As students head back to the classroom this fall, the District School Board of Niagara will embark on a new and controversial experiment designed to encourage more students from the region to go to university or college. The board is set to open a new school, known as the DSBN Academy, for Grade 6 and 7 students whose parents don’t have a postsecondary education. The school plans to expand in subsequent years to include Grades 6 to 12.
“The whole purpose and goal of the school is to have kids graduate from postsecondary,” said John Stainsby, superintendent of secondary schools for the Niagara board, which serves almost 40,000 students in southern Ontario. Students from the Niagara board are less likely to apply to college or university than students from other parts of the province, he noted. “I was very confident that there were families out there that wanted this.” By mid August, about 120 students had enrolled for this fall.
One of the hallmarks of the academy is its student support programs, modeled on those of a U.S. school. All students will be paired with a mentor – a teacher at the school – who will guide them through their middle and high school years, help them select a postsecondary program and seek out scholarships, bursaries and other financial aid sources. The school will offer extended hours, from 8:15 to 4:15, and include a free breakfast and afternoon snack. The last hour of the school day will be devoted to extracurricular activities.
Unlike typical high schools, DSBN Academy will offer only an academic stream of courses designed to prepare kids for postsecondary studies. Parents of students will have to commit at least 15 hours a year of volunteer time, either at the school or from home. The academy will offer tutoring and free busing for students coming from the region’s 12 municipalities, some travelling as much as an hour each way.
The school is said to be the first of its kind in Ontario and possibly Canada. For the time being, it will be housed at a public school in Welland, Ontario that was slated for closure; it’s expected to move to a larger space within two years. Possible sites include the campuses of Niagara College, also in Welland, and Brock University in nearby St. Catharines, to reinforce the message about the importance of higher education, Mr. Stainsby said.
Plans for the school haven’t been without controversy. It was originally designed for low-income students but some parents and residents questioned the board’s decision to segregate students, arguing this would stigmatize families. Others argued that such supports should be available at all schools. Tom Reynolds, DSBN Academy’s principal, countered that public schools commonly offer optional specialty programs like French immersion, though not usually at a separate facility. The board doesn’t have the resources to offer these programs at all of its 120 schools, he said. “This is a concentrated effort at DSBN Academy to put all of those strategies into place, and then we can see what’s working well and then move that out to some of our [other] schools.”
Ross Finnie, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs who researches access to the postsecondary system, praised the effort: “I think it’s great that people are paying attention to this and I don’t think they should be dumped on for being experimental and for thinking of new ways to reduce the barriers to postsecondary education.”
Research shows that parental education is the single most important factor in determining whether students go to university or college – more important than family income, Dr. Finnie said. But he cautioned that it’s difficult to evaluate programs where participants “self-select;” the students who choose to enrol in the program are probably more inclined, or more encouraged, to pursue higher education than in most families where parents hadn’t completed postsecondary, he said. “The question remains how much of that is because of the program.”
The Niagara board isn’t the first to experiment with specialized curricula. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, opened the Africentric Alternative School in 2009, with a curriculum focused on black history and culture in an effort to reduce the high dropout rate among the city’s black students. The Toronto board is weighing whether to offer more specialty programs including single-sex schools. The Winnipeg board operates two schools for Aboriginal youth.
Richard Dominic Wiggers, research director at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, said more school boards are experimenting with creative intervention strategies for specific targeted groups, much like U.S. charter schools. But he didn’t know of any other school in Canada targeted to students whose parents hadn’t attended postsecondary institutions. A benefit of DSBN Academy, he said, is that it starts in Grade 6, the time when many young people start thinking about education beyond high school.
In planning for the academy, DSBN trustees and staff looked at two U.S. charter schools, Preuss School and Gompers Preparatory Academy, both associated with the University of California, San Diego. The support services offered by DSBN Academy are modeled on those at Preuss, a school for low-income students on the UCSD campus. In 2009, 94 percent of students in the graduating class were admitted to a four-year college or university.