Students walk inside York Memorial high school, which descended into chaos after the TDSB amalgamated two schools and opened the building without proper resources

Epic Fail

In 2022, the Toronto District School Board consolidated two high schools into one crumbling, crowded building. Within weeks, stressed-out students were brawling in the halls. Teachers refused to come in to work. Parents yanked their kids out of class. Inside York Memorial’s descent into chaos

By Danielle Groen| Photography by Steph Martyniuk
| May 23, 2023

On May 6, 2019, just after 2 p.m., something caught fire in the auditorium at York Memorial Collegiate Institute. At first, no one hustled to evacuate the 90-year-old building—everyone assumed the alarm was a prank or a drill. But, when staff and students finally assembled outside, they spotted flames licking the windows of the second floor. Glass shattered and fell onto cars in the parking lot. Smoke and sirens filled the air. Responders sped to the school and, by 5 p.m., had the situation under control. Then, overnight, the blaze rekindled. It took 150 firefighters with aerial water cannons more than 10 hours to wrangle the fire into submission. By then, parts of the third floor had collapsed into the flooded basement, and the roof and front exterior were completely gone. Textbooks, lesson plans, backpacks, laptops—everything left behind in York Memorial burned.

The next morning, some 900 shell-shocked students and teachers reported to George Harvey Collegiate Institute, located on Keele Street, barely 700 metres south. Administrators at the Toronto District School Board decided that the students would ride out the year there. On paper, the move seemed an obvious choice: George Harvey’s enrolment had dropped to 500, half the TDSB’s ideal size for secondary schools, and the sprawling building had space for both student bodies to run their own schedules. In practice, however, many of the unused classrooms at George Harvey were falling apart. The building had water damage, mould and ventilation issues. There weren’t enough art rooms and science labs for the influx of kids; drama and dance classes had to be held in the halls. Students from both schools packed the stairwells, displaced and disoriented.

At open houses and information sessions, parents pleaded with the board for another solution. In mid-June, the TDSB conceded that, while George Harvey technically had the physical capacity to take on extra students, the facilities wouldn’t cut it without $800,000 in time-consuming renovations and repairs. Moving York Memorial elsewhere would allow both schools to deliver their own programs in actual classrooms. So the TDSB rifled through its list of vacant buildings and landed on Scarlett Heights, a few kilometres west, closed the previous year due to underutilization. Roughly $1.8 million in insurance money from the fire went toward sprucing up the building. The renovations also preserved Scarlett Heights’ value for any future arrangements, like selling the property to, say, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which had already signalled its interest.

In 2019, a six-alarm fire ripped through Toronto's York Memorial Collegiate Institute, destroying the building and everything left inside it
In 2019, a six-alarm fire ripped through York Memorial Collegiate, destroying the building and everything left inside it. Photo by CP Images

In September 2019, York Memorial staff and students arrived at Scarlett Heights to a fixed roof, a better HVAC system, fresh equipment and desks—and, soon afterward, a proposal from the board to send them back to George Harvey in 2021. This time, the TDSB recommended that York Memorial and George Harvey be combined into a single, consolidated high school. (Once the original York Memorial was rebuilt, in 2026, George Harvey would close and everyone would move over together.) The TDSB justified its change of heart by arguing that the merger would address declining enrolment and what it calls “geographic redundancy” on top of providing all students with a wider range of academic programs. Unstated but inarguable: it’s significantly cheaper to run one school at full capacity than it is to run two underpopulated ones.

Opposition to the move was near-total. In surveys distributed at York Memorial, 93 per cent of students reported that they wanted to stay at Scarlett Heights until their new school was built.One student who’d been at the fire scrawled a plea across her form: “Please consider our mental health carefully.” At a meeting in March of 2020, George Harvey parents spoke about having chosen the school expressly for its small size; with York Memorial’s staff and students, that population would nearly triple. The pandemic paused any talk of the merger, but the TDSB resumed consultations in early 2021, with a plan to bring together York Memorial and George Harvey in September 2022. The latest proposal earmarked only $500,000 to retrofit George Harvey’s facilities, far less than the board had previously estimated.

