Cover Story Education

Who Gets to Be Gifted?

Kids in the gifted program are disproportionately white and affluent. How streaming became another form of segregation

BY

Illustration by Jeannie Phan


The Planning and Priorities Committee was meeting in the boardroom: it was more Kafka than Kanye, so it was incongruous to see teenagers in this setting—like walking into a passport office to find the waiting room filled with lemurs. But there they were (teens, not lemurs), on a cold night this past January, in a brick-slab office building of the Toronto District School Board. Several trustees sat around a giant U-shaped desk facing a gallery crowded with parents, educators, and assorted members of the public.

Wherever they are, even in airless rooms boggy with Robert’s Rules of Order, teenagers bring with them their loping awkward energy, inappropriately beeping cell phones, and barely suppressed giggles. Of course, their presence shouldn’t have been strange, because young people and their futures were what everyone was there to talk about—sort of.

The largest school board in Canada has some large problems to solve. Drop-out rates for black students are twice as high as they are for white kids. Black, Latino, and Indigenous kids are much less likely than their white counterparts to be enrolled in university-track, “academic” classes and more likely to find themselves in the more trade-oriented “applied” classes as early as grade nine. That means that, before many of these kids are even through puberty, options for their futures are severely curtailed: a York University study found that only 53 percent of black students in Toronto were in an academic-stream program versus 81 percent of white students and 80 percent of other racialized groups.

The public meeting had been called to discuss the Director’s Response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force Report, a jargon-thick set of recommendations aimed at removing some of the discriminatory barriers to high achievement that Toronto students face. After months of consultation, the most clearly articulated proposal was to phase out non-academic streams, including applied—but the meeting ended up being only a little about that. When the spotlight landed on disadvantaged groups, its beam also caught others that seemed to have a surplus of advantages: those in academically rigorous, socially prized, specialized programs and streams like arts, the International Baccalaureate, and especially, gifted. The correction that the TDSB was broaching, to end applied streaming, was interpreted by some as a threat to gifted programs—and that community had shown up en masse to let the school board know it was not happy.

Most of the teenagers in the room were part of a delegation of gifted students from Northern Secondary School in the upscale Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Toronto, the kind of academically high-ranking school that real estate agents might mention in their listings to attract buyers. A couple of Northern moms had organized the field trip; in the hallway at break, a parent distributed granola bars. Inside the chambers, one by one, the teens took to the microphone for their allotted five minutes. Many began by acknowledging that they knew they were perceived as “privileged” or “elitist.” Then they read statements from a pro-gifted petition—comments from students, parents, and teachers that filled page after page in the stapled meeting agenda. The testimonials often had a doomsday quality: “Putting all students together will reduce their opportunities to learn”; “stop enabling mediocrity”; “one size does not fit all.” One boy, speaking fast and reading off his phone, described a mixed classroom as inevitably teaching to the “lowest common denominator.”

By hour two of the teen takeover, the trustees looked tired. In between delegates, the students received assurances from the school board that gifted was not going to be touched: trustees kept directing them to page twenty-one of the report, which read, “We do not recommend phasing out…gifted programs or congregated schools sites. However…we will work to increase access and opportunity so that those programs are more reflective of the TDSB student population.”

Later, I talked to one of the parents from the Northern delegation, Gail Agensky, and asked why they were there at all if, in fact, the TDSB was leaving gifted alone. “We don’t really believe them,” she said. “It’s an attack on gifted. They want to break what’s working to save what isn’t.”

Maybe this is often how social change feels to those with power: that one person’s gain is necessarily another’s loss. At the meeting, there seemed to be a consensus among gifted kids and their parents that forces had been unleashed against them. They had worked hard to make a huge, overburdened, underfunded system work for them, and now the spoils of those efforts were at risk.

The uncomfortable reality is that all of us with kids in Toronto’s public schools are operating in a system that favours a select few, where students with lower socio-economic status, many of them black or members of other racial minorities, don’t reach long-term equal achievement. (Toronto is one of the few school boards that release comprehensive race-based data, but researchers say this pattern is almost certainly found elsewhere.) Just as the kids in applied streams are overwhelmingly black and low income, those in gifted are disproportionately white and affluent. Both groups are getting siphoned off and separated from the broader population at a young age. So what we talk about when we talk about gifted isn’t really gifted at all—but segregation.

