When the children and adults of Thorncliffe Park make the long descent from their 30- and 40-story apartment buildings to the streets below, they find few open places to gather and socialize in the densely populated suburban neighborhood that surrounds them.
One exception is the Thorncliffe Park Public School.
Located in the heart of this diverse immigrant community in Toronto, the neat, contemporary site teems with 1,600 schoolchildren by day. The bustling activity continues well into the evening, with children crowding playgrounds as doting parents look on or compete in their own soccer or baseball games.
As of late, a visitor might also see Muslim women filing into classrooms on Friday evenings for a night out with friends, or pint-size basketball players being tutored in jumpshots in the gym by local Filipino volunteers.
These days, it seems as though the lights at Thorncliffe Park Public School rarely go off. And that’s just how local officials want it.
With the needs of this neighborhood in mind, Toronto school district officials joined forces earlier this year with city officials to design an innovative program that greatly expands community use of public schools. Thanks to the popular program, the doors of the school’s indoor gyms and classrooms are now open long after the school day ends and into the night.
Toronto Mayor David Miller and school district leaders announced the groundbreaking, one-year pilot program this past spring that would allow community groups to use some school facilities, including Thorncliffe Park Public School, for no cost, at almost any time outside of school hours, as part of a broader community-safety initiative.
Though they are pleased with the program so far, school and city officials did not fully anticipate the costs associated with the program, the apprehensiveness of school officials about opening their doors at any hour, or the flurry of media attention. Most of all, they were unprepared for the overwhelming response from community groups that rushed to take advantage of the offer.
Far from second-guessing their planning, however, district leaders say that the demand reaffirms the need for such a program.
“It’s a 24-7 concept, and that’s our commitment,” says Rauda Dickinson, a superintendent for the 300,000-student Toronto schools, which is the largest district in Canada. “If [the communities] want to open their schools on Christmas Day and it costs us triple, that’s our commitment.”
Community use of schools is hardly a new concept in Canada or in the United States, where schools have traditionally been the centerpieces of their communities. In the United States, architects and school officials are designing schools to allow more community use of spaces such as libraries, health centers, and fitness facilities, and even use by commercial businesses.
But even U.S. administrators and facility designers agree that Toronto’s approach of a joint city-school venture that invests heavily in opening public schools to community groups on weekends and late at night is unusual. Canadians have long embraced community-use programs in their schools, to the point that some residents view access to the publicly funded buildings as a right.
Here in the province of Ontario, though, school leaders say their efforts to accommodate community groups were stifled by nearly a decade of rule by conservative lawmakers, who were more focused on academic improvements.
District officials say that during that time, schools could not afford to keep their doors open past regular school hours. As a result, they contend, crime and dropout rates have increased dramatically in recent years.
But since the Liberal Party took control of the provincial and city governments last year and freed up money for after-hour activities, school officials have begun rebuilding some of the organized activities that these communities once had.
One of Toronto’s neediest areas is the neighborhood of Malvern, about 15 miles north of the city’s center.
Malvern lacks the telltale abandoned buildings or vandalism that characterize many blighted U.S. neighborhoods. Instead, well-built brick houses and apartment buildings line its curving parkways. Nonetheless, the area has become known for drive-by shootings and other crimes.
With that in mind, 30 or so high school students have joined one of the programs started since the community-use program began last spring. The program, called My Life, is dedicated to studying ways to help improve the image of Malvern. Two professors from local universities lead the program and are teaching the students how to conduct academic research projects.
At 7:30 on a recent fall evening, the students gathered in small groups to discuss how to form focus groups to get feedback on their mission of enhancing the community’s image.
The mere existence of the group seems to be a good first step: Christina Hutchison, 16, says that she sees a great need for efforts like My Life and other recreational activities at the schools. “All people can do here is go to the local mall and gossip,” she says.
Nearly every one of Malvern’s recent school-use programs has filled to capacity, says Jennifer Robinson, a community member who is helping organize the project. The programs offer activities for youngsters who aren’t necessarily interested in sports, she adds.
“Kids here are not focused on education, and we need to have them do something productive,” she says. Now, says Robinson, “kids are eager to come into the schools, and we expect the community to take back ownership of its schools.”
Most of the groups that are requesting space at the Thorncliffe Park school want to use its field space or its three gyms for sports—efforts that school officials say have been overwhelmingly successful.
This past summer, for instance, a local resident organized a soccer clinic for 60 children. More than 200 showed up.
But there are also many other groups, including a card group for Tamil senior men, a Muslim women’s social group, a creative-writing group, numerous mentoring programs, as well as local apartment tenants’ meetings and religious or cultural celebrations.
Groups must reapply every semester for time slots. This policy ensures that the use of the facility is allocated fairly. In assigning spaces, school administrators consider the number of people a group attracts, and look for a variety of programs. They don’t, however, evaluate the content of the programs.
