ll bundled up from the early morning fall chill, children slowly fill the sky blue gymnasium. Picture day is upon Blake Street Junior Public School. Students are wearing their freshest haircuts and their finest outfits. Many come to sit at the large lunchroom tables set up in the gym to grab a hot meal before class; some with their parents, some with their fellow classmates.
Over 130 pancakes are prepared for the students, made in-house by two cheerful volunteers. Fruit has been cut up at the request of Maria Liantziris, the Educational Assistant at Blake School and the coordinator of today’s breakfast. Wednesdays are pancake day for Blake School’s daily breakfast program. Typically, she says the breakfast program feeds 30 to 40 students each day, with most kids coming from the nearby Toronto Community Housing units or the French Immersion students who get bussed to the school.
“We try to support them,” Liantziris says of the kids who come to the program. “You see kids actually struggling coming inside and having a nice, healthy breakfast; it gives them energy to follow class and to follow the lessons.”
“Whoever wants to come, can come,” Liantziris says.
For students and families at Blake School — and all across the GTA — breakfast programs like this one are an integral part of the day, especially with food prices in the city rising. It allows every child at the school to start off the day well-fed.
Blake School’s breakfast program is one of the various supports that is funded through the Model Schools for Inner Cities Initiative; an initiative that began in 2006 designed to address equity at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
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Dental and medical checkups, arts programs, free field trips, and a free chess program are some of the benefits Blake School receives through its Model School status. Serving a catchment area that includes one of the largest clusters of public housing in the inner city, Blake School has been a Model School for over a decade. The Model School program is part of TDSB’s equity policy which commits to “the elimination of institutional discrimination and promotion of fairness, equity, acceptance and inclusion.”
In 2014, a French Immersion stream was introduced at Blake School. Families living outside Blake Street’s catchment area started putting their children in the French Immersion program. Also, families from the gentrified and affluent neighbourhoods within Blake’s catchment area — some of whom had previously avoided the school — began enrolling their kids in the program.
The influx of French Immersion kids drastically shifted the demographics at Blake School. Because Model School eligibility is based on demographic information, Blake School stands to lose its Model School status and the support that comes with it at the end of the 2022-23 school year, despite the continued need from the direct community. Parents at the school feel that TDSB is failing its own equity policy by introducing a French Immersion program to Model Schools and are pushing to change the way TDSB ranks school equity, threatening the daily programs Blake School’s students rely on.
The French Program
According to Valerie Laurie, last year’s co-chair of Blake School’s parent council, there have been issues at Blake with wealthy, white families avoiding the school due to the stigma surrounding the neighbourhood. Many of the wealthier parents in the catchment area would try to grandfather their children into the nearby Pape Avenue Junior Public School by enrolling their kids into the school’s pre-kindergarten daycare.
“I was one of those people,” Laurie says. “When I was pregnant with my son, I was convinced by well-meaning and well-intentioned neighbours that I had to get him into the daycare at Pape School.”
“I was like, ‘what do I know?’” Laurie says. “It wasn't until I got to Blake where I then got to know this amazing community and fell in love with the kids and the celebration of culture that happens at Blake.”
“I can say that I didn't know any better,” she says about trying to take her son out of his designated school, “But I didn't really think about it very hard, truly.”
Lori Ross, a longtime parent at Blake School, was the co-chair of the parent council when the French Immersion program was introduced. Ross says parents suggested bringing in a French stream at Blake to give more options to their kids. According to her, many students didn’t stay at Blake from Kindergarten to grade six; they would go elsewhere for other programs. In 2014, Blake School had 46 per cent vacancy, in part due to parents avoiding the school. So, a French Immersion program at Blake seemed like a good way to retain more students at the school.
“People trashed Blake all the time. And those of us who had our kids there knew that it was this amazing school that was doing such terrific work, and that our kids were really flourishing there,” Ross says. “So we just wanted others to have access to that opportunity without recognizing what that could mean for the original community.”
When her first child was at the school, before the French Immersion program was introduced, Ross says that most of the kids at the school came from Blake Street. She says some teachers had concerns about introducing a French stream to Blake, which, in retrospect, were valid.
“I feel like that’s shifted, like that's flipped,” Ross says of the school demographics. “Now, there's huge differences between the English and the French stream.”