Both schools marshalled what energy they had left to renew their objections. They emphasized the need, especially during a pandemic, for stability and structure, and they raised concerns about the toll of a forced consolidation. They didn’t see how all the repairs could be done in time or within the new budget. They worried about how the board planned to unite the student body and honour the identity of George Harvey, which would lose its name to York Memorial. At community meetings, TDSB superintendents and planners nodded sympathetically and thanked everyone for their comments. There was ample time for a successful consolidation next year, they promised. They’d get everything into shape. In mid-June 2021, all 18 TDSB trustees voted in favour of the merger. The two student bodies would become one.

Related: “My son was excluded from the TDSB’s alternative school lottery. Now, I’m pursuing legal action”

When the consolidated York Memorial opened, 14 months later, it was chaos. Despite staggered arrival times on the first day of school, the entire student population of 1,300 seemed to converge on the building at once. Kids were funnelled through the school’s main doors before stalling in a low-ceilinged foyer less than half the size of a tennis court, where they bottlenecked trying to collect their class schedules from the auditorium. Backpacks collided with bodies. Bodies collided with trophy cases and foyer walls. The sheer volume of teenagers sardined into the un-air-conditioned school made it feel like a sauna and smell like a locker room. One student estimated that it took 45 minutes to get near the auditorium, a distance usually covered in about 45 seconds at a languid pace. Another, who ended up heading back outside, told me, “It got to the point where I was like, Okay, I don’t need my timetable this bad—I need air.”

Once students could grab their timetables, they discovered pages that were half blank or half wrong, missing compulsory credits or with back-to-back-to-back spares. The TDSB had moved to a new scheduling system, and while those glitches were being addressed at York Memorial, kids had few places to go. The auditorium was getting repairs to its sound and lighting ­systems—beyond timetable pickup, it was closed. A new floor was being installed in the dance room—it was closed. The cafeteria upstairs was missing equipment—closed. The main gym, a giant space of more than 7,000 square feet—also closed. It was now a makeshift storage room, jammed with all the old George Harvey furniture that new stuff from Scarlett Heights had replaced: plastic chairs and wooden desks and metal tables were stacked four feet high and stretched across the entire gymnasium, cut down the middle by a narrow path.


On the second floor, columns of boxes sat unpacked and teetering against the lockers. In the basement, the stairwell was congested, steep and dimly lit. Kids began shoving one another at TTC stops outside as they struggled to board overcrowded buses home. All across the city that September, burnt-out teachers and stressed-out students returned to full-time learning in schools that were under-resourced and falling apart. But, at York Memorial, the TDSB’s poor planning and poorer choices propelled a bad first day into what would become a horrible year. “We spent so long telling the board that, if they were going to do this merger, just give us the time to do it right,” one teacher said. “Because there isn’t a single problem that has happened this year that we did not see coming.”     The TDSB—Canada’s biggest public school board by a mile—is land rich and cash poor. Approximately 235,000 students are scattered across nearly 600 schools, which makes the board one of the largest landowners in Toronto. Those properties, however, are in increasingly rough shape. Almost half, like George Harvey, are more than 60 years old, built for boomers and their children, now sitting underused and running on parts that are reaching or have sailed past the end of their lifespans. There are schools in urgent need of new boilers, new HVAC pumps, new roof coverings; for at least eight schools in Toronto, it would cost more to adequately repair them than it would to tear them down and start again. High schools are in the worst condition: in 2019, the board identified 30 secondary schools that each required at least $20 million in repairs. All told, the TDSB pegs its current repair backlog at $4.27 billion.

