You are almost guaranteed to get a post from me when the Ottawa Citizen publishes stuff about Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa's oldest high school. I taught at Lisgar for three years and, while I worked with many excellent teachers and students there, I did not find that the school lived up to its self-image as the be-all and end-all of high school education in Ottawa. The story today talks about how cross-boundary transfers affect schools. Just to clarify, in Ottawa each student is supposed to go to the high school in whose area they live. However, for various reasons (I remember my friend needing to transfer so that he could take Typing in French) some students are allowed to attend a different school instead.
The problem with this particular approach is that schools with a good reputation disproportionately attract more good students. Schools with poor reputations disproportionately lose good students. Reputations and standardized tests results are maintained even though the quality of teaching, and the actual student improvements, may well be better in the "bad" school.
But the transfers hurt more than just the "bad" schools. For example Lisgar, which accepted 80 transfers this last year, is over-crowded. Many Science classes are not held in Science labs and it is extremely difficult to get computer time for non-Computer classes. Every student at Lisgar has his or her learning opportunities reduced because of the overcrowding.
The brouhaha of the Citizen article is that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is planning to make it more difficult to transfer away from the "home " school. In particular, some parents are worried that this will make it harder to get their kids into Lisgar. The change to transfers makes sense in line with the fact that the OCDSB uses a community schools model where each school serves the needs of its community, and so transfers should not really be required. However, what the board seems to have missed is that having specialized arts programs and gifted programs at only some schools takes away from the community model. Once you start putting special students in only some schools, the rest of the schools are left with the less-special students. Not exactly true community schooling.
Even if the board allowed no transfers at all there would always be wealthy parents who move so that their children can attend the school of choice. Given that the OCDSB does not fully abide by the community school model and that some parents already can choose schools, I feel that the smartest thing to do would be for the OCDSB to move to a model where everyone can choose which school they go to and each school can choose which segment of the population will be its specialty.