TORONTO -- The Ontario government plans to stop its Grade 9 “applied” and “academic” track streaming, a spokesperson for the ministry of education confirmed Monday.

High school students in Ontario typically have to choose between more practical, hands-on applied courses or more theoretical academic courses in core subjects.

“Students, families and staff deserve an education system that is inclusive, accountable, and transparent, and one that by design, is set up to fully and equally empower all children to achieve their potential,” Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Monday afternoon.

“This government will move quickly and decisively to combat systemic racism so that every child - irrespective of colour of skin, heritage, faith or ability - can have a fighting chance at success.”

The streaming process was developed in the late 1990s as a way to cater to students with different learning styles, but experts say that streaming has disproportionately impacted racialized and low-income students, affecting graduation rates and test scores.

Advocacy group People for Education has long been calling for an end to the streaming process. They argue that it ends up dividing students rather than providing them with more options.

“There as a high disproportionate amount of kids in the applied stream who were Black, who were Indigenous, who came from low-income families,” Annie Kidder from People for Education said. “All of the research, every single year when it was looked at on who goes to applied found a disproportionate portion of kids from certain backgrounds.”

Kidder said that while eliminating the practice is the right thing to do, she wants to know more about how students with different learning styles will be supported during the transition as well as teachers.

“You can’t just flip a switch,” she said. “You have to be willing to do the other part of the work.”

Five years ago People for Education called on the Liberal government to merge the two levels of Grade 9 math classes after a survey found that students in the applied version of the course were less successful on EQAO tests, less likely to graduate and less likely to go on to post-secondary education.

It also found that in schools located in low-income communities, 63 per cent of students took applied courses in 2015 compared to the 26 per cent in higher-income communities.

In that same year, the group also cited a study by the Toronto District School Board that found only 40 per cent of Grade 9 students taking mostly applied courses had graduated in five years.

The province has also confirmed that it will also be introducing a ban on suspending younger students in junior kindergarten to Grade 3, a practice that has also disproportionately affected racialized students.

No timeline for the changes was provided, but a spokesperson for the ministry of education said that “details will be released in short order.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that an official announcement is coming “this week.”

“We are the only province in the entire country that does this and it really is not fair to certain groups of students,” Ford said, adding that it doesn’t seem right to ask a 14-year-old to make a decision that could sway their entire career.

“It’s a broken system. We have heard nothing but positive remarks from communities and I’ve heard it from teachers, I’ve heard it from everyone across the board.”

In a post on social media, the education critic for Ontario’s official opposition called the decision to end streaming “an important first step,” but also said they look forward to learning more about the plan.

“An important first step but streaming starts much earlier, from the moment a student enters school,” Marit Stiles said on Twitter. “We’ll be watching closely for details.”

‘Nothing has been communicated directly to us,’ teachers’ union says

The president of the union representing Ontario high school teachers said late Monday morning that he doubts “the sincerity of the education minister who just months ago wanted to increase class sizes” and that he hopes the government talks with teachers before implementing yet another change during a pandemic.

“I feel we have to take a serious look at how we best serve all our students, including Black, Indigenous, racialized students,” Harvey Bischof said. “I want to make sure that however we go forward is the best, possible way.”

“Let’s have a discussion about this … if we are going to de-stream what are the processes and the supports that need to be put in place to make this work?”

Bischof also said that he hasn’t heard directly from the education minister about their plans for streaming courses.

“Nothing has been communicated directly to us, which is how this minister operates,” he said. “It would be a significant change while we are struggling obviously with a very difficult environment.”

In a message posted to social media on Monday afternoon, the TDSB’s director of education said that the board has been “challenging streaming” for a while.

“We keep saying it is not just about Grade 9,” John Malloy said. “What attitudes and practices negatively impact students in kindergarten? Are all of our special education programs assisting students who are placed there in early grades? Who is being suspended and why? Who is excluded from an academic pathway?”

“Black and Indigenous students are over represented in non-academic pathways. We are now confronting the bias, oppression and racism that must be interrupted at the system, school and classroom level.”

Malloy added that while de-streaming is “a great first step” and “necessary and complex,” it will need support so that students can succeed.

With files from the Canadian Press