From athletics to the arts to Indigenous studies, students have more choices than ever when it comes to their education.
By Steven Sandor | February 3, 2020
There are the three Rs, and then some.
Sure, our kids have to know the core subjects – they need to be able to read and write and add and subtract. But families have more and more choice when it comes to tailoring their education pathways specifically for their kids.
Currently, of the more than 105,000 students enrolled in Edmonton Public Schools, around 27,000 are taking what Alberta Education classifies as “alternative programming.” That can be French immersion — the most popular of the alternative programs — or it can be something more specific, like attending a school with dedicated arts or athletic programming.
“Our student body is made up of a diverse group of individual students,” says Chris Wright, Edmonton Public Schools’ managing director of infrastructure. “In a metro setting like ours, learning opportunities are important to families.”
What’s out there? In the public system, there are faith-based choices, programs geared to FNMI (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) students, athletic academies, art academies and language-based choices. In total, there are 33 programs. Some programs carry extra costs. Some will require parents to choose between the neighbourhood school and one that offers the program they want, but requires a bus to get there.
But now is the time to start doing homework. Whether it’s kindergarten or elementary or junior high or high school, school open houses usually begin in February. The reason they begin so well ahead of the pre-enrolment deadline is that it gives parents and caregivers the time to weigh their options. The schools want parents to make educated choices.
“The information is available to parents,” says Wright. “The schools want to be open and want parents to understand the choices they have and the nuances, such as transportation. We want to be transparent, to have the information up front.”
And, as the student population grows at the rate of about three per cent per year, the demand for educational programming also increases.
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The Pros, the Cons
This past autumn, my 11-year-old son began Grade 7. In the end, we chose to send him to his first-choice school, Vimy Ridge Academy, located in Bonnie Doon. It’s not close to where we live, and it means he takes two ETS buses to get to school.
But, after evaluating a long list of pros and cons, we chose to send him to an Edmonton Public Schools-administered academy rather than the local junior high. Decisions had to be made.
The cons: Of course there are added costs, fees that go to cover the cost of the sports academy. Call it tuition if you’d like. Travel had to be considered; he wasn’t going to make a simple three- or four-block walk to the closest school. It means getting up an hour earlier in the morning than he might have planned.
The pros: He gets to spend a good part of his school day following his passion. He gets unique instruction, and it teaches him about how a student has to juggle responsibilities; to be ready for the field, the schoolwork needs to be done.
Before choosing, he had a shadow day; while he was still in Grade 6, he spent one day as a Vimy student. He shadowed a junior-high student in the baseball program. He got an idea for what an average school day looked like. Valerie Leclair, the district’s supervisor of programs and student accommodation, said some schools do “day in the life” programs, and some create “penpals” between schools. For example, a Grade 6 kid ready to leave elementary would communicate regularly with someone in an alternative junior high program.
For most of us, Vimy Ridge and Victoria School of the Arts are the most recognized “alternative” facilities in Edmonton Public Schools. But, in fact, there are many. Leclair regularly reviews “heat maps” to show where the students are coming from to attend the courses. If there is demand, programs may be expanded to other schools in those hotspots. If she notices a surge in kids from one area of town who are busing to another neighbourhood for a specific program, the question is raised: Should the program be expanded to another school so fewer kids have to take long trips? And what would that do to enrolment in the school that had the program in the first place?
It’s a juggling act for parents and kids. Leclair said that parents should do their homework; while many will go to a kindergarten or early-grade orientation at an alternative school, they should also look at the adjoining junior-high and high-school programs. They should get an idea early on about the learning environment in which a child will be immersed.
A Catholic Education
Edmonton Catholic also offers alternative programs, from science academies to soccer academies to hockey academies to language programs in French, Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish.
“We are a school district of choice,” says Cheryl Shinkaruk, Edmonton Catholic’s manager of programs and projects. “Parents want the ability to choose what direction they want their kids to pursue when it comes to their education.”
It starts with 100 Voices, a pre-kindergarten program taught by certified teachers and backed by support staff. It’s offered at various schools and rec centres in the city, and even at the Valley Zoo.
Then as kids move through the grades, there are accelerated math and science programs, fine-arts academies, programs focused on outdoor learning as well as technology and innovation. The district has seven “Fine Arts Focus” schools. And, after starting out with only one hockey academy, there are now 10 schools offering athletic programming which now includes soccer, golf, hockey, lacrosse and baseball. This year, 1,125 students are enrolled in the sports-academy programs. It should also be noted that FC Edmonton, the Canadian Premier League soccer team in the city, has its academy players take classes at St. Joseph’s just north of downtown and balance that with their practice and game time.