Meanwhile, the annual $3.5 billion that the TDSB receives from the provincial government doesn’t even cover its schools’ operating expenses. After accounting for salaries, classroom supplies, maintenance costs, transportation and IT, the board estimates that the provincial funding gap for 2022/23 will be more than $220 million. Educational underfunding is a long-standing issue in the province, but Doug Ford’s 2023 budget cut another $47 million. In Toronto, fewer students means even less money. Funding is determined by enrolment, and in the past five years, the TDSB has lost nearly 9,000 kids—a number that can, in part, be blamed on the pandemic, with students leaving public education, families leaving the city and immigration slowing down. This decline also exacerbates the problem of school underutilization, which plagued 20 per cent of the board’s buildings even before Covid.

And there are limits on how the board can supplement or manage its cash. Because the TDSB has excess school capacity across the city, it does not qualify under provincial rules for education development charges, the fees that property ­developers pay to offset the pressure that new residents place on local schools. (The Catholic board, which is eligible for EDCs, has collected and invested more than $200 million since 1998.) Nor can the board simply shutter some of its least-populated buildings and redistribute students elsewhere. Since 2017, there has been a moratorium on school closures, brought in by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government at the behest of parents and the Conservative opposition. Ontario schools recently asked education minister Stephen Lecce to lift the ban, but he has yet to engage in talks.

“I was freaking out. I’d wondered what would happen if we had a lockdown here. And then it came true”

  So, when the original York Memorial went up in flames, the TDSB was handed a rare opportunity. Those kids had to go somewhere—where better than the underused George Harvey just down the street? Never mind that the TDSB had never actually consolidated two schools under one identity in a single building before. Its enthusiasm might explain its haste.

The students who came through the front doors of York Memorial in 2022 had changed significantly since 2019, when the TDSB first publicly floated the merger. Two years of a global pandemic, at least 22 weeks of school closures (more than any other province), back-and-forth hybrid learning, disruption of extra­curricular activities and meal programs, turmoil in families and communities, persistent uncertainty and isolation—it all weighed on them. And, like everything in the pandemic, that weight was not distributed equally: Covid hit hardest in lower-income, racialized neighbourhoods such as York South–Weston, where the school is located.

Young people are now more likely to report anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thinking and self-harm. Teens have missed out on critical development stages, particularly when it comes to socialization and building relationships with peers and adults outside of their families. “Now they’re thrown back in schools that are intense sensory experiences,” says Jo Henderson, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the executive director of Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario. “There are hundreds of people in the hallways, noise, chaos—and you can’t just turn off your laptop camera. It’s very public. I think any reasonable person would feel challenged by that.”

Related: The TDSB’s rollout of online learning was an unmitigated disaster

Schools already lack the resources to deal effectively with those challenges, and the situation is about to get worse. Once the Ontario government terminates its pandemic funding at the end of August 2023, the TDSB will lose $31.5 million and be forced to cut 485 jobs, including child-and-youth workers, social workers, and educational assistants—the support staff who are best equipped to handle mental health concerns. Teachers are also contending with their own struggles from the pandemic, and it’s contributing to unprecedented levels of staff absenteeism. That adds to students’ stress, which increases teachers’ stress, which leads to greater absenteeism. More teachers’ college graduates won’t solve the problem. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation says there are currently 40,000 certified educators in the province who have taken positions in other fields. Teaching isn’t an especially appealing job right now.

The mental health challenges, combined with the decrease in staff and resources, have led to an unprecedented spike in school violence since students resumed full-time in-person learning last September, including physical and sexual assaults, robberies, and hate-based crimes. Weapons are more common than ever in schools. There was a fatal shooting outside Woburn Collegiate in November, a life-threatening stabbing at Birchmount Park ­Collegiate two weeks later and a drive-by shooting outside Weston Collegiate in February. The rising violence in schools mirrors the city at large, where there’s been an increase in violence both targeting and perpetuated by young people. If the trend continues, the TDSB will have its most violent school year on record since it began collecting data, in 2000.

