Toronto swimming pools: Class in session

One of the strongest arguments put forward to save the school pools in the TDSB has been the issue of equitable access to a public resource. Or as the headline on the Globe and Mail article by Margaret Atwood put it, without pools, “Rich kids swim. Poor kids sink.

Critics have groused because swimming pools seem a unjustified demand on the public purse for a perk which many school boards outside Toronto do not enjoy.

However, the argument goes, school pools allow students who don’t have access to summer cottages and camp to learn a basic survival skills.

It’s a debating point that has held some sway. Last week, the TDSB voted to save twenty pools, and to put 13 more on hold while the schools look for further support. Seven pools will be closed. [Declaration of potential conflict of interest: A pool will be closing at a high school which my son will be attending next year.]

Given the relentless cuts over the years, the news came as somewhat of a relief.

A closer look, though, at the pools which have been saved gives some credence to the “pools as perks for the already privileged” argument.

The list of saved pools (Forest Hill, Lawrence Park and Humberside, among others) are in some of the toniest parts of Toronto. Similarly, the list of closing pools (Bickford Centre, Central Commerce and Parkdale among others) are in poorer neighbourhoods. Such anecdotal evidence requires a closer examination.

Using these schools’ ranks on the TDSB’s Learning Opportunity Index lets us see who has won this fight. The Learning Opportunity Index uses student-level data to rank schools according to their socioeconomic bracket. The Stats Can taxfiler data measures include the percentage of students below the Low Income Measure and the percentage of families on social assistance. The higher on the Index a school is, the more rich student population is.

A rough analysis, breaking the schools into upper, middle and lower tiers shows that schools in richer neighbourhoods are the ones being saved.

Of the 20 pools which have been saved:

  • 12 [60%] of the school pools (8 high schools and 4 elementary pools) are in the top third of the LOI (i.e. the schools with the richest students)
  • 6 [30%] of the saved pools are in “middle-class” high schools, and
  • 2 [10%] of the pools which will remain open, in high schools, are in the bottom third (the neediest schools).

Comparatively, looking at the 20 pools that are still threatened or being closed, poorer schools fared worse:

  • 2 elementary school in the upper tier have a pool being put on hold.
  • 8 pools in middle tier schoolsface a threat
    • 4 closed;
    • 4 threatened (3 high schools + 1 elementary)
  • 10 pools in the poorest tier are under threat
    • 3 closed (2 high schools + Bickford Centre);
    • 7 threatened (5 high schools + 2 elementary)

Troubling, indeed.

The sample skews in favour of schools in more well-heeled neighbourhoods, but this may be a result of a “sampling error.” Perhaps more of the  pools are simply located in richer schools and so, by saving them, more “rich pools” will be saved.

So, there’s another way to examine this.

Let’s look at the number of pools saved against the number of pools threatened in each of these three income tiers. If these numbers are disproportionate then we may have evidence of a systemic problem of classism.

Sadly, these numbers tell the same biased story.

  • In the top tier, 14 pools were threatened. 12 are being saved, or six-sevenths of them (86%).
  • In the middle tier of schools, 14 pools were threatened. 7 of them are being saved (or half).
  • In the bottom tier, the poorest schools, 2 pools have been saved of the threatened 11  + the unranked Bickford Centre for Adult Students & Continuing Education. (So one in six or 17% of these pools which serve poorer students has been saved.)

Also worth noting is that the only 4 pools in elementary schools which are being saved are all in the top bracket.  However, two “top tier” elementary school have been put on hold, as have six other elementary schools, all in the middle or bottom tier.

It’s a pretty damning picture. “Higher class” pools are five times as likely to be saved as pools in the poorest schools and twice as likely to be saved as pools in the middle tier.

How can this be so?

Part of the way this has fallen out may well be because one of the key criteria used to determine whether a pool would be saved, that is whether it could “generate sufficient revenue to offset operating costs.” Pools which serve richer populations are probably more likely to be able to do so. It was a sound decision — without the further vetting needed to assure it was an equitable one.

There’s no maliciousness here, but no one asked the question, so we have created further inequalities along class lines.

If our public education system is to meet its stated ideal of leveling the playing field for all students, another look at this decision must be taken. Rich kids are swimming, and the poor ones aren’t.

For list of school pools and their status, see more.
School pools to be saved and their rank on LOI (of 475 elementary & 111 secondary):

Allenby Junior Public (465)

AY Jackson Secondary (94)

Deer Park Public (436)

Glenview Public (463)

Harbord CI (69)

Keel St. Public (371)

Lawrence Park CI (111)

Newtonbrook Secondary (73)

Northern Secondary (107)

RH King Academy (59)

Riverdale CI (58)

Stephen Leacock (65)

Westview Centennial (2)

North Toronto CI (108)

Malvern CI (106)

George S. Henry Academy (74)

West Toronto CI (23)

Rosedale Heights School of the Arts (90)

Forest Hill CI (101)

Humberside CI (104)

School pools on hold and their rank on LOI

Carleton Village Public (57)

Central Technical (33)

Downsview Secondary (7)

Earl Grey Public (342)

Fern Avenue Public (383)

George Harvey CI (10)

Jarvis CI (29)

Kensington Community School (196)

Monarch Park (35)

Queen Alexandra (36)

Western Technical (63)

McMurrich Junior Public (311)

SATEC @ WA Porter CI (56)

School pools to be closed and their LOI rank

Bickford Centre (unranked)

Bloor CI (45)

Central Commerce (18)

Danforth CTI (47)

Oakwood CI (57)

Parkdale CI (37)

Western Technical (61)

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