Canada, like much of the world, is in the era of school choice. In the past two decades, as public-school enrolment has declined, a free-market model has reshaped public education. As per the ways of capitalism, it’s produced winners and losers, great opportunities and great gaps.

When I was a high-school student in Vancouver in the ’80s, most kids went to their nearby school or to a handful of alternative schools. French immersion was new and seemed a little fringe. When I had kids of my own in Toronto, two decades later, I assumed their educations would unfold along similar lines. As fellow parents and friends (largely middle class and professional) were blearily beginning the construction of our young kids’ childhoods, most of us started on the same train: as community-minded, local-school supporters. But, one by one, people kept hopping off the train. French immersion took a bunch of families in grade one, then out-of-district schools took some more, then gifted took another flock in grade four, then alternative schools in middle school, and then extended French…Each time we arrived at one of these school-choice junctures, parents shouted this phrase as they jumped: “It’s like private school in the public system!” Wait—what? Aren’t we in public school because it’s not private school? Guys? Guys?

High school was when the boxcar really emptied out. I had no idea we’d be trying out high schools like Goldilocks tested beds. When our son was in grade eight, we drove to an open house for a popular social-justice-oriented high school, one of many specialized schools that we visited. Several blocks away, we got locked in a traffic jam where teens in orange vests were waving parking wands, directing us away from the overflowing parking lot. We parked over a kilometre away, like we were at a Blue Jays game.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

That this social-justice school was filled mostly with seemingly rich, white families did not escape my notice. But, like all good consumers, tell me I can’t have something, and I instantly want it. Mob mentality activated, and seduced by the media lab, mini courses, and cheery performance of the improv team, I pressed my son to apply. (He was more agnostic: “Sounds like a lot of work.”)

Because Canada doesn’t have a federal department of education, policy is decentralized, falling to provinces and territories—and school authorities within them. In Alberta, school choice means a proliferation of charter schools, and in BC, the provincial government has increased funding for independent schools, essentially subsidizing private education. In New Brunswick, efforts to end streaming and scale back French immersion have been controversial (recently, high provincial test results indicate the new policies are working). But the TDSB is the fourth-largest school board in North America, and as one researcher told me, “As goes the TDSB, so goes the country.”

And what goes is a kind of reckoning over just how hard it is—perhaps impossible—to maintain a thriving public system that serves the greatest number of students the best it can while also giving bespoke educational experiences to a few. In the name of choice, we may be creating a multi-tiered system that sets up certain demographics for success and leaves more vulnerable kids behind. The hyperattention to individual needs (and wants) seems to have pushed kids into customized silos, away from the very inclusivity that’s the underpinning of public education.

I get it. We’re raising kids in an economically fragile time, and parents will do whatever we can to secure our kids’ futures. The problem is when the thing I want for my child creates or perpetuates a disadvantage for some other child. The promise of public education (while romantic and messily fulfilled, if ever) is the commitment to a greater good: an equal start for all kids—the idealistic vision of the plumber’s son in the desk next to the doctor’s daughter—and our differences collapsed, our futures bound together. But today, many believe exclusivity has more value than inclusivity. Rather than everyone in it together, it’s becoming a lot of people in separate corners—which hardly resembles the grand experiment of public education at all.

When Amanda Gotlib was in elementary school, she was slow to finish assignments. Work that would take other kids a few minutes to complete could take her hours. Wandering thoughts aren’t often rewarded in a classroom, so Amanda didn’t get spectacular grades. But she was clearly bright and creative, a kid who loved drawing (she wants to be an animator) and science fiction, and she would often spend lunch and recess reading. “Girls would play things like house,” she told me. “And I wasn’t interested in playing house. I didn’t want to pretend to be another human. I would want to play, like, magic people!”

