Toronto’s public school board is considering a plan to open four new specialty schools — one for boys, one for girls, a choir school and a sports academy — in an attempt to stem declining enrolment and give students more choice.

The proposal is bound to revive debate about whether specialty schools, especially single-sex programs, cause social segregation when it comes before a Toronto District School Board committee Wednesday.

The move to an almost boutique option for learning, wildly popular in Edmonton, Chicago and New York, has been kick-started in Toronto by new director of education Chris Spence, who started a sports academy and two all-boy programs in Hamilton, where he was director until last July.

He has asked Toronto trustees to approve a feasibility study of the four schools by June, with the possibility of opening by September 2011, perhaps even in stand-alone buildings if enough students sign up, and maybe in high-needs neighbourhoods to make sure they are accessible to students of all backgrounds.

Spence would not say he’s taking aim at the Toronto Catholic board’s successful St. Michael’s Choir School — a joint public-private venture with the city’s Catholic archdiocese — but noted the proposed new programs would mean “offering private school options in the public system.

“And it’s no secret 68 boards in the province are struggling with declining enrolment, including ours.”

The Toronto board loses roughly 4,000 students a year to falling birth rates and migration to the 905. Eight Toronto neighborhoods are in the grip of public school closing talks right now; dozens of half-empty schools are expected to be shuttered in the coming years. Currently, about 260,000 students are enrolled at board schools.

Yet specialty schools can serve as magnets, noted board chair Bruce Davis, who expects demand could fill several schools of each of the kinds proposed; an all-boy leadership academy for kindergarten to Grade 3, an all-girl leadership academy for girls in Grades 4 to 8, and a co-ed choir school and co-ed sports academy for students in Grades 4 to 8.

“Parents love these schools and so do kids; at our four high schools for the arts, parents tell me they don’t have to fight to get their kids out of bed — their kids wake them up to go to school,” said Davis.

Spence’s original proposal of an all-boys’ academy this fall was scrapped after several trustees expressed concern about the social implications of separating children by gender, even in an alternative program for only those who want it.