Trustees at Toronto’s largest school board got a tough assignment this winter, but local francophone parents are hoping they have at least one of the answers.
In January, Ontario’s education minister assigned the Toronto District School Board a list of 13 reforms, including a call to look at selling some underused schools.
When TDSB trustees replied on Feb. 10, they agreed to review a cluster of 10 high schools in Toronto-Danforth and East York later this year.
Some of the schools, like Eastern Commerce, Eastdale, and Danforth Collegiate, have low enrolments. Others, like Riverdale and Monarch Park, are at or near capacity.
Just because the schools are under review does not mean any will be sold.
But if a school building does go up for sale, a coalition of francophone parents hopes it can remain a high school by becoming the first French-language high school in the East End.
Lianne Doucet is a mother of three and a long-time member of the parents’ coalition.
“We’re not trying to say anything other than ‘We need space, you have space, let’s collaborate,’” said Doucet. “At least one school that might be on the chopping block does not have to close in this riding because we will use it.”
Doucet’s three daughters all started at Georges-Étienne-Cartier, a French Catholic elementary school in Beach Hill.
For Grades 7 to 12, her eldest opted to take the 35-minute streetcar ride to Collège français, a small French public school downtown. Her other choice was an hour-long bus ride to a French Catholic school north of the 401.
Doucet said the Collège français is a great school, but the building itself is like the No Frills of high schools – it has no cafeteria, no music room, no track or field.
Meanwhile, Doucet said, some TDSB high schools in her neighbourhood are “great big beautiful stone buildings” with auditoriums, double gyms, and less than 50 per cent enrolment.
“Nobody likes to close schools, and I get that,” she said. “I don’t know whose problem it is, and how they are sorting it out. As parents, all we know is we need a school, and they have empty schools. What’s the problem?”
Jean-François L’Heureux is president and Toronto West trustee for Viamonde, a French public school board with 13 schools in Toronto, including the Collège français.
L’Heureux said Viamonde has seen a 20 per cent enrolment boost over the last five years, and every time a new school opens, demand is higher than expected. La Mosaïque, a Viamonde elementary school north of Coxwell and Danforth, reached its capacity just three years after it was built.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to identify those people until they wave their hands,” he said, noting that Viamonde has had to rely largely on 2006 demographic data since the long-form census was scrapped.
Along with immigration from Europe and north Africa, L’Heureux said Toronto is seeing more and more families with at least one French parent moving here from other parts of Ontario.
L’Heureux said Viamonde is in regular contact with the TDSB, because under Ontario’s Education Act, Viamonde has the first bid on any property declared surplus by the English public board. If it is a sale, the property is priced at the lesser of two values: the market price or, more likely in Toronto, a price determined by Ontario’s school funding formula.
“It may not be a purchase,” said L’Heureux. “It may be something like a partnership, or a rental agreement.”
In the West End, Viamonde opened the Toronto Ouest high school in a former TDSB building with an agreement to sublease the third floor to the TDSB for 20 years. The school also remains available to community groups outside school hours.
“We share the same community, the same neighbourhood,” said L’Heureux. “We’re working together all the time.”
Réjean Sirois, education director for Toronto’s French Catholic school board, said he also hopes to find property for a high school that can serve the Beach and other parts of east Toronto.
Sirois said the board already has land and a site plan for a new high school at Eglinton and McCowan Avenues, expected to open in September 2016. That will bring the number of Toronto French Catholic high schools to three, he said, but there is still enough demand for one closer to the Beach.
One option, he said, may be to replace an elementary school on Jones Avenue with a new K to 12 school of 500 students. The board opened the temporary school two years ago, largely to deal with over-enrolment at Georges-Étienne-Cartier.
No matter who builds it, Lianne Doucet said francophone parents would welcome an East End French high school with open arms.
“We’re open to whatever the boards can work out,” she said. “My third daughter is now about to enter Grade 6, and we’re still fighting the good fight to get a French school in this riding.”