We were sitting in a café this spring in north Toronto with Amanda’s mom, Gail Agensky, one of the Northern gifted parents from the school-board meeting. Drinking a mango smoothie, Amanda, now sixteen, chose her words carefully. She was very much a 2018 model of teenager, with a shock of purple-and-pink hair, friends she described as “gender fluid,” and casual references to her various psychological diagnoses.

The Ontario Ministry of Education defines giftedness as “an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated.” Back when Amanda was in elementary school, the practice within the TDSB was that teachers would select students they thought displayed gifted tendencies and tap them to take the test for grade-four admission to the program. Parents could request testing, too, if their kid didn’t get recommended. It’s impossible to know if Amanda would have been recommended for testing were her background different, but being white, living in an affluent neighbourhood, and having well-educated parents certainly increases a person’s chances. A 2010 TDSB study found that nearly 60 percent of gifted students in the city came from the three highest income brackets, and only 11 percent were from the three lowest.

Amanda doesn’t remember much about the test itself—“block puzzles. Association questions. It was weird”—but she was designated gifted. In the TDSB, being gifted is an “exceptionality” that falls under the umbrella of special education; in policy, it’s treated as a learning disability. Gifted kids are often sent to schools out of district, where they’re separated from the regular population in congregated classes with appealingly small teacher-student ratios and enriched learning techniques. When Amanda and her parents went to an open house to check out the program, the principal told the room: “You have the golden ticket.”

A little anxious about the change, Amanda waited until middle school to enrol. On Amanda’s first day in a gifted classroom, Agensky showed up well before the final bell to wait outside. She was worried about how her sensitive kid would handle the transition: that morning, Amanda had been in tears. But when school ended, she emerged in much different spirits; she gave her mom an adolescent eye roll, like: “It went fine, duh, why wouldn’t it?” This was new.

Amanda liked the way the teachers explained concepts in depth and the way that the form of an assignment could be more creative—a puppet show instead of an essay. Very quickly, Amanda had friends and was invited to sleepovers—this was new too.

Agensky is a graphic designer who runs her own invitation-card company, and her husband is a waiter. Their house, which they inherited, says Agensky, is one of the smallest on their block in Ledbury Park, an aesthetically suburban neighbourhood, with sky-scraping trees and wide driveways. Every winter, parents jockey to get their kids labelled gifted for the following fall. Even if a student doesn’t earn the designation through the TDSB, families can pay hundreds of dollars to get their kids tested privately, and repeatedly, until they’re deemed gifted. Practice tests are widely available online for a fee.

Agensky is very good at being the parent of a gifted kid. She is frequently in the hallways of Amanda’s school, checking in with teachers about Amanda’s various accommodations outlined in her individualized education plan.

(Many gifted parents will talk about “dual exceptionalities,” pointing out that giftedness can coexist with any number of diagnoses, like ADHD, dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorder, or anxiety. In fact, duality may not be terribly common: one study out of the US found only about 14 percent of kids designated gifted are “twice exceptional.”)

The week we met, Agensky had been at Northern to talk to a teacher about why Amanda needs to doodle in class. Agensky pointed out that Amanda is a “kinetic learner” and both her psychiatrist and psychologist have said that she focuses better if she’s doodling. “She said she’d never heard of that accommodation,” Agensky told Amanda, catching her up on the news. “What? That’s crazy! There are so many kids who need to doodle,” said Amanda.

Shyly, Amanda showed me her notebook, filled with pencil drawings of anime-esque characters and a hands-on-hips warrior woman. Gesturing at a button-sized rodent figure, she said: “He makes me laugh because, even though he looks like that, he’s a magic crime boss. I call him the pig fox.”

Agensky was beaming. When she looked at her daughter, it was clear that she wants what all parents want: her kid to be happy, to be recognized for who she is, and to thrive. Agensky is convinced that gifted facilitated all of that. Of course, whether Amanda’s burgeoning happiness is a result of the care that’s arrived with her various diagnoses or the gifted program itself is hard to unbraid. But, either way, Agensky is certain that taking the program away from Amanda would be akin to shoving her off a lifeboat.

