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New 'expression of interest' requirement for specialized programs at TDSB draws criticism and support

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A new requirement for students to be considered for specialized programs within the Toronto District School Board is being called “meaningless” by one board trustee.

“The formal expression of interest is not being evaluated. An entry consisting of ‘Me want skool’ is given the same weight as a student filming themselves playing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ on the tuba,” Trustee Weidong Pei of Ward 12, Willowdale, told CTV News Toronto in an email.

There are several dozen Central Student Interest Programs (CSIP) at the TDSB, both at the secondary and elementary level, including those specializing in arts, athletics, science, math and many others. But entry into any one of them now requires a formal expression of interest.

According to the board, the application can include written, text-based, or audio and video submissions and must “include a demonstration of active interest or passion, where applicable.”

A TDSB spokesperson confirms the requirement is new this year for applications into fall 2024 school programming.

The move builds upon a vote in 2022, where board trustees decided to remove all tests, exams, auditions and grade-entry requirements from CSIP applications to “move away from a model that only accepts those with demonstrated strength and/or ability.”

The so-called interest-based model replaced the previous performance-based process of entry, which had been criticized for favouring students from wealthier families.

“When we implemented the program in 2023, we didn't ask the students to prove or demonstrate anything. We only asked the students to write their name down, which was disappointing,” Trustee James Li of Ward 13, Don Valley North, a driving force behind the TDSB policy shift, told CTV News Toronto in an interview.

Li explained when the board passed the policy in 2022, he wrote a motion and passed an amendment that required CSIP applications to include a formal expression of interest, but he said that wasn’t executed by the board until now.

The Toronto District School Board's head office is seen in this image.

Now that the requirement is in place, Li believes that although the expression of interest element is not graded, it will make for a more equitable approach to accessing specialized programs in Toronto’s public schools and make sure students are “ready to exert the level of effort to be successful” in enriched programs.

“We expect them to demonstrate that they're interested in this to the point where they want to go above and beyond the curriculum, and they're ready and willing to work towards it.”

However, Pei suggests the policy doesn’t address the socio-economic barriers standing in the way of enriched education, but instead creates more division in schools and waters down talent.

“Everybody I know, including me, is concerned about socio-economic barriers, but the policies don’t adjust for socio-economics, they use self-identified race as a proxy for socio-economics,” he said, adding that the interest-based policy should be reversed.

“The average Asian family's income at TDSB is below the overall average of TDSB families, and South Asians' incomes are even lower. Yet Asian families are considered a privileged group.”

As it stands, 20 per cent of the spaces in CSIP are reserved for students who are Black, Indigenous, Latin American and Middle Eastern, while 50 per cent of the spaces in math, science and technology programs are for students self-identifying as female, according to the board's website.

If a demand for a program exceeds available space, a random draw of applicants will take place.

Applications for next year’s programming are now closed, but Li said the TDSB has been monitoring the deployment of the new approach. He said a report on its progress will be released by the board later this school year and expects forthcoming reports in the years to come.

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