“I’ve never seen a mental health situation like this,” says Usha KelleyMaharaj, a veteran science teacher at York Memorial. “We’ve reached the stage in schools where being mentally healthy is no longer the norm—it’s the exception.” In such an environment, York Memorial’s consolidation would have had to be seamless to avoid further stress on staff and students. It was a long way from that.     There’s a well-established playbook for engaging students at the start of a new school year: hold a welcome assembly, which sets the standard of conduct and lays out support services, then get intramural sports running so kids are kept active and engaged. But none of that happened at York Memorial in September. The two student bodies didn’t know each other, and there were no administration-led opportunities for them to meet—even the teachers weren’t introduced. The new principal and vice-­principals had been brought out of retirement or in from other schools, so they were strangers to everyone. And, quickly, their attention turned to chasing the TDSB to fix problems with the facilities.

“There had been no effort to make this look like a welcoming new amalgamated school, and the whole building was an environment of chaos,” said one teacher, who, like most people I spoke with, asked not to be named for fear of repercussions from the board. Windows in some rooms were broken or painted shut, the air circulation inside so wretched that overheated kids began fainting or left class to throw up. Bathrooms had not been outfitted for the change in student volume: they were low on toilet paper and high on plumbing problems. Classroom phones worked intermittently or not at all, so staffers couldn’t communicate with the office or summon help. Dozens of teachers couldn’t get themselves into the building or lock their rooms because they had no keys. For certain spaces, it hardly mattered—the art and dance studios, math classes, and staff bathrooms had no locks at all.

Then there were the classrooms without doors. In the middle of the second floor, by the elevator, a hallway had been divided with thick fabric panels into five windowless spaces that looked like office cubicles. The dividers didn’t reach the fibreboard ceiling tiles, and the entrances were just openings, so the rooms couldn’t be secured—an enormous safety concern in the event of a lockdown. At schools, lockdowns are called for two reasons: when there’s a threat outside the building, meaning only the exterior doors need to be bolted, and when the threat is inside, in which case teachers close and lock the doors of their classrooms, pull down the blinds and keep their students contained. The lockdown procedure must be rehearsed, like a fire drill. But the board hadn’t prepared one for York Memorial that took into consideration all the new staff, students and occupied spaces. Teachers working in the cubicle corridor assumed that, in the event of a lockdown, they’d have no other option but to latch the doors at the end of each hallway. That would have required a set of keys. “If anything happened,” a teacher told me, “everyone in that corridor would be a sitting duck.”

York Memorial collegiate students protesting over their school's lack of resources and chaotic dynamics outside of the TDSB offices

Students couldn’t believe that the school had been left so thoroughly unprepared. Over the course of the pandemic, in interviews conducted by CAMH, kids emphasized how invisible they felt in the decisions of policymakers. At York Memorial, the conditions made students feel like they weren’t even on the radar of their own board. That deep sense of unimportance curdled into anger, and a small minority of those students, somewhere between 50 and 100 from both schools, responded by lashing out.

Related: Inside the nasty, bizarro, contemptible gobsmackingly screwed-up soap opera that is the TDSB

At first, tensions spilled into the spaces that couldn’t accommodate the swell of students. “You walk down the hallway and you’re in the middle of something so physical,” a student said. “Out of nowhere, someone starts pushing. And then it’s like, How fast can I get away from this?” Soon, students began to sort out their differences in the school’s more remote spots. Previously, George Harvey and York Memorial each had three school-based safety monitors, who patrol for trouble and help de-escalate conflict. When the schools merged, the total number of safety monitors remained at three, which meant that back hallways and upper-floor bathrooms often went unsupervised. Fights broke out with increasing regularity—every week, especially on Fridays, and then, through October, every few days.