It’s a lot for parents — and Shinkaruk says that many network to help each other out when it comes to getting their kids across town.
“We find that parents do get to know the other parents in the program, and then they begin to carpool and look at the kind of cooperation that can happen between families.”
Like Edmonton Public, the Catholic district’s staff regularly look at the map of city and what programs are garnering the most interest. Of course, that’s balanced with some hard realities. What schools have the capacity to take on a program — and the ensuing influx of students? What schools are already maxed out?
“Look at the sports academies,” says Shinkaruk. “We started off with one hockey academy, and look how it’s grown.” Hockey programs have been added in the west end and south side.
The Private Route
At Progressive Academy, students don’t call the teachers Mr. X or Mrs. Y. Even in the pre-school phase, students and instructors are on a first-name basis. As Russell Weir, the Glenora school’s executive director explains, it is about showing students that they are respected, that they are important.
Currently, 190 students from across Edmonton go to Progressive Academy, one example of an accredited private school in the city.
“A lot of parents don’t realize that they do have a choice,” Weir says.
Students begin in pre-school and the Academy goes right into the high-school years. But, students are encouraged to embrace their interests. If a student in Grade 3 math is ahead of the pack, instead of being bored in class waiting for the others to catch up, that child can go forward. So, at Progressive, there could be a Grade 6 student who is at a Grade 8 or 10 math level, but won’t be ahead in other subjects. Likewise, if a student shows an aptitude to, say, astronomy, the school will try and offer options to allow that child to follow his or her love of the stars.
And, robotics and Mandarin are taught at a young age.
“It’s the language of commerce,” says Weir.
Walk into a high-school class, and you see mathematical equations marked up all over the walls. There’s a fireplace and a spot to get coffee.
The concept is simple. School is serious business, but it needs to be welcoming. Students should look forward to going. It’s not a place to go to be bored or frustrated.
In 2015, Statistics Canada released a study from Marc Frenette and Ping Ching Winnie Chan that compared the outcomes of students in public versus private high schools. The numbers were stark. Kids who went to private schools were 13.9 per cent more likely to graduate from university. It found that the graduation rate for private high school students was 99 per cent; basically, the percentage of kids who didn’t finish high school at private institutions amounted to a rounding error. But, with private schools come costs. And one can easily argue that families that have the resources to send their kids to private schools have a competitive advantage over the families that don’t.
In the end, it’s up to families to do their homework.
What’s Out There
Edmonton Public Schools open-house schedule is posted at epsb.ca
In their words: “As Muslims it is our responsibility as parents and educators to provide a balance between this life and the hereafter. We should set balanced goals for our children, where they excel in this life while keeping a strong hold of Allah.”
In their words: “Coralwood Adventist Academy focuses on the ‘a whole-child approach’ –– nurturing student growth spiritually, academically, physically and socially through a Christ-centred curriculum.”
In their words: “Our vision is to provide a school environment where twice-exceptional learners are welcomed, become members of a community of peers, and are encouraged to pursue their passions while still being exposed to a well-rounded curriculum.”
In their words: “The Edmonton Islamic Academy offers an education of the highest quality, embedded in the values of the Islamic faith, to enable students to become respectful, responsible, successful, leaders and contributors to society.”
In their words: “Edmonton Menorah Academy’s mission is to build and service the Edmonton Jewish community, helping students appreciate what defines our Jewish heritage, while preparing our students for the future in academics, character, skills, values, and beyond.”
In their words: “Headway School’s orientation is toward post-secondary education. All of our students are trained for university or college. They can also receive motivational training through Sikh culture and morals. As a multicultural school, we offer Punjabi as a subject.”
In their words: “At MIS, we are committed to mainstreaming Islamic values and teaching in all of the subject areas. We cover the Alberta Education curriculum with Quran, Islamic Studies and Arabic language.”
In their words: “Founded on the Christian worldview, love your God, and love your neighbour as yourself, this program seeks to teach students how to live their Christian faith in the context of their local and broader community.”
In their words: “We are a Christian Academy that seeks to partner with parents by offering a strong education that will equip your children to thrive academically, and strengthen their walk with Jesus Christ.”
In their words: “Nebula Academy offers a high academic program that instils life-long passion for learning and implants Turkish culture into the curriculum which enables students to be globally competitive, appreciative of diversity, and live a healthy and active lifestyle.”
In their words: “Waldorf educators believe strongly that the education of the future must have four dimensions: Academic, practical, aesthetic, and ethical. In particular, they believe in the universality of ethical education. By encouraging the development of a child’s inherent morality and sense of beauty, the child becomes enthused and motivated to master his/her world.”