Toronto public art schools need to check their white privilege

If you’re a Black student within the TDSB, you have limited access to arts education and you’re twice as likely to be expelled

If you’re a non-white student living in Toronto, the odds of achieving academic success are stacked against you. If you’re racialized, from a low-income family and have parents who lack post-secondary education, your access to arts education is especially rare. And if you’re a Black student, you’re at higher risk of getting suspended or expelled from school.

A recent study conducted by the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education found that 67 per cent of students entering grade nine in specialized arts programs run by the Toronto District School Board are white. In contrast, 2011’s census reveals 51 per cent of all Torontonians are white. Arts students are also twice as likely to come from a wealthy family and have university-educated parents compared to students across GTA public schools.

“Our findings show that these specialized arts schools are implicated in producing racial segregation and inequality, that they are places that cater primarily to white and privileged students,” says Dr. Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, acting director of OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling and lead author of the study.

The TDSB has four arts-focused schools: Claude Watson Secondary Arts Program at Earl Haig Secondary School, Etobicoke School of the Arts, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts and Wexford Collegiate School of the Arts. OISE researchers examined three of these schools although they would not name which school was left out, or why.

When these specialized programs were first established, their purpose was to provide greater access to arts training to all students. Instead, they smack of white privilege.

“The student populations in specialized arts high schools do not reflect the population of our very diverse city,” adds Gaztambide-Fernández.

One of the reasons for low enrollment rates of racialized students stems from the feeder schools. The TDSB runs two arts-focused elementary schools, Claude Watson School for the Arts and Karen Kain School for the Arts, both of which are located in predominantly white, wealthy neighbourhoods.

Another reason offered by researchers is that Toronto’s education system focuses on Eurocentric forms of art, such as ballet, piano, drama and photography. Students who excel in different forms of art, such as South Asian dance or slam poetry, may not feel encouraged to audition, nor would they have the teachers and mentors in the program with knowledge of their art forms.

“The schools are attracting and admitting students who have a certain view of the arts and what it means to be an artist, as well as specific training and background in the arts,” says Gaztambide-Fernández. “This Eurocentric view of the arts works to ensure that only some people have access to these programs.”

Tiffany Ford, the TDSB trustee for York West, argues the curriculum needs to be reviewed and revamped to reflect Toronto’s diverse population.

“Rap is mainstream and everybody knows about hip-hop, yet I read that they wouldn’t consider kids are talented in these areas,” she says.

As co-chair of the TDSB’s Black Student Achievement Advisory Committee, a recently formed group focused on equity strategies in order to improve educational outcomes for Black students, Ford says that opening an arts-focused school in Jane and Finch or Rexdale is also being discussed.

“There are lots of schools in the area that have under enrollment, so it could help with access,” she explains.


TDSB trustee Tiffany Ford hopes a Black Student Achievement Advisory Committee can help address systemic failures.

The problems facing Black students in particular go beyond accessing specialized arts educating. OISE’s study comes on the heels of two other reports demonstrating that Black students in Toronto are at a significant disadvantage to their non-Black peers.

Research out of York University, which consulted with over 300 parents, students, educators and administrators in Toronto as well as Peel, York and Durham regions, found that Black students are more likely to be streamed into courses below their ability.

Only 53 per cent of Black students were enrolled in academic programs compared to 81 per cent of white and 80 per cent of other racialized students. Instead, 39 per cent of Black students were encouraged to move into applied programs. Comparatively, less than 18 per cent of non-black students were placed in this stream.

The difference, according to the TDSB website, is that academic courses cover the core content with an emphasis on theoretical and conceptual learning, while applied courses focus on concrete and practical learning. In other words, students in applied courses only might not meet the entrance requirements for post-secondary education.

Another troubling report looked at all students suspended or expelled from Toronto public schools last year. A disproportionate number of them were Black. And of the 300 male students were expelled, 50 per cent self-identified as Black, while only 10 per cent stated they were white.

According to the York University study, 42 per cent of all Black students in Toronto have been suspended at least once by the time they finish high school.

“We’re alarmed, but I have to be perfectly honest with you and say there can’t be much surprise there,” Jim Spyropoulos, a TDSB executive superintendent who oversees school programs for students who have been expelled, told the CBC in early April.

“Unless we start by addressing power and privilege and the bias that each one of us brings to our spaces each and everyday, then I don’t know we are ever going to be able to confront the problem,” he adds.

The TDSB had previously tried to address the achievement gap and drop-out rate experienced by Black students with the establishment of the Africentric Alternative School in September 2009. The elementary school program opened at Sheppard Public School in North York with 90 students, and now has around 130 students from kindergarten to grade eight. Extracurricular offered at the school, which aims to teach courses through an Africentric lens, include African drumming and a steel pan band.

At the high-school level, there are Africentric programs for grade nine and 10 students at Downsview Secondary School and Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute. At Churchill, students can participate in an African diaspora youth conference and celebrations for Black History Month, which the TDSB calls African Heritage Month.

Ford hopes that with the help of the Black Student Achievement Advisory Committee, the TDSB can begin implementing positive changes that will benefit all Toronto students.

“The problem is systemic,” Ford says. “I think everyone has a hand in this, from the ministry to trustees, to staff and all the way to teachers and administrators. Everyone could do better.” | @michdas

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