Students learned to bypass the places where fights were most likely to occur, but videos of the violence became unavoidable, sent around in class or circulated on social media. In one, two students frantically slap at each other in a claustrophobic boys’ bathroom as a small crowd surrounds them. In another, a student is shoved to the ground in front of a bank of blue lockers before a second student windmills and connects loudly with the back of his head. Talk of the fights was constant; everyone in the building was on edge.

Some Black students began to feel singled out. “Teachers would say it’s only one per cent that are causing a lot of the trouble, but the one per cent technically looked like me,” a student told me. Certain teachers, she said, began to view her warily—if they met her eyes in the hallway at all. Part of her wanted to say she wasn’t going to hurt them, and part of her didn’t want to have to reassure them at all. She felt isolated, and it sapped her motivation to make friends with teachers or students.

“Look, 20 years in the game—I’ve been through a lot of lockdowns,” says one teacher. “But this was the first time that I’ve been terrified”

  Suspensions were up at the school—20 in September, another 20 in October—but the administration couldn’t make discipline stick. Sometimes, teachers were caught in altercations. Grade 12 student Gloria Teba saw one male staff member get dragged into a fight between students he was trying to stop. Later, she witnessed a male student slap a much smaller female teacher outside, after the teacher had yelled at him for acting out. Another student heard that, after a vice-principal brought a student into the office to discipline him, he’d chucked a can of pop at her, which had exploded against the wall behind her head. “That’s the last I saw of her,” the student told me. “He was back the next day.”

A school’s administrative team is responsible for suspensions, but at York Memorial, most of the administration didn’t hang around long. In October, after a vice-principal confiscated a student’s backpack with marijuana inside, a few dozen students stormed the office and shouted threats to give it back or else. Someone kicked in the glass of one of the school’s front doors. The vice-principal went on leave. Another vice-principal reported receiving death threats and also took a leave. Within the first six weeks of the school year, 12 administrators cycled through the building, including the new principal, who left citing health reasons. The board summoned an acting principal out of retirement to take over.

Teachers began submitting Health and Safety Concern forms to a central TDSB committee. Initially, those reports focused on the facilities, but by early October, dozens of them involved student behaviour and violence. Although the TDSB is required to provide a written response to any Health and Safety Concern form within five days, teachers often heard nothing back. Maybe the board was overwhelmed by the sheer volume: in a typical year, a school files fewer than 10 of these forms. Over three months, teachers at York Memorial submitted 88.     On Friday, October 28, just before the last period of class, fights broke out around the building. The noise in the hallways was overwhelming: thunderous footsteps and swearing, large groups of kids ricocheting off lockers and banging on classroom doors. A shaky voice came over the PA system and ordered everyone back to class, but it had no effect. One teacher corralled her students into a classroom and dragged a desk in front of the door. Another teacher, stranded in one of the cubicle rooms without a door, ventured into the hall and found herself mobbed. Knots of students fought while girls screamed for the cops; one of them yelled for the teacher to “do something, you fucking bitch.” There were only two school-based safety monitors in the building that afternoon, and the acting principal was away. It’s the administration’s job to issue a lockdown, but no lockdown was called.

On the second floor, alone in a classroom, one teacher tried to phone the office—busy. She dialled the cell of the secretary, who, she learned, was working from home that day; the secretary suggested that she phone the office instead. The teacher listened to students slamming into lockers and felt her body begin to tremble, so she folded herself into a corner of the room, away from the window with broken blinds she couldn’t close, and called 911. The police told her to stay put until she was released. After 40 minutes, she heard cheering in the hall, then the final bell, then announcements for clubs. The cops arrived and the crowd dispersed. She let herself out of the room.

