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Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.

At Eric Hamber Secondary, the course planning booklet for the 2021-2022 school year touts honours classes as an option for “preselected” students with an “aptitude and work ethic” that will allow them to plow through three years of math and science in two years.

In science, the students “will be exposed to a higher rate of material coverage.” In math, students “will be exposed to a faster rate of material coverage.”

It was going to be a perfect fit for a small group of incoming gifted high-school students, kids who their parents say have struggled to fit in an elementary school.

But last month, the school informed parents the programs would not be offered, saying they do not meet the goals of equity and inclusion, which are requirements of the new curriculum.

The decision came as a devastating blow to Rebecca Deyell’s daughter, who had earlier this year turned down offers at private schools and other public-school programs specifically with the goal of qualifying for Eric Hamber’s honours classes.

Ms. Deyell said her 12-year-old, who has special learning needs, did not always fit in with her peers in elementary school.

“She was asked by teachers not to put her hand up in class too often. She became bored at school … she started to lose some of the joy and love for learning,” Ms. Deyell said.

But the Vancouver School Board maintains the programs violate B.C.’s revised curriculum, which was introduced in 2015.

The new curriculum mandates “an inclusive model of education,” so “all students will be able to participate in the curriculum fulsomely,” the board said in a statement.

Gifted students would not miss out on opportunities because a change to the semester system means students who want to accelerate their learning can complete their own grade-level work in a subject and then work ahead into a higher grade level – provided there are spaces to accommodate new students, the VSB statement said.

Jennifer Katz is an expert in special education at the University of British Columbia who supports the curriculum changes and has worked as a consultant for the Vancouver School Board. She said students who are strong in some subjects should be challenged. But she dismissed the concerns of parents who say their gifted children struggle to fit in.

“That’s a stereotype,” she said. “I don’t buy that. That is a part of racism and systemic racism. It’s a part of ‘I don’t want my kids in class with those kids.’ And that’s nonsense.”

She noted that some specialized programs such as advanced placement are “almost always” made up of “middle- and upper-class kids whose parents have had them tutored for who knows how many years. And so you’re really streaming kids by socioeconomic status.”

She said teachers should be teaching a curriculum that is “multilevelled,” so students of different abilities can work on the same assignment but with more advanced inquiry for some.

Parents of gifted students who had hoped to attend Hamber honours classes strongly rejected suggestions their concerns are rooted in racism.

Dr. Owen Lo, who is also a special-education expert at UBC, agreed with Dr. Katz that it’s important to ensure educators are trained to teach students with a variety of learning needs. But Dr. Lo disagreed that cutting honours courses was the best way to achieve equity. He called the move “radical, oversimplified and irresponsible.”

“It’s not a sensible way. It’s about addressing the equity issue within the program, rather than cancelling,” he said, adding that teachers may already be struggling to meet the needs of multilevelled classrooms.

He said teachers are currently working with students from a variety of racial and linguistic backgrounds, as well as with students with ADHD and autism.

“Then, all of a sudden, you’re also adding students with advanced learning needs in the classroom. It’s a very reasonable thing that a teacher will actually sacrifice first the student with advanced learning needs. … When you don’t give them enough challenged curriculum, how do they have a growth mindset? They don’t grow.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

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