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Independent Schools Help Parents Who Feel Left Out by Public Boards

This article originally ran in the Financial Post on December 12, 2023.

The Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) mission states that it values “a partnership of students, staff, family and community” and “shared leadership that builds trust, supports effective practices and enhances high expectations.” These are laudable goals — but ones that are called into question by recent experiences of TDSB parents who heard about swastika graffiti in a school washroom in November only from their children. Not a word from administrators or educators.

Why? Because, according to the Toronto Star, the TDSB has “moved away from telling parents about these incidents” in order to, they say, reduce the likelihood of “copycat acts.” It appears the policy is built on the belief that to de-escalate a situation, silence is best. And parents are not needed.

What absurdity!

As a parent, and as a student of education, this approach baffles me. Does the TDSB actually think parents don’t need to know? That they wouldn’t share the goals of the school in de-escalation? Or worse, which is clearly implied, that they wouldn’t be capable of parenting appropriately? That involving them really would increase the likelihood of “copycat acts,” not reduce it?

Contrast this with my own experience. I have two daughters attending an independent elementary school here in Ontario. In the last week, I’ve received an unprompted email from my daughter’s volleyball coach, just to give me a heads-up that my daughter seemed a little off, as though something was bothering her that day. “Perhaps she’s just being too hard on herself in practice,” the teacher wrote. “I connected with her afterward, but just wanted you to know.”

I also had an unrelated hour-long phone conversation with the principal about my daughters, their experience, the curriculum and my involvement in the school. When I voice a concern, it is both heard and acted on. Conversations with other parents in the school tell me they feel the same way: they are heard, their children are safe, their concerns are considered valid. They are included — and always welcome. Every day, the school has parents who come and go in various volunteer capacities. Parents are real, actual partners in education.

You might say, “Well, you get what you pay for, obviously. Must be nice to be able to afford that kind of education for your kids.” And that’s fair: we do pay. But I bet we don’t pay as much as you might expect. For elementary school for our two daughters, our fees are $1100 a month, or just over $13,000 per year. And that’s actually pretty average for tuition costs at most independent schools in Ontario.

So, what’s my point? Independent school communities are growing. They’ve grown by more than 20 per cent over the last decade in Ontario, and most schools I know have wait lists. Parents want change. TDSB enrolment, by contrast, has declined by seven per cent in the last five years alone. Much of that may be due to high costs of living for families and, recently, decisions to move out of the city. But a lot may also be parents exercising their right to a different choice for their child. Most parents just want a safe learning environment that meets their children’s needs.

There are amazing teachers and leaders within the TDSB who care deeply about their students. But when parents are left out in the cold on the most foundational of matters — their children’s safety — because of a policy that silences those educators, the system is not achieving its own goals of partnership in education. In fact, you could argue it’s actively opposing them. So, my question stands: Do parents matter to the TDSB?

Debbie Pushor, an education scholar based in Saskatchewan who has worked on bridging communities of parents and educators, suggests we regard educators as “guest hosts” in an educational landscape: both parents’ guests, providing a skilled professional service to their children, but also their hosts, involving them at every step of the journey. How much more effective would our public school systems be if this view were adopted in policy and practice?

Until that happens, however, the reality is that other options are available. And more and more Ontario parents are interested in them.

Joanna DeJong VanHof, a researcher at think-tank Cardus, is a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

December 12, 2023

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A case of anti-Semitic vandalism raises questions about whether parents truly matter to the Toronto District School Board.