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Liron Gertsman, 13, who has a strong interest in photography and birds, will starting Grade 8 on Sept. 3, 2013, at Point Grey Mini in Vancouver, an academically enriched school. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Liron Gertsman, 13, who has a strong interest in photography and birds, will starting Grade 8 on Sept. 3, 2013, at Point Grey Mini in Vancouver, an academically enriched school. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

More families seek out customized public-school programs to gain ‘competitive edge’ Add to ...

Liron Gertsman, 13, is used to wearing a uniform, having a headmistress, and going to a school that costs as much as $12,000 a year. But this year, his family has found a school that won’t cost a penny – and that his parents believe will still give him the sterling education the private system did.

Starting this morning, Liron will sit on a public transit bus for 40 minutes – or catch a 15-minute car ride with mom, if he’s lucky – to attend a unique kind of public school.

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Liron starts Grade 8 at Point Grey Mini, a competitive, academically enriched program in Kerrisdale, an affluent neighbourhood on Vancouver’s west side. He could walk 15 minutes to his local neighbourhood school but for his mom, Keren Gertsman, the competitive edge her son will receive is key. “You want to maximize what you can give your child,” Ms. Gertsman said. “The reality is it’s an increasingly competitive environment. To get into the local university, it’s getting harder and harder and harder.”

While most students are going back to an all-purpose public school, a minority – about 10 per cent in Vancouver to as high as 25 per cent in Edmonton – are heading into customized programs that are either more academically challenging or cater to the creative or sports-minded. From Chinese bilingual programs to sports academies and International Baccalaureates, families are drawn to specialized options because they believe that good grades from these types of schools count for more than good grades from a mainstream school.

“Parents are trying to seek more individualized program for their children. It comes out of the desire to provide a competitive edge,” said Lynn Bosetti, an expert on school choice and dean at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. “I think in some ways they want to make sure that there’s a program that’s going to meet their child’s needs, and that differentiates them from someone else in the regular public school.”

Frank Peters, a professor in the department of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, sees nothing wrong with specializing in the public education system as long as students are enthusiastic about learning. “It’s a way to ensure or increase the likelihood of engaging students, and that’s good,” Prof. Peters said. “They do learn, and they learn better.”

School districts have quickly realized that one of the most effective ways to win a bigger share of the student market is with a host of specialized programs. The Vancouver School Board has grown its offerings of alternative programs, and while enrollment is capped, it’s not unusual to have a packed room on information nights. Point Grey Mini’s information night is attended by hundreds, but in the end, after a cognitive writing test and a rigorous set of interviews, the school only enrolls 150 students.

“It is one of the benefits of offering variety, that you can attract students who may otherwise be looking for something different outside of the system,” said Valerie Overgaard, an associate superintendent at the Vancouver School Board.

But Annie Kidder, executive director of the Ontario advocacy group People for Education, worries that specialized programming can hurt neighbourhood schools as parents who are willing to go through the paperwork or testing required to access alternatives leave the mainstream. “The concern about this idea of choice is that the choice is open to those who have the capacity to choose,” she said. “It’s the job of the education system to not divide kids along socioeconomic lines. It’s also the job of the education system to deal with all of the different kinds of students in it.”

In Ontario, even though children are more often than not required to attend schools within their catchment area, parents and school districts are finding ways around that. Parents are sometimes known to fake addresses to get their children into highly desirable schools. And the province has seen an explosion in new specialized programs.

In the York Region District School Board, enrolment in specialized programs, which included arts, sports and the International Baccalaureate diploma program, was about seven per cent last year.

Kathy Witherow, the board’s superintendent of curriculum and instructional services, said officials are looking to protect the neighbourhood school by allowing more of them to offer specific programming tailored to their student body, such as business or health and wellness. “We’re more about having these programs in all of our schools, so all of our kids have the opportunity to access them,” Ms. Witherow said.

Liron said he would not necessarily be bored if he attended a regular-track program in his neighbourhood school – he just wouldn’t be as stimulated. Point Grey Mini was his first choice because of the enriched curriculum and the chance for a more outdoorsy learning experience. Liron and his parents decided to give the public system a chance because of the specialized programs it offered.

“To be quite honest,” said Ms. Gertsman, “if Liron didn’t get into the mini school, our next option on the list would have to be a private school because we just didn’t have enough sense of confidence that the mainstream program would get him sufficiently motivated.”

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