The gifted program is a relatively little one within the TDSB: it accounts for only 2.6 percent of the population of 250,000 students—around 4,000 in congregated (separate) classes and 2,000 in regular classes with gifted-specific programming. But Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto who has researched inequity at specialized arts schools, notes that both gifted and arts-school parents are small but mighty cohorts. “These are really wealthy, really savvy people with really good connections,” he said. “Students don’t end up in gifted education, in French immersion, in specialized arts high schools by accident. They end up there because their parents have the resources, have been mobilizing these resources to craft a certain kind of childhood from the moment these kids are born.”

Kids in gifted aren’t a reflection of who’s in the TDSB. White students made up one-third of the sample in one study but almost 50 percent of the gifted students. Black students made up 11 percent of the total sample but just under 3 percent of gifted. (Sixty percent of gifted students were male.) The common feature of kids in specialized programs like French immersion and gifted is university-educated parents. Gaztambide-Fernandez’s research shows that there are huge swathes of parents, particularly newcomers and those with lower incomes, who don’t have the free time during the workweek to advocate for their kids’ admission to specialized programs, prep applications, and bug the right teachers. In the most diverse school district in the country, many lack English-language skills or even awareness that these programs exist.

“Choice is really only available to those with the capacity to choose,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of the independent public-education think tank People for Education. And even with all this choice, she says, socio-economic status is still a major predictor of success in school.

In 2016, in an effort to correct the representation imbalance in gifted, the TDSB moved to a three-part universal-testing process for all kids in grade three, not just those nominated by teachers or parents. No one knows yet if this will change the makeup of the gifted program, but there is an encouraging precedent. When universal screening for gifted was introduced in one school district in Florida, the percentage of admissions tripled for Hispanic and black pupils.

But if more kids get designated gifted, it’s likely that even more will leave their home schools, hollowing out—or even shutting down—local schools, as kids flee to other programs. Agensky has noticed that while parents scramble to get their kids into Northern, they scramble equally hard to make sure their kids don’t go to the local school that many of them, including Amanda, are zoned to attend.

I thought about the kids in that neighbourhood school and what Amanda is missing by not knowing them and what they’re missing by not knowing her, a sweet kid with a wild imagination and a love for the pig fox. But making decisions for your very real kid that serve a theoretical greater good is a tough sell for parents, and that’s how many gifted parents feel about the mere discussion of a TDSB where all kids are put together in one room with extra supports, as per the recommendations of the first draft of the equity report.

“Equity in and of itself is certainly a worthwhile goal,” said Agensky. “But being a gifted kid in a mainstream classroom was not good for my daughter. It wasn’t good for her emotional development, for her social development, or for her academic development. And please—where the hell is the TDSB going to get the money to train [all their] teachers to handle a mixed classroom?”

Amanda puts it more bluntly: “Gifted kids self-segregate anyway. A lot of them don’t want to meet other people.” For her, the all-in classroom holds little appeal. “I have these worlds in my head, and I feel like I finally have people I can share them with. Without gifted, the world that I found where I sort of belong would disappear.”

Gifted is a historically elastic term and a frequently troubling one. In 1869, the book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequence, by Francis Galton, set forth the idea that intelligence is biologically determined. (The word genius comes from the same root word as gene.) Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman attempted to quantify intellect in the early twentieth century, standardizing the IQ test as a measure of innate intelligence. There was, at that time, no accounting for the cultural biases inherent in test taking, and results reinforced an already prevalent, very Western and Romantic, idea of genius as the domain of white, wealthy, well-born men. In 1925, Terman concluded that the heredity of gifted people “is much superior to that of the average individual” and that the gifted were more likely to be white with less “Latin and negro ancestry.” Of course, we know now that there’s no biological association between race or gender and ability, but back then, the jump from hereditary genius to flat-out eugenics was a short one.

Leta Stetter Hollingworth, Columbia University psychologist and another early champion of gifted education, kicked against her field’s hateful footings by acknowledging that environment had an impact on intelligence (though she, too, was a big believer in hereditary gifts). In 1936, she began identifying and teaching gifted kids across class and race boundaries. She prescribed a compassionate classroom where teachers offered active-learning techniques designed to dispel boredom and follow the kids’ leads—which sounds not so different from today’s gifted curriculum or Amanda’s description of her favourite classes at Northern.