The board hadn’t listened when both communities warned against the merger. It didn’t help when 1,300 students descended on a school that was half-closed. Now, there seemed little urgency to address the escalating violence. York Memorial teachers decided to take drastic action. On the following Monday, 12 of them gathered in the parking lot and refused to work, citing unsafe conditions for themselves and students. Two more teachers joined the next day. It was an unprecedented number. In early 2022, five teachers from Bloor Collegiate refused to work as Omicron spread, but prior to that, in the history of the TDSB, the number of work refusals could be counted on one hand. Any work refusal automatically triggers an investigation from the Ministry of Labour, whose inspectors conduct visits, assess conditions and issue orders. Because of the number of complaints at York Memorial, teachers there were out for weeks while the investigation took place.

Related: “Every Black child needs an advocate in the school system—it’s how they survive”: A Q&A with the founder of Parents of Black Children

The board struggled to find bodies who could supervise classrooms. Supply teachers are already scarce, but few among the existing pool wanted to come into the school, so most vacancies remained unfilled. As a result, hundreds of students found themselves without teachers. The remaining administration herded them into the cafeteria, where there might be a single hall monitor and an attendance list sitting on the table. Educational instruction was practically non-existent. Kids quickly realized that they could check off their name and go. Some went to the library; some left the building. But a majority of the students, frustrated and restless, drifted into the hallways, where fights continued to break out. Police became a frequent presence. The TDSB had scrapped its controversial School Resource Officer program in 2017 after thousands of students, especially racialized youth, reported feeling monitored and intimidated by armed officers at school. Now, they were back at York Memorial, and some students felt targeted.

Parents started pulling their kids out and transferring them to Oakwood or Runnymede Collegiates or to private or virtual schools. Destiny Phillips-Thompson, a Grade 11 student, told me her mother raised the possibility of moving her to another school. Phillips-Thompson liked the idea of a fresh start, but she didn’t want to leave her friends, so her mother—unable to persuade her daughter to switch and unwilling to send her into York Memorial—kept her home for nearly a month. None of her teachers reached out to ask her what was going on or if they could help. She felt herself slipping further behind.

In mid-November, the Ministry of Labour finished its investigation and ordered the 14 teachers back to class. Not all of them returned; several opted to take medical leave instead. After the inspection, the TDSB did repair some class phones and broken locks. But there was no concrete plan to address the resentment and rancour in the building. And then, around 2 p.m. on November 15, the office heard that someone inside had a gun. A staff member called 911, and a voice came over the PA: Lockdown. Lockdown. This is not a drill.

York Memorial CI and George Harvey Collegiate Institute students at a December protest after a rise of chaos and violence at their amalgamated school
Epic Fail: Inside York Memorial high school's descent into chaos
Grade 11 student Tia Ryan-Matthias
Epic Fail: Inside York Memorial high school's descent into chaos
Veteran science teacher Usha KelleyMaharaj

At the time, 16-year-old Tia Ryan-Matthias, a Grade 11 student, was in her Canadian law classroom, which happened to be one of the small, doorless cubicles on the second floor. When the announcement was made, she and her friends looked at one another, grabbed their bags and ran to the hallway—they knew they weren’t safe. Out in the hall, teachers locked the sets of doors and ushered kids back into their rooms, where Ryan-Matthias and eight other students huddled under their desks in the corner of the cubicle farthest from the entrance. She thought about her 14- and 7-year-old siblings and wondered who would watch them after school. “I was freaking out, because when I first saw this cubicle, I remember thinking, What would happen if we had a lockdown here?” she told me. “And then it came true.”

For two hours, while police officers with rifles roamed the school looking for a threat, Ryan-Matthias was on FaceTime with her mom, who answered the call at her job at a packing facility and remained on the line. Her mom reminded her to stay calm and shared updates from the news: there were no reported injuries, but there might be someone inside with a gun. For stretches, they didn’t talk at all. It helped just to see her mom’s face.

In the basement, crouched under desks, students fielded texts and tweets with conflicting information. When the cops finally arrived, one student mistook their flashlights for a phone light and believed it was the person with a gun coming to hurt them. Science teacher KelleyMaharaj, who was also downstairs that day, told me the pressure was so high that it felt like the place was about to explode. “Look, 20 years in the game—I’ve been through a lot of lockdowns,” she says. “But, knowing how much mental health is an issue right now, and knowing how much anger was in the building, this was the first time that I’ve been terrified.”

