The worst 50 schools in Toronto are clustered in five of the city’s neediest neighbourhoods, a Sunday Sun review of school performance statistics shows.

Just one school among the lowest-ranked elementary and high schools in the city managed to score above average in any category on standardized provincial tests.

Not a single high school among the bottom 25 met provincial averages on standardized tests, and in some cases, not a single student managed the “standard” test score expected of all students across the province.

Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office tests the reading, writing and math skills of elementary students in Grades 3 and 6 and math skills for high school students in Grade 9.

Schools are compared according to how the average score of their students stacks up against the provincial average and whether the school meets the provincial standard or expected mark, which is the equivalent of a “B.”

Disturbingly, in many instances in Toronto’s worst schools, scores on standardized provincial tests have declined over the past five years.

The list of the city’s academically poorest schools, pulled from the Fraser Institute’s national ranking released last month include both public and Catholic schools.

They are clustered into high immigrant, modest income neighbourhoods, including Jane-Finch, Rexdale, the increasingly violent Danforth East, Weston and Dufferin-St. Clair communities.

“It’s no surprise to me that the government is failing a lot of our immigrant kids and a lot of kids who come from lower-income backgrounds,” Rosario Marchese, the NDP’s education critic, said.

“In my view, the situation is getting desperate,” he added, noting since 1998, school boards have been facing deficits which means they are not getting enough funding.

A shocking 0% of Grade 9 math students in the academic stream at Nelson A Boylen Collegiate Institute in the southern end of the Jane-Finch area at Falstaff Rd. were at or above the provincial standard.

Two years ago, at least 6% of students at Boylen reached the provincial standard, and a year before that, 23% were at or above the provincial standard.

Over the past five years, no more than 6% of the Grade 9 math students in the applied stream at Boylen managed the equivalent of a B.

At Eastern Commerce in Danforth East, while the results are marginally better, the downward trend is the same. Last year, only 14% of the Grade 9 math students in the academic stream were at or above the provincial standard, compared to 20% the year before. In the 2004-05 school year, 23% of those students were at or above the provincial standard.

In the applied stream, only 7% of Eastern Commerce students were at or above the provincial standard, compared to 19% the year before.

At the elementary level, in F.H. Miller Junior Public School in Weston, only 36% of the Grade 3 students were at or above the provincial standard in math and writing. Just 27% met or exceeded the provincial standard in reading.

And only 20% of the Grade 6 students at that school met or exceeded the provincial standard in math, just 30% for writing and 43% for reading.

All of these numbers are well below the Toronto District School Board’s average results, which range from the high 50s to mid-60s for all categories for the Grade 3 and Grade 6 levels.

The fact that so many elementary and high schools in Toronto are doing so poorly, and that so many of them are grouped together in a handful of neighbourhoods, has raised concern among provincial educators and government officials.

“The student achievement results in the Toronto board haven’t been improving as much as we would like them to,” Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said.

Wynne suggested a change in the structure of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) might be needed.

“Is there something about the structure that we could change that would allow the trustees and the leadership in the board to focus on the kids and programs more closely?” she asked.

As part of the solution, 213 elementary schools have been identified in Toronto as candidates for Ontario’s Focused Intervention Program (OFIP), an initiative by the province to target and increase standardized testing results at low-performing schools.

But while OFIP, on which the government has spent more than $30 million, has improved scores by an average of 10% in schools that received increased attention and resources from the province’s Numeracy and Literacy Secretariat, the chronic academic problems in Toronto’s neediest communities require immediate attention.

The TDSB is fully aware of the correlation between poverty and poor student success, and they are aware, too, of declining results in some of their worst schools.

Their own research, available on their website, shows the lower the average family income — like those that surround the city’s worst schools — the higher the probability those areas’ students in Grade 9 won’t complete seven or more credits by the end of their first year in high school.

While 23% of students from the lowest income neighbourhoods had completed six or fewer credits by the end of Grade 9 in the TDSB’s study year, only 7% of students from the highest income neighbourhoods had similar poor results.

Unfortunately, nearly 60% of students with six or fewer credits by the end of Grade 9 will not graduate high school.

The board’s chairman, John Campbell, acknowledges there is a problem.

“When you go to an area where there’s high unemployment, poverty, whatever you want to call it, you have higher prevalence of situations where you have single-parent families, you have situations where your teenager is out working, spending less time on homework,” he said. “There is a definite correlation between troubled or impoverished neighbourhoods and a lack of student success …”

According to Melanie Parrack, the TDSB’s executive superintendent of student success, the answer might be closing the worst schools.

That’s not to suggest those students would be left out in the cold, but rather the worst schools tend to be the smaller ones that lack a core number of students to keep interesting programs running, Parrack suggested.

And by concentrating resources in fewer schools (there are 91 schools in Toronto at less than half capacity), individual schools could offer more focused and efficient programs, she said.

“I’m not talking about factories like in the U.S.,” Parrack said. “We’re talking about a school of about 1,200 kids.”

Campbell agrees, but also thinks longer school days, and a lengthier school calendar would help.