Pioneers in the gifted field promised that their research could identify future leaders and successful adults, and in this way, giftedness has always been linked to a nation-building agenda. Gifted kids were, and still are, looked upon as a resource demanding to be mined. Neglect their talents at the peril of your country’s competitiveness, advocates have warned. When Sputnik launched in 1957, so did panic among American and Canadian governments scrambling to keep up with Russian advances. There are records of gifted programs in Ontario as early as 1914, but according to University of British Columbia historian Jason Ellis, it wasn’t until the post-Sputnik late ’50s that Toronto saw widespread implementation of gifted programs in high schools.

Today, the test for giftedness used in Ontario, and much of the world, is an IQ test called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which assesses cognitive functioning in verbal comprehension, visual-spatial indexes, and fluid reasoning. The number of students in designated gifted classes in the TDSB increased between the 2008/09 and 2014/15 academic years from 3,280 to 4,231. It’s unlikely that kids are suddenly becoming more gifted, but diagnoses of all learning disabilities have ticked up around the world, including in Toronto. The happy interpretation of this shift is that, at last, the system has become better at recognizing kids whose needs, like Amanda’s, were for too long overlooked. The darker read is that in a time of internet doctoring and medicalizing of behaviour previously considered not such a big deal, kids are being overdiagnosed. Or perhaps the desirability of the gifted program means that more parents are manoeuvring to get their kids a placement. Who wouldn’t pursue smaller classes and enriched programming if the alternative is the overcrowded mainstream classroom?

But kids pick up on the label’s social currency, which quickly cements as identity. The TDSB can deem giftedness a special need, but the very word feels more like an anointment (is its opposite “gift-less”?). One large local middle school in a neighbourhood near U of T contains four different streams: gifted, French immersion, extended French, and regular. An unhappy thirteen-year-old in the regular stream described the school to his mom as a “caste system,” where kids who weren’t in specialized programs were referred to (and referred to themselves) as “normies” or “gen pop”—as in the mass population wandering a prison yard.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Better, probably, to make sure your kid is special. One teacher who recently retired from a west-end elementary school described seeing parents and kids weeping in the halls when test results came back without the gifted designation. The pressure became so intense in her final years of teaching that she eventually refused to nominate anyone. (The students would usually get the test through another teacher.) Kids live up to the expectations we set for them, she said, and so giftedness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I worked with so many kids who had this gifted designation, and they were all so normal. Many of them have a spark, a curiosity, but they don’t really need anything more than what any kid needs, which is a group of diverse people and a good teacher to help show them how to navigate the world as a regular person.”

It’s pretty weird, really, that a label bestowed at age eight stays with you straight through high school, especially when the results of IQ tests have been shown to be notoriously changeable: they are contingent on many factors unrelated to ability, including family environment and economic status.

Carl James, a professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, sees giftedness as something else: a construct built on myriad assumptions and expectations. He co-authored a 2017 report on race inequity in TDSB schools. Researchers interviewed black parents and students across the city to understand what was causing higher drop-out rates, poor academic performance, suspensions, and such meagre representation in the most academically prestigious corridors of the system. “That construct of who is bright and who is not bright depends on where students are located, the kinds of schools they attend, the teachers they have,” he said, pointing to research that shows black students with black teachers are more likely to be identified as gifted than those who don’t have black teachers.

James is unconvinced that the move to universal testing will balance the representation in gifted programs. “We have to look at biases inherent in the process. Who sets the test? Who analyzes the test? What knowledge is being measured and brought to the test? If we think the gifted test is objective, we’re not paying attention.”

