeing that first-hand. In a Facebook post, he wrote: “Unfortunately, what makes schools have a harder time delivering good programming is local residents abandoning them, sometimes because their kids have special needs, but often because of community perceptions -- not always based in reality -- that are rooted in classicism and racism, pure and simple.”

The numbers seem to back up Kidder and Kunin's observations on optional attendance. Of the 130 TDSB schools way below capacity, 45 are listed as secondary (the others are elementary), with one listed twice, which makes 44.

Of those 44, 37 are located in wards either with an average household income below Toronto's average, or a higher percentage of people born outside of Canada than the city average — or both.

That means 87 per cent of the high schools under 65 per cent capacity are located in poorer, more culturally diverse areas of the city.

Two sides of the optional attendance sword

Ironically, the optional attendance program has also helped keep VRA alive.

Over the years, the school added two specialty programs to attract students: the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is a global pre-university program and the Interact program for students with full-fledged careers, of which Drake and actress Ellen Page are alumni.

The strategy worked. These two programs now make up half of the student body, while just over 100 are in VRA’s regular stream.

So what’s wrong with the regular classes? Part of it is the stigma that Kidder mentioned.

In his op-ed, Kunin addressed this stigma, in particular a local parent’s comment that VRA is “sketchy.”

“We … have a large working-class and non-white immigrant population, and this, I fear, is what too often lies behind words like ‘sketchy,’” he wrote. “Our student population is less white than it used to be, but no less bright, hard-working, or fun to teach. Yes, there are gangs and some kids do drugs, get into fights and run into trouble, but there are gangs, drugs and fighting at every school, even so-called ‘good’ ones.”

The stigma is so notable that Kunin asked the police officers (who were assigned to the school to foster a community relationship) to park their cop car behind the building, rather than right out front.

Jennifer Arp, the school board trustee for VRA’s ward, agrees that the Oakwood/Vaughan area has been unfairly branded.

“It’s unfortunate that the stigma of the neighbourhood plays a role in parents choosing or not choosing to send their kids there,” she says. “Because what goes on inside that building is actually pretty special.”

With low numbers, VRA has fewer resources, making it difficult to offer a full course load. The TDSB provides funding based on the amount of students the schools have, so VRA isn’t equipped to provide a variety of courses for students in the regular stream.

But teachers, like Kunin, aren’t giving up.

Kunin says he’s never taught a “nicer” bunch of students and his film classes have turned out several short films -- some of which are satire about the shrinking school.

Grade 11 student Christine Huang tells HuffPost Canada that she has done swimming, volleyball, and gone to provincial championships with VRA’s track team. She’s also been able to form and head her own charity club through the school.

But the threat of closure is taking its toll, causing uncertainty and stress among students. “Turn out at school events has been lower this year,” Huang says. “When you sit in the auditorium, half of [it] fills up.” This is a far cry from VRA’s usually vibrant assemblies for the holidays and Black History Month.

The uncertainty is also causing some students, like Stefan Cruceat, to switch schools voluntarily before they're forced out. Cruceat is a Grade 11 student who attended VRA’s IB program before this year.

“I spent two years at the school making friends. To be cut right in the middle was unfair,” he said.

VRA isn’t alone in its battle against stigma, dwindling numbers and threat of closure.

“Take Sir Robert Borden Business and Technical Institute,” Jerry Chadwick, a trustee for one of Toronto’s Scarborough wards, told the Star in 2013. “The last two principals have turned that school around; their library now has the highest circulation of any public high school in the city.”

“If I could drop that school at Yonge and Lawrence [where the average household income is well over $100,000], it would be one of the most popular schools in the city.”

But the school’s address, near Kingston and Galloway roads, an area that has struggled with crime, that makes it a hard sell to parents.

“If I could drop that school at Yonge and Lawrence [where the average household income is well over $100,000],” Chadwick pondered, “it would be one of the most popular schools in the city.”

But it isn’t and Sir Robert Borden was only 33 per cent full in 2015. This earned the school a spot, along with VRA, on the TDSB list. It closed this past June.

The TDSB produced this list in response to the province’s demand for a plan to reduce the number of costly half-empty schools, the Toronto Star reported. Across the TDSB, enrolment is down by 2,700 students this year.

VRA is currently being considered in a “Pupil Accommodation Review” along with four other schools in the area — some over and some under capacity — to address the enrolment disparity and overall low number of students in the wards.

According to local trustee Arp, Oakwood/Vaughan simply doesn’t have enough high school students to populate the school, further driving VRA’s decline.

“Even if every single student who lived in the Vaughan Road catchment opted to attend Vaughan Road, we still wouldn’t be operating at a high enough capacity to not be part of a program area review,” Arp tells HuffPost Canada. “There’s just not the student population there.”

Some residents point out this may not be the case for long, due to an influx of new parents. In fact, VRA is home to the area’s major daycare (which isn’t included in the school’s attendance numbers).

“Young families are heading here and they mean to stay,” Anna Sottile, a VRA grad and lifelong neighbourhood resident, said at a TDSB meeting in November. “Within a few short years these little ones will be heading to high school, and wouldn’t it be nice if they had a high school in their community to go to?”

“We … have a large working-class and non-white immigrant population, and this, I fear, is what too often lies behind words like ‘sketchy.’”

The review process is nearly done, and VRA students will learn their fate on Dec. 7. The school could possibly close by the coming spring.

And if that happens, current VRA students will be relocated. Elementary schools in the catchment would be given a new home school in the area, possibly Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, York Memorial Collegiate Institute, Oakwood CI or John Polanyi Collegiate Institute.

The former two are over capacity, but the latter two are under capacity. This change could in theory boost their numbers, but optional attendance still leaves that uncertain.

“The school’s been a part of the community for a long time,” VRA student Adelle Durzo told CTV in October. “We’re only in Grade 10. We just got here last year. We’ve already made such amazing friends so it kind of sucks for us having to go to a new school for Grade 11 and 12.”

At this point, one of the major community concerns is what will become of the building, and everyone seems to agree: selling it would be a mistake.

“People really see this as a real gem, a real asset in our community,” says Bill Worrell, a founding member of the Oakwood/Vaughan Neighbourhood Action Partnership. “That’s got to be preserved somehow.”

Kunin points out the area doesn’t have a youth community centre right now.

“When the school does close, and it looks like it’s going to,” he says. “That will be my next fight, to keep it public and serving community needs.”

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