Police never found a weapon on anyone in the school. The TDSB’s communication department tweeted around 3:30 p.m. that the lockdown was lifted, but no announcement came over the PA, and it took far longer for some classrooms to be cleared—a student who had been in the basement told me that she left at about 5 p.m. She filed outside and hugged a few friends. Then she walked along Eglinton Avenue, where a TV news crew pulled up next to her, lowered their window and asked if they could get a comment. She didn’t answer. She went home and slept.     The lockdown wasn’t the last time news cameras convened on York Memorial. Reporters began lingering by the school or camping out at the convenience store across the street. A handful of teachers agreed to anonymous interviews with outlets like CityNews and CTV, though others were dismayed by the stories that came back, which were light on the causes of the trouble and heavy on the effects. “Reading and writing have turned into bleeding and fighting,” one Toronto Sun report began. Students felt surveilled; they felt like a spectacle. “The media made it sound like we were [in] a jail cell,” Ryan-Matthias says. She’d see their vans parked outside and think, Oh, what did we do now? “The stories were just about us fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting.”

If news cameras were going to be trained on them anyway, students reasoned, there was a chance to shift the narrative. In late November, talk circulated among the student council about staging their own version of a work refusal: a student walkout, where they could stick up for the school and its reputation, draw attention to the building’s deficiencies, and demand more teachers and a permanent administrative team. Some of the students also wanted to bring awareness to their experiences of anti-Black racism. They believed that certain teachers treated them differently, assuming that they were uninterested in school, incapable of maintaining good grades—or even dangerous. And the constant police presence made them feel like criminals.

On December 2, York Memorial students held a protest outside of TDSB offices
In late 2022, fed-up York Memorial students protested in front of a nearby TDSB building. Photo by Cole Burston

Working with For Youth Initiative, an agency located next door to the school that supports racialized youth, these students put together a list of demands for the TDSB, which included more resources, more staff, no cops and a formal inquest. They wanted students interviewed about their experiences of racism, and they wanted teachers who had discriminated against racialized students removed. Not everyone was comfortable with this change in emphasis, and some students dropped out of the protest, which went ahead on December 2.

 Related: Meet the Grade 12 student who changed the TDSB’s English curriculum

On that cold, cloudy Friday morning, several dozen students walked out of the school and made their way to the nearest TDSB office, on Trethewey Drive, where the original York Memorial had once stood. They carried hand-drawn yellow signs that read “We Deserve Basic Human Rights” and “Justice for Education.” The group assembled before news cameras and clutched printouts of their speeches. “If you experienced racism every single day,” said one student, “you’d be angry too.”

Toward the end of the protest, the board’s director of education, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, stepped up to the microphone. “To the students: your voices were powerful, but I want to say it shouldn’t have taken us to today to be able to hear you,” she began. That was all going to change, she insisted. Russell-Rawlins promised the students that she would address each concern they had raised. “We’re here to listen, and we are listening to you, and the listening will continue.”

They did more than listen. The student walkout, coupled with the considerable media coverage, galvanized the TDSB to act—and it acted fast. By the following Monday, the board had posted 10 permanent contract positions at York Memorial. It also reached out to Donald Drummond, a vice-principal at Emery Collegiate, near Jane and Finch, to take over as principal. It was something of a homecoming for the 46-year-old father of three. He grew up around the corner, at Weston and Eglinton, where he’d arrived from Jamaica a week before his 10th birthday. On Saturdays, he’d head to Sun-Light Bakery with his mom and sister, and he later played soccer and football at Weston Collegiate. “Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic,” Drummond told me, “but I know the community and I really like the community.”