“I don't have the data to tell you, but I can say that, just as a parent in the school yard, it definitely looks very different.”
The school is now at capacity, and Laurie says the split between French and English is about two to one. Now that there’s a French Immersion program offered at Blake School, Laurie says that the wealthy families that would try to avoid the school are enrolling their children in the Immersion program.
“It really is just kind of a settler colonial thing that [we’ve] come in and [we] occupy this space in this school,” Laurie says. “And because [we’re] doing that, it affects the kids who have nothing to do with that. That's not fair.”
Piggybacking off the apparent success of Regent Park, the first and largest housing project in Canada, Blake Street was designed in the 1960s. The Blake Street Community Housing Project consists of two 16-storey towers and surrounding row houses wedged between Pape and Jones Avenues. Today, the housing project is now an inconspicuous island; largely out of sight from the surrounding affluent neighbourhoods of Riverdale and The Pocket. The two towers and a number of row houses were built on Blake Street, sitting at the bottom of the hill of what is now Kempton Howard Park — named after an influential community organiser and youth worker who was killed in 2003.
Blake School is the only public school in its ward that is a Model School. The catchment area consists mostly of the Blake Street housing project and the nearby neighbourhood of The Pocket, wedged between Danforth Avenue and Gerrard Square. According to CensusMapper, an interactive map based on Canadian Census data, the different levels of income between the two neighbourhoods is clear. Approximately 40 per cent of Blake Street residents sit at or below the low income measure, according to 2021 Census Data. The low income rate in The Pocket hovers around 10 percent. Ethnicity between The Pocket and Blake Street is also significantly different, with around 15 per cent of people in The Pocket identifying as a visible minority compared to 73 per cent on Blake Street.
Despite the French program taking over the school, Blake Street is still represented in the English program.
Whether or not a school is eligible for Model School status — and the added support that comes with it — is based on where the school ranks on the Learning Opportunity Index (LOI). According to the TDSB, the index determines the level of external factors at each school that may inhibit a child’s ability to learn. The School Board weighs six factors to determine a school’s LOI score. Things like the percentage of families who are below the low income measure, single-parent families at the school, and parents with a university degree are all factored into the score (the other factors being the median family income at the school, percentage of families receiving social assistance, and parents with low education).
Every school in Toronto gets funding based on its LOI score. A higher LOI score means more money from the School Board to offset the external factors at play. If a school’s LOI score is in the top 150 schools in the School Board, then it becomes eligible to be a Model School. Blake School has ranked as high as 27th on the Index.
The initiative started from the remnants of Toronto’s old learning opportunity program that began in the 1970s. When the Mike Harris-led PC government took office in 1995, the Ontario government reduced its education budget, eliminating extra funding access for inner city schools. After the amalgamation of Toronto in 1998, the current Toronto District School Board formed, and with it, the School Board created its Equity Policy that was implemented in 1999.
In 2004, a task force was created to address what the school board saw as a rise in inequities at city schools. In 2006, the first three Model Schools were established, with each receiving one million dollars in funding for the school year. The following year, the initiative added another four schools and, in addition to the financial support, it provided every Model School with a Teaching and Learning Coach, a Lead Teacher, and two Community Support Workers (CSW).
The success of the program won TDSB the prestigious Carl Bertelsmann Award in 2008 for its “Comprehensive commitment to integration through education” The program continued to grow for the next three years, and by 2014 there were 150 Model Schools in the city.
Unfortunately, the level of staffing and funding for Model Schools hasn’t grown with the number of schools in the initiative. For the 2022-23 budget, TDSB allocated $6.2M to support Model Schools for Inner Cities initiatives and schools above 150 on the LOI. And as of 2014, the entire initiative received 50 staff members, including Central Staff, Lead Teachers, Teaching and Learning Coaches, and Community Support Workers. When the program started, there were two CSWs assigned to each school. Today, 24 CSWs are shared and assigned to the 150 Model Schools.
Benefits Of Model Schools
Omar Khan, is a member of the Inner City Community Advisory Committee (ICCAC). Working with newcomer refugees in his Thorncliffe community, he joined the ICCAC after discovering many youth in his community attended Model Schools. The ICCAC is the committee that advises the TDSB on Model Schools on matters that address learning opportunities and socioeconomic circumstances of students and families in the public school system. It’s called the “Inner City” Community Advisory Committee because at the time Model Schools were introduced, most of the schools in the initiative were near the city core. However, today most Model Schools are most concentrated in the outer boroughs, where the largest need in the city remains.
