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Vancouver Wants to End Classroom Inequality. But What about Mini Schools?

They’re a program of choice, but difficult, even ‘stressful,’ to get into. First in a series.

Katie Hyslop 21 Oct

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

The Vancouver School Board says it’s determined to root out inequality in its schools.

That’s why, the board says, it’s eliminating streaming — the practice of grouping students in classes based on their perceived academic strengths — as well as school honours programs in math and sciences. The approach tended to provide the greatest educational benefit to students from affluent neighbourhoods or families.

But parents, students and experts point to other programs that they say can create inequality. The Tyee will explore them in the coming weeks.

Today in this new series, a look at hard-to-access “mini schools” — schools-within-schools that provide enrichment programs for students in Grade 8 to 12 who want an academic challenge, to learn with like-minded peers and pursue specific passions.

The district told The Tyee it has no plans to end the programs. In fact, it told families who were disappointed with the end of honours courses that mini schools provided a different accelerated learning option for their kids.

There’s a hockey mini at Britannia Secondary, where health and physical education credits are earned through playing the sport. The Lord Byng mini takes on students with a love of performing. Vancouver Technical Secondary attracts fine arts and tech fans to its mini. And there are several minis for aficionados of math and science.

Mini schools, which are free to enrol in, attract over 1,400 applications annually from Grade 7 students hoping to secure one of the 500 available mini-school Grade 8 spots. Entering a mini in later grades is only possible if a current student leaves the program.

The Tyee spoke to parents and students who swear by mini schools for the academic challenge. They love the community and the enrichment experiences like field trips to ski resorts, marine biology labs and even other countries (which parents help pay for). And they say that, unlike mainstream classrooms, mini students are generally on the same academic level, which means teachers are able to provide more one-on-one attention.

“To me, it’s a perfect public school system. I think every school should have one,” said Tarek Haji, whose kids have attended the Point Grey mini school.

But mini schools aren’t open to every student. The very nature of a mini school requires a smaller student population.

Detractors point out that mini schools have a rigorous application process that is incredibly stressful for students, where their grades, performance on a standardized test and — for some minis — interviews and reference letters determine who gets in.

Supporting students through that process — and ensuring they have things like volunteer experience or extracurricular credits to win a place — is difficult for poorer families, single parents or people dealing with language barriers. Some parents hire tutors or coaches to give their children an edge.

And critics note that mini school students enjoy access to educational enrichment not offered to their peers in a mainstream classroom, even though they may share the same school building and some classes. A select few minis, like the Britannia Hockey mini, charge hundreds to thousands of dollars in additional school fees for supplies and trips, though the district says no student will be denied entry for their inability to pay.

Ultimately, it’s a student’s choice to apply to a mini school. Which is why the school district makes the distinction between mini schools and the academic “streaming” it said was happening with the honours courses.

“The entire population of a mini school attends because they feel it is better suited to their learning,” the district told the Globe and Mail in June. “This is different from streaming students of varying abilities who are all part of the same student population at main schools.”

Former Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus, whose daughter attended Lord Byng Arts mini school, likens the experience of applying to a mini school to applying for university when you’re in Grade 7.

She wonders whether it’s appropriate to ask students who are 12 to compete for spaces in a public-school program, as opposed to making the programs available to any students who want to be in them.

Because of this, parents like Bacchus see mini schools as no less exclusionary and inequitable for students than the academic streaming the district is trying to stamp out.

Still, she honoured her daughter’s request to attend one, noting that Lord Byng was her family’s local high school, and her daughter would go there either way: “I supported a choice that she made.”

First rule of mini schools: know they exist

While districts like Richmond, Delta, Burnaby and Victoria also have mini schools, the Vancouver school district has by far the most, with 18 operating within 16 secondary schools.

Mini school students do attend some mainstream high school classes, but how much time they spend in mini school versus mainstream classes depends on what grade and what mini school they are in.