The TDSB reached out to Donald Drummond, a vice-principal at Emery Collegiate, near Jane and Finch, to take over as York Memorial high school's principal
The school’s new principal, Donald Drummond

He’s also a pragmatist, and he wasn’t joining without a significant commitment of resources from the board. In addition to those original 10 job postings, Drummond got five more, as well as two new vice-principals, two new social workers, two new school-based safety monitors, and another child-and-youth worker. Of the 15 new teachers, 14 are racialized, as are both VPs. “In high school, I only had two teachers who looked like me,” Drummond said. “We wanted to make sure that the teachers who were hired were reflective of the students.”

In a conversation lasting nearly two hours, that’s about as directly as he would broach the subject of racism. He did return repeatedly to the importance of honouring “student voice.” Students wanted more teachers, and they got them: the added instructors cover absences and fill in for those still on leave. Students wanted more support staff, and they got them too: the social workers now lead programs on wellness and self-­regulation. Repairs to the building are mostly finished. York Memorial held its long-­overdue welcome assembly in February. While fights haven’t stopped entirely, the five safety monitors keep the school calmer, and the stable admin team spends a good chunk of their days chatting with students in the halls. The question they hear most is, “Are you staying?” Drummond assures them that he is.

In April, the TDSB was still finalizing its budget and allocating teachers and support workers. Projected enrolment determines a school’s staff, and York Memorial’s population has dipped as students decamped elsewhere. Guidance counsellors expected to see 300 incoming Grade 9 students, but only 100 or so kids intend to start high school there in the fall. Several teachers told me they’re concerned about holding on to staff and resources in September. “After the student protest, it was like the world of the TDSB converged on us,” one teacher told me. “But what happens when we’re not in the news anymore?”     At a York Memorial assembly in the spring, the TDSB worked hard to project an image of school harmony. Giant LED letters at the back of the stage made the point plainly, lighting up to spell out UNITY. Outside the halls, students picked up yellow T-shirts that read “Unity is Strength,” which they pulled over their clothes or wore on their shoulders like capes. Inside the auditorium, as Rihanna played on the sound system, kids bumped fists while one student drew cheers for landing back-to-back water bottle flips.

Raptors guard Malachi Flynn, dressed down in a grey hoodie and sweats, sat on the stage and stressed the value of staying in school, then fielded questions from students about which animal he’d be (jaguar, despite calls to switch to a raptor) and whether he preferred Drake to Kendrick Lamar (he did). There were prizes and musical performances: a solo rendition of the Black national anthem, a meticulously choreographed K-pop dance routine. A recent grad delivered a spoken-word poem on transcending labels, which brought the crowd to its feet. Drummond acknowledged that it had been a challenging year but marvelled at how the kids had come together to demand what they deserve. Russell-Rawlins renewed her promise that students would have every available resource to make the merged school a success.

But it’s a belated and uncommon injection of cash for problems that aren’t at all unique to York Memorial. Schools across the city have fallen into disrepair. The effects of the pandemic continue to wreak havoc on students’ behaviour and mental health. Burnt-out teachers are struggling with their own welfare and eyeing the exits. If Ontario lifts the moratorium on school closures, more consolidations will quickly follow; in October, the board flagged 27 clusters of schools to assess for potential mergers. In fact, this may not even be York Memorial’s only time absorbing new students: it was named as a potential landing pad if nearby Oakwood and Runny­mede Collegiates, both facing enrolment shortages, were to close. And so far, neither the Ministry of Education nor the TDSB has shown that there’s a plan for getting ahead of these problems—or for giving schools the resources they badly need before they’re figuratively or literally on fire.

This story appears in the June 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.



Sign up for The Vault, our free newsletter with unforgettable long reads from our archives.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy.
You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Big Stories

The Battle for Leslieville: Gentrification, opioids and murder in the city’s most divided neighbourhood
Deep Dives

The Battle for Leslieville: Gentrification, opioids and murder in the city’s most divided neighbourhood