According to Khan, the reduced budget for the Model Schools diminishes the impact of the initiative. As a committee member, Khan sees the crucial role Model Schools can play in offering support to children and families in need. A number of Model Schools are connected with paediatric clinics. Some clinics are at the school, with doctors to support students and others who can flag developmental challenges to teachers. The initiative can provide students with dental and eye care that may otherwise be inaccessible. Free trips to museums, art galleries and science centres are a staple for schools in the program.
“It's really great for all the students in school and, in particular, for those who are experiencing poverty,” Khan says. "Everyone gets access to all the school support. So the Model School program, it's really tremendous.”
From 2008-09 to 2012-13 grade six reading test results improved at Model Schools at a greater rate than non-Model Schools. While it’s true non-Model Schools still tested much higher on average than Model Schools over that time, Model Schools also showed progress in Canadian Achievement Test scores. Reading, writing, and math scores went from below-grade levels to above-grade at Model Schools, according to the TDSB.
Khan says the additional staff is the most important success factor for Model Schools. Some Model Schools receive added teacher support, so teachers can get more release time, do more prep, and receive more professional development. Each Model School gets a community support worker who works across a number of schools, acting as a liaison between families and all the support systems available at the school. Food access is an essential component to Model Schools and breakfast and lunch programs like the one at Blake happen all across the city. During Covid, many schools shut down their food programs, so families had to pay for lunches out of pocket.
“Throughout Covid, one of the big things they did was just help families get food, get them gift cards for food, find them access to food in the community,” Khan says. “Because, especially early in Covid, it was really hard to afford food.”
The Stakes For Blake Street Kids
In 2014, before the French Immersion program was introduced, Blake School ranked 39th out of 473 elementary schools in the city on the LOI. The following two years, the school introduced the French Immersion stream. By 2020, Blake School ranked 147th. The school only received $13,000 in Model School funding for the 2022-23 school year, a far cry from the million dollars the early Model Schools received. Still, communities and schools like Blake rely on the added support received through the initiative.
But when the TDSB reevaluates every school’s LOI score at the end of the year, Blake School will no longer be considered a Model School.
Blake School’s principal, Jennifer Zurba, is concerned that losing Model School status will increase the burden on the low income community at Blake School.
“While it is a win win for everybody now,” Zurba says of the support received through its Model School status, “it will be a direct loss and a direct hit to those in our community who rely on those Model School resources.”
Lori Ann Woodcock has been a parent at Blake School for over 10 years. She and her children live right across the street from the school, in one of the rowhouse units nearby. As a personal support worker, she loves the school and the community. But she’s felt the strain of the reduced support from the CSW at the school.
Her seven year-old has been at Blake School since Junior Kindergarten. Woodcock says that he deals with some ADHD and is very hyper, so they had him doing half days.
“Because they didn't have enough support, they were sending him home,” Woodcock says. “He's now behind. He's in grade two and he's working at a senior kindergarten level.”
Losing supports like the Breakfast program and CSWs can have real consequences for families. Without the proper support at the school, Woodcock has had to find a psychologist outside of school to get her son assessed so they can have a placement meeting with the TDSB. It’s an added burden to her family already dealing with a child who is behind in their learning.
Principal Zurba says it’s a matter of ensuring all her students receive the care they need to learn and grow.
“The argument is really about advocating for our students, particularly for our students who come directly from our catchment, many who currently are living in housing and experiencing poverty,” Zurba says. “Their needs have not dissipated or been reduced or been erased because we've introduced a very large group of French immersion students and their families.”
When French Immersion programs and specialised streams are introduced at a Model School, they significantly skew the student population demographics by which the LOI is measured. French Immersion students across the district often have more in common (demographically speaking) with each other than they have in common with the non-immersion students at their own schools. TDSB knows this because they have themselves published reports that show French Immersion students typically come from two-parent families as well as families with higher levels of education and economic means. In its review on the characteristics of its French as a Second Language programs, the Board found that during the 2011-12 school year, 87 per cent of students came from two-parent families, and 53 per cent came from the highest socioeconomic status.