The first barrier to equal access to mini schools is simply knowing they exist. Part of a suite of secondary programs that students can apply for, mini schools go unnoticed by many parents.

And mini school websites and application forms are only in English, a barrier for students whose parents don’t speak the language.

Ismail Muhammad, co-chair of Point Grey mini school parents’ association, says the school district needs to do a better job of getting the word out. He only found out about mini schools when his children’s elementary school tutor brought them up, “because she used to live close to Point Grey and her son used to go there,” he said.

Second rule of mini schools: get informed

The second step to apply is to attend a mini school information night. While the pandemic has pushed these events online, normally parents and students are responsible for getting themselves to the information nights of the various programs they’re interested in during the fall.

Brenda Kaplan Brown recalled a crowded scene at the Point Grey mini school information night she attended five years ago with her son.

“They have a really old theatre, and it was hot and sweaty, and parents that are super keen had their kids in Grade 6 or younger there as well, because they were just trying to get a jump on it,” she said.

“It was so packed, a bunch of us parents were standing out into the lobby, down the corridors outside in the hallway. It was insane.”

Third rule of mini schools: prepare to be tested

The pandemic has forced further changes to the mini school application process, and at least for this school year, Grade 7 applicants will not need to take the general knowledge test.

Past applicants have been required to take a test with no prior information about its contents. And while they are notified if they have a mark high enough to access a mini school, they will never know their grade.

Students who pass go through a district registration process before filling out applications for each mini school they want to attend, ranking their choices.

Applications, along with Grade 6 and 7 report cards, are used to help whittle down applicants to a number of students that school administrators and teachers interview one-on-one.

Some programs, like Britannia Hockey Academy, require past experience in the activity the mini school focuses on.

The Lord Byng Arts mini website says that reference letters are now optional and makes no mention of requiring past performing arts experience for the hopefuls applying for the program’s drama, music, visual arts or media arts streams. The mini does require students to submit work samples, including up to five original visual arts pieces, a five-minute film reel or a two-minute musical performance video, depending on the stream.

But one parent of a child currently in the Lord Byng mini school said that reference letters and past experience were required when they applied.

“The reason I know it’s a resume thing is because before my kid applied, I was advised by other parents that this was true; I saw that kids who got in had similar backgrounds; and I know talented kids — my kid’s peers — who were passed over,” the parent said. The Tyee granted the parent anonymity in order to protect their child’s identity.

“We actually hired a conductor of [a youth orchestra] as a private instructor to make sure that my child’s resume looked good,” the parent said.

Teachers and co-ordinators at the mini schools are the ones who ultimately decide which students are accepted. While the entry criteria vary from mini to mini, the Vancouver School Board’s website states the students typically perform at grade level or above, “are highly motivated and would benefit from a learning environment with highly motivated peers.”

‘It’s a community’

"When Tarek Haji went to Eric Hamber Secondary school in the 1980s, he was not a fan of the mini school at the nearby Prince of Wales Secondary."

It’s an impression repeated to The Tyee more than once while reporting this article and this series, not only about mini schools but French immersion and gifted programs, too.

But now as an adult and father of two children in the Point Grey Secondary mini school program, Haji realized he was wrong.

“It’s the furthest thing away from private school,” he said. “First, it’s a community.”

Unlike mainstream high schools where the school you attend is determined by where you live, mini schools accept students from all over Vancouver.

It’s a point of pride for the Point Grey mini district parent association, which Haji chaired from 2017 to 2020. He said the school specifically seeks out applications from students living in less wealthy areas than the school’s tiny, west side neighbourhood.

“All four quadrants of the city were represented in the mini,” Haji said. “When you have a community that’s the whole city, I don’t think that’s exclusionary.”

Haji says mini schools can offer academic enrichment for higher achieving students that isn’t available in the mainstream classroom. Without minis, more students would move to private schools, he said.

