Any student at Hillcrest High School, a quiet public school in Ottawa’s Elmvale Acres neighbourhood, would be familiar with the sight of rows of vacant lockers and wide hallways lined with unused classrooms.

Even though Hillcrest has capacity for up to 1,164 students, only 465 students were enrolled in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). In other words, Hillcrest is only about 40 per cent full, making it the board’s most underpopulated school.

In contrast, 1,060 students attended Canterbury High School, two kilometres away and in the same school board. The school is 92 per cent full, which is likely because a large portion of its students are part of its specialized arts program, which draws from across Ottawa.

According to Lyra Evans, who was until recently the chair of the OCDSB’s board of trustees, high schools with smaller populations are not able to offer as many courses and extracurriculars as bigger schools.

“It’s not fair to the students,” she said in an interview, “because they [might not] be offering Grade 12 music or Grade 12 physics or … there might not be enough kids who are interested to create a relay team at the junior level.”

Competing Boards

Families in Ottawa can choose between four different school boards, all of which receive funding through the provincial government and school taxes:

  • OCDSB (English, public)
  • OCSB (English, Catholic)
  • CEPEO (French, public)
  • CECCE (French, Catholic)

However, the amount the province gives to each is based on how many students are enrolled at their schools.

Essentially, if a school board wants more funding, they have to compete with the others for students.

A "regular school" is one offering regular programming. Some types not counted as "regular" include adult high schools, alternative schools, virtual schools, and schools only serving disabled students.

Ontario’s schools were originally designed to serve Catholics, Protestants, anglophones and francophones — the province’s core demographics in the first half of the 20th century. Today, however, public boards have replaced Protestant ones, and a family’s religion does not necessarily determine whether they send their kids to Catholic school.

Parents in anglophone households sometimes send their children to French-language schools to help them become bilingual. However, when it comes to high schools, the French boards present less competition to the OCDSB than the English Catholic board, since it is easier for a student to switch to a school that teaches mainly in the same language.

Competing Schools

Schools within the same board can also compete with each other for students. Overlapping catchment boundaries mean that families in some areas can choose between schools from the same board.

For example, any student who lives within Canterbury’s catchment boundaries also has the choice to go to Hillcrest, and a student who lives in Old Ottawa East or Rideau Gardens can choose choose between Hillcrest and Glebe.

In one area comprising most of Urbandale and Guildwood Estates, the OCDSB’s and Catholic board’s catchment boundaries overlap in such a way that students living there can choose between four different English-language high schools.


This abundance of high school options on its own does not explain why people choose one school over another.

Special programs — like Canterbury’s arts program, or Colonel By Secondary School’s International Baccalaureate program, for example — can draw students from outside their catchment boundaries.

However, some schools can appear less attractive than others, leading some parents and students in their catchments to avoid them.

That can lead to closure such as happened to Rideau High School 2017, just before the province put a temporary ban on school closures.

An academic paper in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy described Rideau as having “a marginalized student population, a negative reputation, and low student [enrollment].”

Rideau High School is labelled on this map with a black icon.

This map shows OCDSB and OCSB secondary catchments that overlap with neighbourhoods within the greenbelt. It also shows the location of every OCDSB and OCSB regular secondary school in Ottawa. You can check and uncheck various layers to show how the boundaries overlap between boards around Ottawa.

It is possible, though, that a school’s “negative reputation” might not reflect a lower‑quality education or a security issue, as some parents and students may fear. In fact, it may actually be the presence of students from low-income families that leads people to perceive of a school negatively.

For English high schools within Ottawa’s Greenbelt, the socioeconomic makeup of a school can determine how full it will be. The emptier the school, the higher its portion of low-income students.

Thirteen of 37 regular English-language secondary schools in Ottawa are made up of more than 17.7 per cent low-income students.

Only only one school — Lisgar Collegiate, known for its specialized Gifted Program — was over-capacity, whereas a quarter of the 24 more affluent high schools were over-capacity.

Provincial Policy

The Ontario government has not only had a moratorium on closing schools since 2017, Evans explained, it has also temporarily stopped boards from making significant changes to catchment boundaries and the programs offered at individual schools.

“We can't make any change that moves more than half of the student population from any school,” Evans said.

However, Evans added, it may not always be necessary to fill a high school to capacity to get enrollment to a level where schools can offer more courses and extracurriculars. Evans says between 800 and 1,200 students should be enrolled at a high school. “That seems to be the sweet spot for size.”

Evans also mentioned overcrowded schools are also feeling the pressures of the province’s hiatus on boundary reviews. Though far from ideal, they can at least add portables. Undercrowded schools, however, are stuck with few means to mitigate their distinct issues.

“If we don't have the population, there's not much we can do,” she said.