“I think a longer day and a longer school year … would be something worthwhile to look at,” he said.

But a longer day and a longer year mean nothing, and in fact could be more harmful, if students are not being engaged and their teachers are not trained to deal with inner-city issues, Angus McBeath, an expert in public school reform, says.

“I think most teacher training institutions don’t particularly prepare their student teachers for the reality of inner-city schools,” he said.

McBeath was the superintendent in Edmonton when that jurisdiction dramatically improved their students standardized testing results several years ago. He now travels across North America, as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Fellow in Public Education Reform, helping others do the same.

One of the reasons he says school boards fail when they try to improve student success is because they aren’t focused.

“I noticed the other day … the Toronto District School Board was fooling around with the idea of no homework for young kids, and that becomes then the preoccupation,” he said. “Add 100 preoccupations and what you don’t have is a laser-like focus on improving student achievement.”

In other jurisdictions throughout North America, improved standardized testing results, especially among disadvantaged youth, have been achieved by a variety of radical methods.

Boston, for example, whose public school district is made up of 44% African American students and 33% Hispanic students, more than tripled the percentage of Grade 10 math students who passed the state’s standardized tests between 1998 and 2004. In English, the results doubled during the same period.

It now has the lowest drop-out rate it has experienced in 20 years and nearly three- quarters of the ’03 graduating class are enrolled in post-secondary schooling or training.

“It’s nothing radical, or maybe it is,” said Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for Boston Public Schools. “We’ve just gone back to the basics.”

There, with renegotiated contracts, principals have the power to hire teachers who they think will work well in their schools.

Other changes include setting school-specific goals for improvement, a streamlined electronic hiring process which has tripled the number of teaching applicants, an improved ESL program, longer hours for language and math instruction, and mandatory summer school for under-performing students in Grades 3, 6, 7, and 8, and holding them back if they are still not meeting the standards in reading, writing, math.

This year, Boston Public Schools, which did away with elected trustees in 1992 and opted for a board appointed by the mayor for four-year terms, was awarded the national Broad Prize for being the most improved public school district in the country.

Elsewhere, some school districts are getting more radical — they’re paying students to do well.

New York City’s Spark Program, an initiative under the Mayor’s Opportunity NYC program, offers elementary students money — hundreds of dollars — to do well.

Since the program only launched a year and a half ago, no one from the city’s department of education would comment on results, but Debra Wexler, a spokesman for the city, said what they were hearing anecdotally was encouraging.

In 58 pilot schools, primarily high-poverty schools serving mostly black and Hispanic students, Grade 4 students get $5 for completing each of 10 annual standardized tests (five in English, five in math).

They are eligible for an additional $20 per test depending on how well they do, for a total of $250 a year.

Seventh graders participating in the pilot project are eligible to earn $500 a year.

Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who thought up and runs the Sparks Program, has said that short-term incentives to encourage disadvantaged children to make the right choices is a good idea.

It’s difficult to convince those children that hard work pays off in the end, he said, when they have so few role models in their communities.

“We’re asking them to look down a path that they have probably never seen anyone go down … and then to have the wisdom and the fortitude to wait for their reward,” he told an American media outlet recently.

Other schools in the U.S. use incentives other than money for students to improve their performance. At a high school in Georgia, if students attend Saturday study sessions, they qualify for an iPod, movie tickets or a dinner for two, among other prizes.

But don’t look for that kind of radical change here.

“I think that is your basic quick fix that is not going to put our young people positioned well for their futures,” Melanie Parrack of the TDSB said. “What I think we need to do is build into the young learner the recognition that by being successful, there are those intrinsic rewards from within, because that’s what is going to fuel learning for the rest of their life.”

Wynne, in fact, says comparing the two education systems isn’t fair because of the different histories of the two.

Still, though, she is opposed to paying students.

“We’ve got such a history of excellence and everybody working together to help kids perform that we don’t need to go there,” she said.

But Angus McBeath said nothing, including paying students, should be discounted because radical change is what’s needed to really improve student success, especially for children from Toronto’s poorer families.

“I’m at the extreme end of this argument, because I believe that we need to do radical things in Canada. On the surface, Canadian children seem to do well on international tests, but if you pull out low-income kids and look at their data, it’s not good,” he said.

One radical initiative that is being supported in Ontario’s troubled neighbourhoods is Pathways to Education.

It is being offered to only 1,200 kids in the province and the cost for Pathways is $3,500 per student.

But that cost, 85% of which is funded by the private sector (largely Bell Canada), provides key supports to students in the program, including tutoring in five core subjects four nights a week, and group mentoring for students in grades 9 and 10, specialty and career mentoring for students in grades 11 and 12.

The program also provides support such as free transit tickets tied to attendance and a bursary of up to $4,000 for post-secondary education.

There are programs in Regent Park — where drop-out rates have plummeted from 56% to 10% since the program began in 2001 — and more recently in Jamestown, Lawrence Heights, Kitchener, Ottawa and Montreal.

Recently, the government committed $19 million over four years to Pathways and one-time funding of $10 million.