Jason Ellis, an associate professor in the educational studies department at the University of British Columbia, agrees with that assessment, and warns that if students move to private schools, it can reduce the value of the public system.

“If you take away those mini schools, you risk alienating a certain segment of parents who will remove their kids from the public schools, which makes them less universal, which could threaten their overall quality,” he said.

“You always have to try to placate parents, and I’m afraid that’s exactly what these programs are: a way to keep kids in a particular school or in a particular school system.”

While a mini-school class may have the same number of students as a regular class, unlike mainstream classes where enrolment changes from course to course, mini classes are always the same group of students.

This allows for more bonding between students, Haji said. But it also reduces the variety of student academic abilities per class, leaving room for more one-on-one attention from teachers who would otherwise be focusing almost entirely on the struggling students, he said.

“I have no idea how that teacher is going to operate in that kind of situation,” Haji said of mainstream classes with a range of student abilities. “Small groups can really do great things.”

851px version of SimraIsmailTahaMuhammad.jpg
Ismail Muhammad (centre), co-chair of Point Grey mini school parents’ association, with his children Simra and Taha Ismail, has lots of positive things to say about their mini-school experience. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Simra Ismail, who started Grade 10 in the Point Grey mini this year, agrees and says she receives more attention from her teachers now than she did in mainstream classes.

“If you don’t understand anything, they’re willing to help,” she said, adding that prior to mini school it seemed like teachers focused more on the whole class versus individual student learning needs.

Ismail’s father, Ismail Muhammad, was attracted to the mini’s focus on accelerated academics. He was also impressed by the extras, like field trips to ski hills, music festivals and the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island.

Today, Muhammad not only has two kids in the mini, but he’s also co-chair of the mini’s parents’ association.

“I believe academic education does not complete the personality of the good student or good entrepreneur in their practical life,” he said. “You have to know everything; you have to be an all-rounder.”

‘A lot of peer pressure to apply’

Muhammad doesn’t believe mini schools are exclusionary, because acceptance isn’t based on a student’s income, race, gender or neighbourhood, but their academic abilities and extracurricular activities.

Haji agrees, noting the Point Grey mini has students from a variety of races. How racially or economically diverse mini schools are overall isn’t possible to determine, as the school district doesn’t collect that data outside of Indigenous students, who make up 174 of the students enrolled in “district choice programs,” which includes mini schools, French immersion and Montessori programs.

Although the general knowledge test that students typically take to get into mini-school programs doesn’t need to be studied for, Muhammad ensured his kids brushed up on their Grade 6 and 7 English and math before taking the test. He also had them fill out their after-school calendars.

“When my kids were in Grade 6 and 7, I encouraged them to do some volunteer work,” he said, adding that students who do well in school and extracurriculars have a better chance of getting into a mini school.

Even if you meet all those criteria, students who don’t do well on standardized tests or in interviews would be at a disadvantage.

And for those who do make it past those hurdles, there’s still the matter of space: Muhammad estimates the mini school receives over 300 applications annually for its 28 available Grade 8 seats.

Former school board chair Bacchus finds the selection and screening process problematic.

“Students who have strong parent support and the ability to prepare for that interview are going to probably have an advantage of getting accepted into those programs,” she said.

Kaplan Brown, whose son graduated from the Eric Hamber Studio mini school last year, agreed and said that kids of parents struggling with poverty or mental illness would have a tougher time getting into a mini school.

“It would take a wonderful teacher who would say, ‘I think this would be great for you,’” she said.

Plus, the extracurricular trips that mini school students take aren’t free, with funding provided by parent association fundraising or directly from parents’ pockets.

UBC’s Ellis is personally ambivalent about mini schools, though he acknowledges the benefits for students who would otherwise feel underserved in a mainstream educational setting.

But he thinks the district is undermining its own definition of inequitable access to education programs by not acknowledging the exclusivity of mini schools. And he sees perks to being in a mainstream class that a mini school can’t currently provide.