Back in January, at that TDSB meeting, Braxton Wignall made a statement in front of the trustees, too, breaking the flow of the Northern gifted kids’ testimonials. Wignall, a twenty-three-year-old black man, was there to advocate for alternative schools. As a kid in Scarborough, an inner suburb of Toronto, Wignall had been a fast learner but frequently in trouble: he describes his young self as having a “negative attitude.” He also asked a ton of questions. After turning in a highly descriptive horror story for Halloween in grade three, he was suspended for being a threat to classmates. His mother fought for a reversal and won. (One report showed that black students in Toronto were three times more likely to be suspended than white students.) Wignall’s mother pointed out the quality of the writing to the teacher, and he was tested for gifted. He got the designation. “I still have the test results,” he said. But because he had behavioural issues, Wignall recalled being told that he couldn’t go to the school with a gifted program, which was out of district and would have required busing anyway. A counsellor asked if they had tried medicating him. One kid’s precocity is another’s ADHD.

Wignall went on to a large high school that his stepdad, a postal worker, and mom, a health care administrator, attended in the ’90s. Restless and clashing with his classmates, he made a move in grade eleven to SEED, an alternative school in Riverdale, a gentrified, leafy neighbourhood on the east side of the city. He loved it. “I didn’t know there was so much life beyond the little microcosm of Scarborough. I met so many different kinds of people, and they wanted to learn. Where I came from, education was a means to get out, it wasn’t a means to better yourself,” he said. He graduated in 2014 and went on to study early childhood education. Today, he’s a youth worker in after-school programs in Scarborough.

Wignall is still bothered by the fact that most of his friends and their parents in Scarborough had never heard of SEED or many of the TDSB’s specialized offerings. What’s the cost of their absence? “If we miss out on the creative potential of these kids…the costs are not just financial—the costs of a justice system, a correctional system,” says James. “The real cost is a society that is truly democratic, a more harmonious society where people are able to live with a level of respect for each other.” Change must happen on an institutional level, says James, delivered by schools and school boards improving admissions, outreach, and curriculum. Waiting for parents to stop acting individualistically where their kids are concerned is a dead end. After all, he asked, “Who doesn’t want his or her child to be seen or thought of as bright?”

All of this fighting and anxiety is based—at least in theory—on one assumption: that gifted kids do better. Three Ontario professors, Gillian Parekh, Robert Brown, and Karen Robson, published a paper this summer called “The Social Construction of Giftedness,” examining this conviction. Their question was simple: If the point of gifted programs is to identify the potential of great aptitude in the lower grades, then is that aptitude realized by the time those students hit grade twelve?

After analyzing several years of TDSB data, the researchers concluded that being in the gifted program makes little difference in overall achievement by the end of high school. The highest achievers in the TDSB—the kids with the best grades and highest university-acceptance rates—were not actually the kids who tested gifted early on. “Most students with gifted identifications were not among the very high achievers,” they wrote. And “most very high achieving students did not have a gifted designation.” Race, class, and gender informed both giftedness and high achievement, but differently: “Male students are more likely to be deemed gifted, but less likely to be high achievers.” South, Southeast, and East Asian students are more likely than white students to be high achievers. In other words, a label at age eight is a badge of potential that belongs mostly to white, affluent boys, but that potential is fulfilled by other kids—mostly Asian females, who are among the highest achieving students in the TDSB and unlikely to be designated gifted.

“I haven’t found an article or a study that [convincingly] shows that it is the actual congregation of students in a self-contained program that is the key feature or benefit of the gifted program,” said Parekh. “I have seen a lot of articles suggesting that the programming, the enrichment, is actually what supports students better. And, if that’s the case, then I question why there has to be a separate program specifically for students that gained pathways in the assessment phase when they were quite young.” In other words, all those creative, innovative techniques used in gifted classrooms—the ones that, at least in part, helped Amanda—could be deployed to great effect for students throughout the system.

Since the early 2000s, the eyes of education researchers have been fixed on Finland, which began producing some of the highest scores in math, science, and reading in the world. There, sorting children by ability is illegal. Kids aren’t required to start school until seven; publicly subsidized daycares emphasize creative play. From the earliest years, students co-learn in mixed classes with good student-teacher ratios and well-paid, highly accredited, well-supported teachers. Alongside rigorous academics and high expectations, all students receive a vocational education, learning to cook, sew, and work with their hands. In Finland, streaming comes around age sixteen, after the same basic education has been completed by everyone, at which point, 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. On these principles, Finland rose to the top of international rankings.

