Like many mothers, Anu Gupta was fussy about which school to choose for her children, and decided on McKee Public School along the Yonge-Sheppard condo corridor for its reputation and heady test scores.
But to qualify for the popular grade school — some parents have been known to fake their address to get their kids in — the single mother had to be strategic about where she lived. In the fall of 2010 Gupta bought a condo near Yonge and Finch that was built before 2003, which is one of the few ways to meet the Byzantine school boundary rules in one of Toronto’s hottest boomtown strips.
They got into McKee and they love it, Gupta said; her daughter is in Grade 1 and her son in junior kindergarten.
But now, with the area still booming, the Toronto District School Board may vote Wednesday to change boundary rules again in a way that would bounce 115 McKee children, including Gupta’s, to Finch Public School this fall – a move she called unfair.
“I pretty much planned my life around being able to have my kids walk to McKee, and now I find out we’re being kicked out in six months? I’m left helpless,” said Gupta. “This is really unfair.”
The proposal to carve off the northwest corner of McKee’s catchment area is board staff’s latest desperate bid to cope with the “vertical city” of 100 condos that has grown up over the past two decades between Sheppard Ave and Finch Ave. for whom the nearest schools in the neighboring “flat city” are simply too small, said School Trustee Mari Rutka.
“Moving students is awkward; I wish we didn’t have to do it and I don’t blame parents at all for being upset,” said Rutka. “But we have a ‘vertical city’ here; a virtual town in the air without schools and we can’t get funding to build new schools in areas like this until the board gets rid of some of its under-enrolled schools in other areas,” she said.
“This is the dark side of keeping under-enrolled schools open.”
When the city planned some 25 years ago to push “intensification” up Yonge into North York and ease traffic pressures from downtown, planners expected buyers to be young singles and empty nesters.
“They were spectacularly wrong,” noted Rutka. Families flocked to the area, often from east Asian countries where parents are used to raising children in dense high-rises. The board soon realized it couldn’t fit all these children in neighborhood schools like McKee and Earl Haig Secondary School, and decided to bus all those living in condos built after 2003 to schools a little farther away that had room.
Today, some 900 condo children are bussed outside their neighborhood. Even so, McKee’s numbers are still climbing. In the past two years even the “flat city” population has begun to grow, said Rutka,
Still, some McKee parents say the board is over-reacting. While McKee was built for 664 students between kindergarten and Grade 5, and has 744 students now, some are only in half-day kindergarten, making the true enrolment the equivalent of about 658 full-time students. That’s a whisker below capacity, they argue, so surely the school could “grandfather” all current students so they can finish their studies at McKee?
No way, sighed Rutka, because with more students expected this fall, plus a crunch when full-day kindergarten starts in 2014, it essential to start shrinking McKee’s catchment area, and this is only the first of many changes expected in the coming years.
Principal Cheryl Patterson said 90 per cent of McKee’s students speak a language other than English – mostly Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin and Farsi – and the school already scrambles to find the space for ESL, settlement workers and special education classes.
It added its first portable last fall on an already crowded playground; the school already has created two shifts for lunch and the gym is so busy students can have only two gym classes a week. The school converted a specially designed music room last fall into a regular classroom because of the space crunch, said Patterson, and put an ESL Grade 3 class in a windowless room designed for library storage.
“We could add a third storey to house more bodies, but this isn’t a factory,” said Patterson. “How would we create more play space and more gym space and more room for all the things that can make a real education?”
Says Rutka: “We need a school in the air, but right now that idea’s up in the air - it’s too expensive.”