“There’s a great benefit to a pluralistic classroom where students learn and sit with all sorts of different kids, and they learn to get along, but also they benefit from the gifts that each individual brings to the class,” he said.

Bacchus sees the benefits of mini-school programs for kids who are high achieving or deal with anxiety in large groups of people.

Nevertheless, she saw how much stress and anxiety the program created for her daughter at the Lord Byng mini. When some of her friends didn’t get in, it created strife in the social group.

“There’s a lot of peer pressure to apply for these programs,” she said, adding the transition from elementary to high school is stressful enough.

The stakes were also higher for mini-school students than Bacchus thought should be the case for a secondary school.

“For reasons I honestly don’t completely understand, there was a real pressure that students had to perform highly academically to be in a drama program,” Bacchus said.

“And to be honest, the drama program really wasn’t much more than what she could have had just being in the regular stream. There were very limited opportunities to be in an actual performance.”

How to make minis more equitable

The Vancouver School Board continues to strive for equitable access to education programs for all students. Currently, though, it has no plans to alter the mini-school program.

A decade ago, Ee-Seul Yoon, an associate professor of education at the University of Manitoba, did her PhD at UBC, looking at where students enrolled in a west-side and an east-side school, including the mini schools within them, lived in the city.

The data is too old to be a reliable indicator of mini-school enrolment now, she said, but it did teach her that mini schools are not designed to offer students equity of access.

“They’re advanced programs for students who are already doing quite well in the school system, whereas when I think about equity in the school system, I think about equity as offering more opportunities and programs to students who are struggling,” she said.

Gord Lau, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, says that because his organization agrees with the district’s decision to move away from “streaming” students, it also takes issue with mini schools.

“Many people have pointed out inequities with the mini-school program,” said Lau, who went to a mini school when he was a student. “The idea of some test being a bar to jump over for a child to receive a certain type of experience is problematic.”

But should mini schools be phased out like the honours programs in order to achieve student equity?

The parent of a Byng Arts mini student said yes, provided they are replaced with opportunities in the mainstream school system.

“The resources should be spread out over the system. Robust theatre, arts and music programs should be in every single school,” she said. “You shouldn’t get in on your resume, you should get in on your willingness to be there.”

Tarek Haji has a different view. The former chair of the Point Grey mini parents’ association sees an end to any possible exclusion in mini schools by encouraging a mixing between mini and mainstream students.

“You should be marked in terms of ‘Are you participating on school teams?’ for example. And if you are, to me that’s not exclusionary,” he said.

Taha Muhammad, Ismail’s son who’s also in the Point Grey mini school, agrees.

“We don’t get to get involved with the other main school kids. I would change that,” he said. “I have a lot of main school friends that I would like to see more.”

Yoon has two different ideas for making access to mini schools more equitable.

One is to allow any interested student into a mini school, and also to relocate mini schools to areas of the city where students struggle most with transportation or that have the highest level of mini-school student enrolment.

The second is to leave mini schools as they are, but eliminate fees for field trips and additional supplies, have mini-school co-ordinators actively recruit marginalized students, and provide assistance with the applications and other needs, like transit to the mini, that act as barriers to some students getting in.

“I’d like to see mini school co-ordinators being more proactive and working with the students and families and what kind of needs that they have,” she said. “But I actually don’t think the mini schools think about equity as their number one priority. It’s more about excellence and achievement.”

Bacchus doesn’t want to see mini schools cancelled because they serve a purpose. But she wants to do away with the competitive application process she sees as unfair.

“For some kids, they are a real benefit: there are kids who are just more sensitive, anxious or just have really narrow or specific interests who don’t want to be thrust into a cohort of 200 in a high school,” she said.

“We have to look at how we make them available and how students can access them. And if there’s a huge demand for a certain program, make more spaces.”

Coming soon on The Tyee: Is French immersion inclusive enough for students with special needs? And is gifted education exclusionary?  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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