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The challenge of urban density: They can see the school from their balconies but their kids can’t attend

When the recess bell sounds at McKee Public School in Willowdale, residents looking out of the windows of the high-rise flats across the street are familiar with a scene of joyful pandemonium.

Hundreds of children walk from the main building and four portable devices, spreading across the schoolyard in an explosion of pent-up energy. From above are colorful speckles, smiling, screaming, haunting, climbing and stretched out in the snow.

But parents in the 120-unit building west of the playground can not shed a sly eye on what their own children are. Because since the apartments opened in 2004, children living there are not eligible to go to school a stone’s throw from their front door.

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Like other primary schools along the Yonge St. corridor near Sheppard Ave., McKee is filled to the brim, thanks to a population increase in the area. With almost 800 students, it has doubled in the past ten years and now has a capacity of more than 110 percent.

So instead of a three-minute walk every morning, students from public schools from 8 McKee Ave. and several other buildings in the neighborhood have to climb on a yellow school bus for the trip to Lillian Street Public School, more than three kilometers away.

“We have become recipients of unintended consequences of urban density”, says Vivian Leong, who can see the school from her balcony, but can not count on her 9 month old son Ethan who may be present by the time he is is in kindergarten.

“We’re so close to school, it’s really ridiculous, it’s baffling how planning and policy are made.”

There are so many people shouting for stains at the school, which has impressive EQAO scores and a diverse multilingual population that includes many newcomers’ families, that staff regularly carry out “registration audits”. for proof of addresses. It has resulted in the departure of about two dozen students in the past three years, says head Jeanette Lang.

The situation is an example of problems in areas of the city that are intended as high-density areas. These include spots further south in the central corridor such as Yonge and Eglinton, as well as the core of the west of the city and more recently Leslieville.

While cranes and bulldozers build houses for thousands of new residents, important infrastructure and facilities to meet the needs of these growing communities – including schools, parks and transit – are lagging far behind.

Brokers continue to sell their homes on the basis of proximity to desired schools. But builders are forced to stipulate on signs and in purchase contracts that children are not guaranteed a place in those classrooms.

Elkhorn Public School, says that families “really feel the pressure”. Elkhorn has so many students that it holds school-wide meetings in two teams. ( Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star )

“We really feel the pressure,” says Melody Nguyen, member of the parents’ council of the Elkhorn public school at Bayview and Sheppard, 20 percent more than capacity . Elkhorn has five laptops and has to hold meetings in two shifts because it is not suitable for all his students in his small gymnasium.

Condos are shooting south and east of that school, “and I have no idea where these kids are going to school,” says Nguyen, who has children in group 2 and 1 and the third starts at Elkhorn in the fall.

Local school manager Alexander Brown says that this means haphazard planning “as long as there is a constant interest in living in the area, we can do this together for a long time.”

Overpopulation is one of the main problems with which he has to do as the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee for the area. And he emphasizes that the implications go far beyond the classroom – whether it is a lack of space for extracurriculars or the lost sense of community.

At McKee, employees and students use every inch of space. A technology laboratory with a view of the library was divided to create an extra room. Windowless storage rooms have been converted into colorful spaces with air filters and fans where teachers of English work as a second language with individuals or small groups.

An addition was built four years ago, after which four laptops were added which now house the oldest students, in grade 5.

When last year artificial grass was installed, part of the playground was left uncovered in case more portables were needed, which upset many parents, says Ali Youssefi, co-chairman of the McKee parent council, whose son Kamyar is in one of the portable classrooms, where the children also have lunch.

“Frankly, no one wants their kids to go to class in a portable computer,” he said, referring to air quality, low ceilings and the lack of bathrooms and running water as major obstacles.

The zoning of the school has changed several times in recent years to keep the school population under control.

“There are so many condos that are built on the Yonge corridor, and where are you going to put all these children down?” Says Youssefi.

McKee Director Jeanette Lang says “registration audits” at the school to check student addresses to ensure they are eligible to participate, usually leads to the departure of at least 25 students per year. ( Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star )

Lang says that her staff spends a lot of energy managing the flow of students before and after school and during the spread of recessions and lunch hours, when children in the gym to eat in shifts. The elaboration of timetables, classrooms and the use of outdoor space is an ordeal, as a result of which Grade 5 classes do not lose the instruction time with too many draws back and forth to the portables, so that chaos is minimized by keeping Grade 1 students in kindergarten while they are outdoors and creating good spaces for the seven nursery classes.

“It’s a little micromanage,” she says, adding that the children are aware that the school is full and working together with keeping “an orderly stream.”


It has been more than a quarter of a century since the intensification in the north moved the Yonge corridor, aimed at relieving congestion in the inner city. The planning strategy transformed the area near Sheppard Ave. in a hive of condos, and continued to march further into North York, which has also seen a surge in sales of renovated homes with room for multi-generational families.

The density plan worked, but the crystal sphere was cloudy over the nature of the growing population. As highrises shot up, it was as if nobody predicted – or planned for – the day they would eventually be full of children.

The hands of school boards are largely tied.

“There is no legal ability to oppose development on the grounds that local schools are unable to accommodate new students,” notes a staff report presented to TDSB trustees last month .

