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TDSB's arts high schools: Nearly twice as many white, wealthy students, OISE study finds

Specialized arts programs intended for all students across the city

By Lindsey Craig

April 23, 2017


Group of young female ballet dancers

Professor Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández says specialized arts schools in the TDSB cater primarily to white and privileged students. (Photo from Shutterstock)

A recent study shows students entering grade nine in specialized arts programs in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are more than twice as likely to be white and nearly twice as likely to come from a wealthy family when compared to students across Toronto public schools.

In addition, despite the arts high schools’ open enrolment status, the study shows the majority of students entering them come from a narrow set of feeder schools that also have an over-representation of white, wealthy students.

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The findings were revealed in a study conducted by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.

Researchers say their results are concerning since the schools (also known as specialized arts programs, or SAPs) were established to provide greater access to arts training to all students across Canada’s most ethnically diverse city.

“Our findings show that these specialized arts schools are implicated in producing racial segregation and inequality, that they are places that cater primarily to white and privileged students in the board,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Associate Professor and Acting Director for OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling.

Benefits ‘those who are already socially advantaged’

The study, “Market ‘Choices’ or Structured Pathways? How Specialized Arts Education Contributes to the Reproduction of Inequality,” by Gaztambide-Fernández and Gillian Parekh, then a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) postdoctoral fellow at OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling, was published on April 23 in the journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives.

“Our research is important because it suggests that these schools undermine the board’s commitment to equity, by benefitting those who are already socially advantaged by race and class,” said Gaztambide-Fernández, also Principal Investigator of the SSHRC-funded Urban Arts High Schools research project.

Race, family income, parental education measured

To conduct the study, researchers examined three of Toronto’s four specialized arts high schools, which are dispersed throughout the city. (The schools involved could not be named in the study due to research commitments).

Using demographic and program data collected by the TDSB– one of the only school boards in Canada to collect such extensive data– researchers compared the students entering specialized arts high school programs to students in other elementary schools (with grade eight) across the board.

Three variables were explored – race, family income, and parental education.

In all three categories, researchers say their findings show Toronto’s publicly-funded arts schools are “remarkably homogenous” when compared with the student demographics across the TDSB.

Findings include:

  • Race: Students in specialized arts schools (SAPs) are more than twice as likely to be white (67%), compared to students across all TDSB elementary schools (with Grade 8) (29.3%).
  • Income: More than half – 56.7%­­ – of arts high school students come from families representing the top three highest income deciles in the TDSB compared to only 30.4% of students within elementary schools across the TDSB.
  • Parents’ Education: Students at specialized arts high schools are 1.4 times more likely to have parents with a university education compared to those at non-arts TDSB high schools. Data shows 73.2% of students at arts schools have university-educated parents, compared to 53.2% of students within elementary schools across the TDSB.

“The pattern across all three demographic variables show that the student populations in specialized arts high schools do not reflect the population of our very diverse city,” Gaztambide-Fernández said.

Limited number of feeder schools

Study results also show that the student demographics at SAPs mirror the student demographics of the feeder schools. Researchers say this means most students are coming from schools in predominately white, wealthy neighbourhoods – despite the fact that arts schools are intended to serve students from across the TDSB.

“Our study shows that over a quarter of the students come from only five elementary schools. And, over half come from just 18 schools out of almost 200 elementary schools within the board,” said Gaztambide-Fernández. “This suggests other mechanisms beyond admissions are at play in producing such homogeneity.”

Eurocentric forms of art

To answer the question about why this is happening, researchers draw from their own previous studies of specialized arts programs in TDSB schools. The research focused on admissions practices, curriculum and student experience, suggesting these aspects may play an important role in excluding students who are neither white nor wealthy.

Gaztambide-Fernández explains, “For example, if a school focuses on Eurocentric forms of art, such as ballet or piano, those who excel in other forms of art, such as South Asian dance or slam poetry, may not do well in that audition process.”

Yet, he notes that the admissions process is only partially to blame.

“If we could say that the reason is because of admissions, the policy solution would be simple – change the admission process or eliminate it,” he said.

Indicating there is a larger problem, Gaztambide-Fernández explained, is that students come from a narrow set of homogenous schools.

“The schools are attracting and admitting students who have a certain view of the arts and what it means to be an artist, as well as specific training and background in the arts. This Eurocentric view of the arts works to ensure that only some people have access to these programs,” he said.

“So, it’s not just that the admissions process works to exclude students without the right kind of background or talent. It’s also that a very Eurocentric idea of the arts shapes the curriculum, which attracts students who see themselves mirrored within it, and who share the same ideals of the school in terms of what it means to be an artist,” he said.

Researchers say that’s going to play a role not just in who is admitted, but in who even knows about the existence of the schools and chooses to apply.


Professor Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez

Professor Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández is the lead author of the study. 


Rejecting art rejects history, identity

Dr. Leslie Stewart Rose, Associate Professor at OISE, teaches courses in music education and is Director of OISE’s Concurrent Teacher Education Program.

She shares the concerns of Gaztambide-Fernández and Parekh, and says the decisions and choices made by educators reflect their personal beliefs, values, and experiences.

“Even well-intentioned educators teach only what and how they have been taught. So, they continue to replicate Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogies. When a teacher rejects rap or DJ’ing as legitimate musical practices, for example, then so too are they rejecting the motivations and histories behind those practices, along with the students who identify with those movements,” Stewart Rose said.

She goes on to say that this is especially important to note given that music and identity are closely intertwined, especially in adolescence.

“A Eurocentric curriculum can be seen as a barrier to participation and success because it tells the student whose identities, stories and histories are not reflected in school, ‘Park your identity at the door, you're not valued here,’ she said.

On the other hand, she continued, an inclusive curriculum reflects the identities of the students, is relevant to their lives, and invites the student to “proudly bring their full selves into the classroom.” This is known as culturally relevant and responsive curriculum, which she says is part of the solution.

Researchers hope study prompts change

OISE Professor George Dei is a world-leading expert on anti-racism education. He agrees that inclusive admissions and curriculum is crucial, and also acknowledged the connection between arts and culture.

"Inclusivity is critical for all students. It is very important to ensure our schools, our curriculum, are inclusive of everyone, every knowledge, every experience, every history. That's how you build communities – ensuring everyone has a sense of empowerment and a sense that they belong,” he said.

As for Gaztambide-Fernández and Parekh, it’s their hope the findings of their study prompt policy changes to help ensure SAPs in Toronto one day reflect what Dei describes.

“If the idea behind such programs is to be inclusive, and if we are committed to ensuring access to all students across the city, not just a privileged few, then we need to reconsider not just how students access such programs, but what kind of arts training they provide and what image of the artist we want to promote through our education system,” Gaztambide-Fernández said.

Related Research

View previous studies by Gaztambide-Fernández and Parekh, including work on admissions and curriculum in specialized arts high schools, and accessibility and equity in the TDSB

Other studies from the Urban Arts High Schools project, a comparative research project that explored student experience in specialized arts high schools across the United States and Canada, include reports about:

Other work on accessibility and equity in the TDSB by Gillian Parekh include research about:


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