Scandi-envy does get tiresome, and it’s reasonable to question just how portable these ideas are, brewed as they are in a lab with a tiny, homogenous population. Recently, Finland’s ranking has dropped a few spots, and cracks in the system have appeared, including reports of parents in Helsinki angling for more gifted programs. But the rate of post-secondary education is still extremely high, and the Finnish economy has benefited from its well-educated population—a nation-building project that seems to have succeeded without giftedness.

In May, I went up to Northern on one of the first sunny days of the year. The eighty-eight-year-old school was used in the 2013 remake of the movie Carrie, and it has that cinematic, Gothic high-school look, with decorative stone “grotesques” pulling faces from above.

I was meeting Fiona Broughton and Samantha Paradi-Maropakis, then grade-eleven girls in the gifted program. As we looked for a place to sit on the grassy ground and eat the mini doughnuts I’d brought, kids were leaving for the day. Gifted is just one program in the school. The mix of kids looked like Toronto, with hijabs and track shorts and different languages spilling through the doors. Everyone seemed a little sweaty in the heat. A girl stopped Fiona and Sam and moaned about bombing a French oral: “Oh my God, I couldn’t remember the word for bed, and I just kept talking in French, and every time I got to the word bed I just said bed in English!” Fiona and Sam murmured their understanding.

Both Sam and Fiona talked about being bookish kids who grew up around adults who valued education. Fiona’s grandfather was a professor, and whenever she had a question about how something worked, he would sit her down and walk her through it: here’s electricity; here’s thunder. Both girls were at the TDSB meeting in January. “It felt like everything was decided before we even got there, by some people in spinny chairs,” said Sam.

They love being in the gifted program. They’re preternaturally confident and articulate. Fiona writes for the school paper. Sam’s favourite class last year was Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Fiona talked about the intellectual “rabbit holes” that her gifted friends often go down, ruminating on time and space, basically tripping out on the big questions. In the regular program, she was bored. She’d figure out a concept right away, then go back to reading her book.

“My opinion is that we should have many, many more specialty programs in the TDSB,” said Fiona. But how can a public system be all things to all people, I asked. What happens to the resources? “I could see how you could abolish gifted if you replaced everything with excellent, enriched courses,” said Sam. “The intention shouldn’t be to put everyone at the same level, it should be to bring everyone to the highest level.” This, of course, is precisely the argument against removing kids from regular classrooms and putting them into gifted ones.

Last year, our son started grade nine in the International Baccalaureate stream, a specialized academic program. Our reasons for picking it were complicated and uncomplicated: we like the program (so does he—this week, anyway), and it’s inside the local public school we’re zoned for, which is in a low-income neighbourhood. The IB student population is not predominantly white, and the program has far fewer barriers to entry: good, but not remarkable, grades are required. And the school is close to home, no busing necessary. All these kids on buses to specialized programs looks uncomfortably close to the segregation it already hints at.

In our family, we have the luxury to see if the IB program is the right fit for our fourteen-year-old. And I have to admit that if his needs change, we’ll probably sharpen our elbows, shore up our privilege, and find a better option, because to us, options are available.

But even after we chose the school and sent him off on day one with a new backpack, I kept wondering about our obligation to others. There’s love in these choices we make for our kids but something uglier too. When we scramble to be set apart and above our neighbours and strangers we’ll likely never meet, when we build systems that perpetuate hierarchies, and when we claw for our own tiny piece of excellence—we aren’t calling on the best parts of ourselves, the aspirational generous parts that lie at the core of public education.

Is any of this necessary? And ringing in my ears is something Sam said sitting cross-legged on the grounds of Northern when I asked what high school would have been like for her if she hadn’t been in gifted. “To be honest,” she said, “I probably would have been fine anywhere.”

Katrina Onstad is a journalist and novelist who has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Toronto Life. Her most recent book, The Weekend Effect, was released last year.

Jeannie Phan (jeanniephan.com) draws for Quill & Quire and the New York Times.




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