“The most frustrating part is that these are predictable outcomes,” Laurie, Blake School’s former parent council co-chair, says. “If you're not going to protect against those predictable outcomes so that these kids get what they need, then you're failing, and you’re not looking through the lens of equity.”
A Familiar Pattern
Blake School isn’t the only school that has seen the sharp change in demographics after a new stream was introduced. In 2011, Ryerson Community School in Alexandra Park ranked 21st on the LOI. After an extended French program was introduced, their LOI ranking plummeted and they currently sit at 158. Dr. Rita Cox - Kina Minogok Public School in Parkdale ranked 52nd in 2009. At the time, it housed only one grade 4 class for its gifted program. Now the school sits out of the Model School eligibility with an LOI ranking of 200.
Similar events occurred at Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School, Queen Alexandra Middle School in Riverside, and D.A. Morrison Middle School in Woodbine Heights. All these schools are in inner city neighbourhoods that are quickly gentrifying; all previously held high LOI rankings and (with the exception of Dr. Rita Cox School) were all well below their capacity before a specialty program or French Immersion program was introduced to the school. Like at Blake, these programs cast a much larger catchment area than the original program and bring in affluent students to the school.
“In those places where gentrification is happening really quickly, and there's a French program involved, you're seeing rapid, rapid change [to the LOI],” Khan says.
Khan says that instances like Blake School are some unintended consequences of how LOI is currently calculated. When a French or specialised program is introduced to a school, the wealthy families cancel the low-income families and the LOI averages out. In the case of Blake School, where the proportion of French Immersion students now surpass that of the English stream, there appears to be no need at the school for Model School support. French programs like the one at Blake have revealed the significant inadequacies inherent in how TDSB ranks equity among its schools.
A Change To LOI
Blake School’s Parent Council contacted the ICCAC in the spring of 2021. The council argues that TDSB is failing its own Equity Policy, which states that “Ensuring equitable learning opportunities, supports and an inclusive learning culture for every student in every classroom, school is the only way to provide improved achievement and wellbeing for all our students.” The ICCAC was already looking at the LOI and how to fix its shortcomings, so the ICCAC and the Blake Street Parent Council brought forward a motion to the TDSB to reevaluate the Index.
One idea is to split up the two streams and score their LOIs separately. Blake School currently houses EAST Alternative School, a fully public grade 7/8 program in the second and third floor of the school. Despite being within the same walls as Blake School, EAST gets scored on the Learning Opportunity Index separately, receiving its own funding from the TDSB. Blake’s Parent Council argues that TDSB could give each individual stream an LOI score.
“If in most schools, most of those [specialised] streams are insulated from each other, then they need to be calculated differently,” Laurie says. “And it's very easy to do that, the data exists.”
Khan says that there might be other solutions, like reworking the Learning Opportunity Index scoring system entirely. He points to Title One Funding in the United States, where schools receive funding only by the number of low-income students at the school — instead of a number of factors — as a potential solution to the problem.
Blake School’s Trustee Sara Ehrhardt says that there is a commitment from the TDSB to address the issues with the Model School initiative and how it scores the Learning Opportunity Index. A TDSB spokesperson told The Hoser, “I don’t have more info, but what I do know is the LOI is undertaking a review and the work plan is being presented to one of the Board committees in May.” But Ehrhardt says that these types of comprehensive reviews can take years to come into practice. The Blake parent council have asked for a freeze on giving out a new LOI score to schools until the TDSB reviews their policy so schools like Blake don't lose out on the supports they receive from their Model School status. As of now, TDSB will go through with its new Learning Opportunity Index for the 2023-24 school year.
“The important thing is thinking about what services are happening under the Model School model that we don't want to see lost, and how can we address that gap until alternative models are put forward,” Ehrhardt says.
The Model School program was created to identify and address inequities within Toronto schools, with the understanding that supporting kids will generate lasting positive outcomes on the individuals and their communities beyond graduation. French and Specialised programs aren’t inherently bad. There is great demand in the city for more of these programs. But when these programs are introduced in Model Schools, they undermine the effectiveness of the Model School program.
“The support that we receive that is really there to support that community [that is experiencing poverty] has been able to be advantageously used for everybody in our community — French and English students,” Zurba says. “But when we lose our Model School status, those French students — who the majority of them do not require or rely on those resources — won't really miss them.”
“But the people who do rely on them will.”