Although school boards are among the many facilities that are told about each application, they do not have an approval authority, meaning there is no place for students, there is no reason to postpone or refuse construction, says Giulio Cescato, manager city ​​planning for central North York.

So while developments can be suspended for something like inadequate sewage, they do not wait for schools to catch up.

At the same time it is difficult to accurately predict the demographics of a new building because by the time they are finished “children get older in and out of the school system” m, “says Cescato, who lives in a flat with his young son

“It is a guessing game at its best. ”

 Elkhorn Public School near Bayview and Sheppard is 20 percent overcapacity.
Elkhorn Public School near Bayview and Sheppard is 20 percent overcapacity. ( Vince Talotta / Toronto Star [19659048])

Brown says it’s time to revise planning at provincial level and see how the voice of the local school board can be strengthened.

But more importantly, the problem is why developers are not forced to helping pay for the costs of renovations, repairs and new schools for the customers who will inhabit their buildings, he adds.

In the past year, Willowdale was in the center of the movement pushing the county for changes in outdated rules that parents and local politicians say, that hinder school boards and influence students and families profoundly.

It is a matter that led the TDSB to this week to take a legal challenge to have the Education Act changed.

The move concerns levies called development costs, and which school boards have the right to collect from developers for every new unit they build – but only under certain conditions.

According to the current rules, the TDSB is in an uncomfortable situation. It is the country’s largest school board in one of the fastest growing urban areas, but can not collect those costs.

That’s because a school board that does not work at all its schools at full power does not get the money. And there are TDSB schools in other parts of the city that are under capacity, resulting in excessive surpluses of 34,582 elementary places and 21,302 in secondary schools.

The cost of this riddle? Potential lost revenue of up to $ 350 million over the next 15 years, based on the number of units under construction, proposed or planned in the city, according to the board.

The province allocates money to boards for new schools and renovations through the capital funding of capital financing, but the TDSB regards developer taxes as a huge untapped resource.

Its application for judicial review in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario this week argues that the rules are “unfair and discriminatory” and are contrary to the policy. that “growth must pay for growth.”

Although the board has a legal obligation to provide space for students, it can not adequately plan or access the necessary funds to meet those needs, according to the application.

To parents like Ali Youssefi, it makes no sense that hundreds of children in Willowdale are out of their neighborhood and the builders of the towers that stretch to the sky of North York do not have to pony because of half-empty schools elsewhere.

Last year, Youssefi was among one of nearly 200 parents at a meeting of the district with Mitzie Hunter, then education minister, and demanded that the province relaxed the rules. Trustee Alexander Brown, MPP David Zimmer and alderman John Filion also attended the meeting, which called a motion from the city council the county to solve the problem.

The province is putting pressure on the shelves to target their own cash shortage by closing underutilized schools and selling the land. Although it does not always make sense, because experience has taught us that volatile demographic shifts can suddenly transform new parts of the city into hot neighborhoods, raising the demand for screeching schools.

In addition, the wave of school closures in the last two years caused such recoil, especially in rural areas, that the province made a moratorium on closures until it went through the current decision-making processes.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board, meanwhile, runs at full capacity and does gather development costs for each unit once new development applications have been approved.

But that does not solve the problem for the Catholic council, who also feels the space squads in Willowdale.

According to the legal TDSB application, the Catholic council has collected charges of more than $ 221 million since 2000 and is expected to collect $ 600 million or more in the next 15 years.

But under provinci Al rules, those funds are only for acquiring land – a limitation both boards and grassroots organizations such as Fix Our Schools want to be desperately lifted at a time that Ontario schools make with a repair lag of $ 16 billion.

the charges can not be used to secure roofs, boilers and windows in many old school buildings. They also do not help to finance creative alternatives that could be useful in densely populated neighborhoods, such as vertical schools that are part of condo complexes or other multifunctional spaces.

An example is the new project for canoe landing, the railroad country, where both school boards and the city of Toronto are partners in a new facility with two schools opened in September 2019, as well as a community center and childcare facilities. Under an agreement made years ago, the city has collected income from new developments in the area to finance the project and the boards lease the land of the city.

Elsewhere in the city, the Catholic government is also in the nests. From the previous autumn, it had collected enough funds to buy 89 hectares for new schools, but unlike suburban authorities where parcels are often available near new housing projects, there are few options in the city.

Brown says the community is determined to make development costs an issue this spring in the provincial election campaign, to raise it during debates and candidate meetings, and hopes to meet with education minister Indira Naidoo-Harris.

Part of the immediate pressure will be relieved in the traps when a third floor addition is completed at Avondale Public School south of McKee, adding another 322 spots and allowing it to accommodate 875 students.

An addition to St. Paschal Baylon Catholic School, which ends this spring, will more than double its current capacity to 700 pupils and the St. Antoine Daniel Catholic School will also have twice as many spaces as a new building in 2020 its doors opens that 510 students can handle.

B Even with those new spaces, the area is still overcapacity and the projections of both signs show that it will only get worse.

It is not a hopeful situation for residents such as Vivian Leong or her neighbors whose children can not skip the time street to McKee every morning.

When the family moved a few years ago, she thought the situation might change by the time they had a child of school age.

But even with Ethan four years away from kindergarten, she is not so sure.

“It is disappointing.”

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