Thorncliffe Park school officials have had to work through several conflicts involving groups that requested the same space at the same time.
They regretted having to turn down an application for an Islamic celebration at which leaders wanted to serve ice cream to about 1,400 local children. The school simply did not have enough freezer space and couldn’t accommodate a new freezer, says Paul Wells, the vice principal at Thorncliffe Park.
Toronto school district officials view their city’s initiative for free space as a one-year learning process, and will decide by July 1 of next year whether to continue the program. They are contracting local researchers to gauge the program’s impact on communities.
The five neighborhoods chosen by the district to host the program were deemed in the greatest need for community activities based on crime and poverty data. Local councils of school officials and community members were then formed and charged with implementing the program.
District administrators quickly found, by working through the local community panels, that the communities did not want one school to be open all day and night seven days week—the “24-7” idea that had been proposed initially. Each council decided to split the days that schools are open between several different sites, usually capping the time of use at 11 p.m. or midnight.
Numerous permits have been given to Toronto community groups to use the Thorncliffe Park Public School.
• Communication and literacy- enhancement training for teens and adults, 5-7 p.m.
• Creative-writing group for teens, 7-9 p.m.
• Youth and adult sports development for the Filipino community, 6-8 p.m.
• Recreational activities for Islamic men, 8 p.m.-midnight.
• Workshops for internationally trained professionals, 9 a.m.-noon
• Recreational activities for Islamic youths, 8 a.m.-noon
• Gathering for Muslim women, 10 a.m.-1p.m.
• Soccer for kids, 6-9 p.m.
• Tutoring, mentoring, and counseling for teens, 1-4 p.m.
Because of space and security constraints, the programs must take place after school hours.
“It’s not that we put any restrictions on the idea of 24-7,” says David Reid, Toronto’s director of education. On the other hand, the district did not want to require full-time use of the schools. “We didn’t want the communities concerned,” he explains, “that someone’s going to be knocking around at 4 a.m.”
Local school staff members were apprehensive about security and vandalism.
“We had some great concerns initially, and as an administrator you’re always looking at safety and security,” says Wells. “Those fears escalate when you’re not there.”
Heather McGoey, a vice principal at nearby Grenoble Public School, added that many of her teachers were wary of allowing others to use their classrooms. Though there is a tradition of community use of schools in Toronto, the policy had not typically extended beyond sports facilities and into classrooms.
But both McGoey and Wells say those fears were alleviated once the programs began over the summer. “The community has been incredibly respectful” of the school building, Wells says. “They’ve treated it like it’s their house.”
The district estimates that it will cost between $1.2 million and $2.2 million annually, in U.S. dollars, to run the program.
All the money to staff and maintain the facilities comes from the provincial government under a school finance reform in the late 1990s that took away the district’s ability to raise property taxes.
But there are other costs as well.
Already, the district’s school board has seen its oversight duties increase, so it hired a full-time administrative assistant and began paying a retired principal to attend meetings of the five local councils and report back to the board.
And though nearly everyone here supports the program, the costs are a concern, given that the Toronto school district is falling behind on maintenance and construction of its buildings.
District leaders are hoping to see more monetary contributions from businesses and nonprofit groups, such as the United Way, which recently donated $175,000 for the program.
“There’s no question in my mind that there’s a huge demand for free space, but at what cost to the board’s budget?” says trustee Gerri Gershom, whose constituency includes the Thorncliffe Park community. “This is something we can’t do in all our schools, or every day, because this is money coming from our capital budget.”
Each time a group uses the space, the district must pay the overtime costs for a maintenance person to open the building and stand guard during its use. Weekend use is the most expensive, because heating systems and lights would otherwise be turned off to save electricity costs. Then there are the less tangible costs of wear and tear on buildings and equipment.
In fact, the Thorncliffe Park school’s head caretaker, Rob Van Onlanges, says additional security staffing needs to be added when groups with hundreds of people use the school’s spaces.
Some district officials also worry that the administrative tasks will take a toll on school employees.
“This is a part of the growing pains of not knowing how much work is involved,” says Dickinson, the superintendent. If this type of project continues, she adds, she’ll need a “very dedicated staff” to carry on the extra scheduling and administrative duties.
Now that the program is being tested, others worry that shutting it down after next July would lead to more of the same social problems that the program seeks to help remedy.
Ontario’s Minister of Education Gerard Kennedy, who has led efforts to restore community use to all of Ontario’s schools, advocates another reason to support the program: The province’s top education official and member of the Liberal Party wants the 75 percent of Ontario residents who do not have children in school to be able to use the buildings because they are taxpayers.
“Not to confuse the goal of education,” he says, “but we think it is borderline criminal to have empty fields and empty classrooms when they could be used by communities who desperately want to use them.”
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
Vol. 24, Issue 08, Pages 34-38Published in Print: October 20, 2004, as Open-Door Policy