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Sophie Guo, left, and Jamie Picken study during summer school in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
Sophie Guo, left, and Jamie Picken study during summer school in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

Are kids failing at summer? Add to ...

While his friends packed into a movie theatre this week to catch a matinee screening of The Amazing Spider-Man, Chris Stojanovski hunched over his desk in a fluorescent-lit classroom in Whitby, Ont., a bedroom community east of Toronto, studying the literary devices in Robert Burns’s A Red, Red Rose.

This wasn’t a remedial class. Chris finished Grade 10 with a 90-per-cent average in his school’s gifted program. He elected to spend his July back in the classroom to get a head start on his Grade 11 year. He wanted to get his “weakest class,” English (worth noting, he got a mark of 88 per cent in it last year), out of the way so he could focus on heavy math and science classes during the school year.

He’s part of a new wave of high-achieving students who are redefining the nature of the school year, making it literally a year with no significant breaks. They’re rejecting the old staples of summer vacation – first jobs, mall loitering and camp – to not only voluntarily stay in the classroom but compete with their keen peers to claim a desk.

Going to school in the summer was once purgatory for students who had flunked a course, a cruel sentence for the slackers. But data from school boards across Canada suggest it’s now being embraced by students who find they can’t cram the courses they want to take into the standard 10-month calendar or feel they need higher grades to gain admission into post-secondary institutions.

While the summer school shift has been student-driven, it has been backed by policy. Many school boards offer a long menu of credit courses in the summer for students and provinces are picking up the substantial bill for summer staffing, materials and facilities so students can get a head start on the fall term.

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, ‘summer school’ was a dirty word – [students] thought they were being punished. Today, the great majority of students attend because they want to attend and get ahead,” said Peter Andrade, the manager of continuing education programs with the Vancouver Board of Education.

To the most ambitious students, a September to June year is too limiting – especially for those eyeing competitive university programs.

At 15, Chris already knows he wants to study computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and thinks he will need a 90-plus average to guarantee admission. Most of that school’s undergraduate engineering programs require minimum averages in the mid– to high-80s.

At the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, secondary students need grades in the low– to mid-80s to even be considered for admission to most faculties.

Data from the Ontario Universities Application Centre (OUAC) suggest fewer students are attending their first-choice schools for particularly competitive programs. OUAC reported last month 51 per cent of secondary students who had accepted offers to engineering programs were going to their first-choice school. In June, 2005, that figure was 59 per cent.

There’s a similar trend for science programs. Last month, 49 per cent of students had plans to go to their first-choice school while in 2005, 56 per cent were headed to their first-choice school.

Interest in summer school hasn’t been propelled by staff or parents, but by students, said Dave Paul, the assistant superintendent of the Surrey School District in Surrey, B.C.

“You can see they’ve plotted it out: ‘I’m going to take my math course here. That clears my time-table so I can do this course.’ ” he said.

The Upper Canada District School Board in southeastern Ontario has seen an almost complete reversal in enrolment patterns in its summer-school program in the past six years, due in part to new programs that allow students to recover credits during the school year. In 2006, two-thirds of students registered in the summer semester to take remedial classes. This year, 70 per cent are there to take new, full-credit classes.

In the York Region District School Board north of Toronto, 85 per cent of students who registered in summer school last year did so to take a new course.

In Vancouver, the classes are so popular that students and parents race to complete in-person and online registration.

“For the week before [registration started], we were badgered with phone calls from parents and students wanting to make sure they knew exactly what time – they wanted to know what time! – the website was opening up,” said Mr. Andrade of the Vancouver Board of Education.

Jamie Picken, an honour-roll student who just finished her first week of Grade 11 physics at a summer school in Vancouver, said she believes the extra credits on her transcript will give her an edge when she applies to the marine biology program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

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